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IR-MFF, Issue 09-2021: Are undergraduate students earning lower grades during the COVID period?

Institutional Research Monthly-Friday Fact (IR-MFF), Issue 09-2021

Office of the Provost, Nazarbayev University

Are undergraduate students earning lower grades during the COVID period?


In this challenging COVID context, questions have been raised about the impact of the pandemic on students’ wellbeing and performance. In various surveys, students around the world have expressed concerns about academic performance, with many reporting that grades had suffered as the result of the pandemic. In Spring 2021, 62% of first- and 35% of fourth-year NU undergraduate students reported that remote learning had negatively affected their grades.

Previous studies have also showed that students tend to over-estimate their academic performance. For instance, over 75% of entering NUFYP and directly-admitted students expect most of their NU grades to be A/A-.  However, A/A- grades account for 33.5% of NU undergraduate course grades.

In a recent study, we used Spring 2021 undergraduate data and a quasi-experimental design to examine the extent to which taking classes during the COVID period has impacted term GPA. We found that the impact varies by field and year in the program (Figures 1-2). In Engineering and Technology (ET) and Humanities & Social Sciences (HSS), first- and second-year students who took classes during the pandemic had higher Spring GPA compared to their counterparts (with similar background characteristics) who had taken classes in the two Spring semesters  before the pandemic.

In HSS, GPA was marginally lower for third- and fourth-year students during the COVID pandemic. No significant impact was detected in Life and Physical Sciences (LPS).

Analyses for Spring 2020 (vs. Spring 2018/19) and Fall 2020 (vs. Fall 2018/19) revealed substantially larger and more positive gains for all fields/groups, after grades had been converted to SD/UD.

In sum, evidence suggests that students have tended to earn higher (rather than lower) grades during the COVID-19 period. These gains, however, vary by term, field, and cohort. Why this is the case and what accounts for group variations is an open question.

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