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Duke's introductory economics course set to institute pass/fail grading system

Duke's introductory economics course will no longer give students letter grades. 

The economics department recently announced that, beginning in Fall 2019, Economics 101 will use "satisfactory/unsatisfactory" grading only. The course will still count toward the economics major.

The change in the grading criteria is an effort to make the course and the major as a whole more welcoming to students, said Connel Fullenkamp, director of undergraduate studies and professor of the practice of economics. 

He added that the economics department adopted the change in response to the initiative to enhance undergraduate teaching and learning pushed by Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

“In our opinion, this is congruent with what Dean Ashby is wanting us to do,” Fullenkamp said. 

Students with scores of four or higher for both AP Macroeconomics and AP Microeconomics may receive credit for Econ 101. Students may also receive credit for the course using scores from other international standardized exams.

Roughly half of the students who intend to major or minor in economics do not have such credits prior to college and must take Economics 101 at Duke, Fullenkamp said. He has taught the course multiple semesters and will teach it next Fall. Most of the students in the class have no prior experience in economics, he added. 

Ashby’s  initiative aims to ensure every course offers a "learning experience of the highest quality," she said in a Q&A with The Chronicle this past March. In a 2018 memo to faculty and staff in the Trinity College, Ashby said she has requested all Trinity department chairs to redesign their curriculum so that students in introductory or service courses "will [see the] importance and relevance” of the subject and will be stimulated intellectually. 

“This is something all departments are doing across Duke,” Fullenkamp said. “We are all doing it in different ways but it is an [initiative] started by Dean Ashby and followed through by all the departments.”

Fullenkamp said he has informed some students of the change of grading criteria and the students reacted positively. 

“I think they see this as a way to reduce some of the stress—especially of the first semester or first year experience—being at Duke,” he added. 

Varun Prasad, a junior majoring in economics and a member of The Chronicle's independent editorial board, said he thinks the workload of the class is reasonable. 

He added that he thinks the course content itself is not particularly challenging but some of the students may welcome an adjustment of the course structure. 

“I don’t think a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading style would change the actual ability [to understand] course content, but would make the course less stressful for students who don’t necessarily do well under the current metrics of grading,” he added. 

When he took the class in the Fall of his first year, the class was taught in a "flipped" format, in which students watched lecture videos ahead of classes and then raised questions and solved problem sets with the instructor during class time. 

Prasad recalled that there was one problem set due each week. Although the problem sets were definitely challenging, they were “aligned closely to the lectures that they followed.” 

“I thought it was nice to be able to follow along with the lecture videos at my own pace and take notes or come up with questions to ask versus the traditional setting, but I know others who hated it,” Prasad said. 

Some of Duke’s peer institutions changed their grading system for first-years a long time ago, Fullenkamp said. Although it is still uncertain if the grading criteria for Economics 101 will remain satisfactory/unsatisfactory in the long term, Fullenkamp said he hopes the change could benefit the students. 

“We may leave [the change] in place forever or may change it back in the future, but we thought this is a change worth trying,” he said. 

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