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Grading returns to normal for Summer Session and Fall classes, to mixed reactions

As classes—and the coronavirus—continue into the summer, Duke’s default satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system from the spring semester in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning is no longer applicable.

For the Spring 2020 semester, the University transitioned to default S/U grading with the option to receive a letter grade, a decision met with both support and backlash from students. However, Summer Session classes—and soon Fall classes as well—reverted to Duke’s normal grading policies due to a greater familiarity with remote course delivery and additional student support units and resources available, according to Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education.

“We offered the S/U grading option in Spring 2020 to help mitigate the pressures associated with students’ transitions away from campus, and into remote course delivery,” Bennett wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

“Both faculty and students now have greater familiarity with remote course delivery, and all of our student support units... are working with students remotely,” Bennett wrote.

These resources include the Academic Resource Center, Academic Advising Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Duke Student Assistance Fund and many others, according to Bennett.

Student Perspectives

Senior Sydny Long, who took two classes during Summer Session I, wrote in a message to The Chronicle that she is facing many of the same difficulties as in the Spring semester, balancing course loads and feeling frustrated with remote assessments and poorly run online classes—difficulties compounded by her home responsibilities and the rigor of condensed summer classes.

Long, who is also Recess managing editor for The Chronicle, wrote that she had been planning on taking summer classes ever since her previous summer in order to finish all her MCAT requirements before her senior year. Although she was “daunted” by the idea of taking them remotely, she wrote that she had no other choice.

Long believes Duke should have implemented an S/U policy similar to the Spring semester because the coronavirus did not end after Spring semester finals. She wrote that the pandemic is still “springing unpleasant surprises” onto students, from family tragedies to internet issues—many of which occurred after the “very narrow window” during which students could request a grading change or withdraw without financial or academic penalty for summer classes.

“An S/U grading policy would allow students to take these classes without the stress of worrying that a sudden tragedy or incident will prevent them from succeeding and therefore ruin their GPA, as well as provide a financial safety net for students who cannot withdraw and incur that fee,” Long wrote.

Junior Ishaan Kumar, who took two classes during Summer Session I and is taking one class during the second session, agreed. He said he believes the administration’s logic of switching to graded classes over the summer because the courses are now “designed to be online” was “valid, but not sound” and doesn’t take into account the impacts of being at home.

The S/U system from Spring semester, he said, was necessary to balance out “locational inequities,” such as living in a home where you have frequent family responsibilities or need to take care of sick family members.

“That doesn't change,” Kumar said. “And that's what that policy felt like it was for. It's sort of irresponsible to do [S/U] and switch it… If you say now that since we designed classes for online you can't take it [S/U] with the asterisk, that's something that helps the University but doesn't help the students.”

Sophomore Angikar Ghosal, who was a teaching assistant for one class and a peer tutor for six classes, said that he heard about and acknowledges the struggles that students have been facing over the summer, from personal to health to laptop issues. In general, though, he said he believes that the difficulties of summer classes are due more to a large amount of material crammed into six short weeks, rather than classes being online.

Ghosal said that in his experience, professors and teaching assistants have been very accommodating to student circumstances and flexible with deadlines and student requests.

Bennett similarly expressed that the summer online experience has been generally positive, noting that the “number or magnitude of concerns” have, in general, not been different from any other semester.

“We, [Trinity College of Arts and Sciences], and [Duke Student Government] worked together in the spring to create systems to solicit student feedback about their courses, and my sense is that it helped us spot the inevitable issues that emerge when making such a significant transition,” Bennett wrote.

Most students technically have the choice of whether or not to take summer classes, Ghosal said, but in his experience, many students are taking classes this summer not because they want to but because they have nothing else to do after internships and plans have been canceled. Therefore, he said the best summer grading policy should have been similar to that of the Spring semester.

“I feel that all grades, some grades or no grades—whatever you wish—is a good model to go by,” he said. “Duke students are adults and should have [a] choice,” Ghosal said.

Kumar expressed that while he did have a choice between taking summer classes and “staying in [his] home and doing nothing” since his summer plans were canceled, that choice “doesn’t erase the inequities of online learning and a system that’s not really meant to be online.”

Other schools such as Yale College, Stanford University and The University of Chicago have—similar to Duke—not chosen to extend their Spring semester grading policies into online summer classes.

Meanwhile, some universities—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas—have elected to extend their Spring S/U policies into summer online classes. Students at both universities have the option to request a change to S/U grading after final grades are released.

A difficult ‘leap’

Kumar added that even though students and faculty have greater familiarity with remote learning and classes are now designed to be online, for many classes, “that leap hasn’t happened.”

“How much can you really prepare someone to teach online?” he asked. “Even young and technologically savvy professors who I have right now are struggling a bit.”

In one class, issues with course delivery meant students had the option to withdraw altogether—with a refund. 

Both Kumar and Long were enrolled in General Physics I, a class for which multiple students filed complaints and feedback to academic deans, during Summer Session I. Long wrote that students were upset about the “synchronous tests and quizzes, the flipped classroom model, etc. and were voicing those concerns so frequently with no changes on the professor’s part.”

Kumar said that Professor Emeritus of Physics Lawrence Evans, who taught the course, was unwilling to change anything about the course, adding that some of the comments he made showed “an extreme tone-deafness” to student situations and difficulties.

Ultimately, the deans gave students in the class the option to withdraw without it being recorded on their permanent academic record and receive a full refund—essentially “no penalty except for your time,” Kumar said.

Kumar, who decided to withdraw from the class with a refund, said that although he is grateful for the option, the entire process felt “a bit broken” to him.

Evans wrote in an email that students who had complaints about structural aspects of the course never contacted him about it, and he heard about the issues from third parties. Two students told him that students in the class were struggling, he wrote, to which he responded that the course always moves quickly and that it “works out fine” for most students.

He added that it was “clear from the start” on DukeHub that there were synchronous class meetings, quizzes and exams.

“No student should have been surprised to find out that I do not do asynchronous teaching—on principle,” he wrote. “If students wanted a different course, they should not have signed up for it. I taught exactly the course I proposed to the summer session office in April. It was, as closely as the situation allowed, basically the same course I have taught dozens of times in the summer to well over a thousand Duke students.”

He added that this summer’s course was “the most successful version I have ever taught in terms of student performance.”

Juniors Daniel Ryan and Toby Chen, who chose to finish the course, told The Chronicle that the class got off to a rocky start. Ryan wrote in a message that the flipped classroom model translated “poorly—if at all—to the remote format” and Chen noted that the combined online nature and structure of the class made it initially “extremely awkward and difficult.” 

However, both wrote that both appreciated improvements that Evans eventually made.

Ryan wrote in a message that Evans made accommodations on the course timeline, began to host more office hours, used more practice exams as class examples and had students turn cameras on. Chen wrote in a message that Evans adopted more of a lecture style by the end of the class rather than solely relying on the flipped classroom model.

Ryan added that though he and many others in the class got good grades, and he came out with a positive relationship with Evans, he believed his classmates were correct to voice their collective concerns and the final resolution was fair and appropriate.

What about the Fall semester?

Bennett confirmed in an email to The Chronicle that grading will continue as normal for the Fall semester. He wrote that in the Fall, it is likely that a majority of students will be back in Durham, students and faculty will have greater familiarity with remote course delivery and the University will have had significant experience in assisting those students who may need support.

Ghosal said that while students in the summer have a choice in whether to enroll in classes or not, there is less of a choice during the Fall semester. As a result, he believes the University’s Spring semester grading policy should be continued into the Fall.

However, since it is not, he proposed a compromise to have students take three classes graded, minimum, out of their total Fall course load, whether that be four, five or six classes.

Kumar said that in any situation where students must take a course online, the S/U option should be available for students to fall back on.

Ryan wrote that he opposes extending the Spring S/U policy, “given the impact it has on future internship, employment, and professional school applications.” However, he wrote that it would also be “off the mark” to argue that students should understand the “stakes and circumstances” of their classes before enrolling. 

Instead, he wrote that the University should consider implementing other changes, including extending the add-drop period or modifying withdrawal policies to compensate for extenuating circumstances.

Ghosal ultimately emphasized that whatever decision the University makes, there will always be people affected, but he appreciates what Duke has done. An international student, Ghosal said that universities in India have canceled all classes until December, so he is grateful that Duke tried to ensure students continue to receive an education.

Courses taken as S/U in normal circumstances may not be used to satisfy major, minor, certificate or curriculum requirements. Although students may enroll in a course as S/U and subsequently convert it to graded, they can’t enroll in a course as graded and switch it to S/U.

Schools like Harvard College and Stanford University have stated that currently, Spring 2020 grading policies would not extend into the Fall semester, while many other colleges have yet to formally decide.


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