As students returned to campus during a pandemic, the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences announced changes to its satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading policy.
For fall 2020, “any department may convert any or all of its 199 and below level courses to a [mandatory] S/U grading basis while retaining existing curriculum codes for those courses, but no department is obligated to do so,” the school’s S/U grading policy reads.
Previously, Duke students could opt for one S/U course per semester as part of a normal four-credit course load. While the new fall-term S/U grades will not be factored into GPA or Latin Honors, they “will satisfy the requirements of any major, minor or certificate program as well as T-Reqs and other requirements for graduation,” according to the S/U policy.
More than 20 courses in 12 departments shifted their grading basis from standard to S/U, while other courses remained graded for a variety of reasons.
Writing 101, a mandatory course in which half of first-years are currently enrolled, recently switched to S/U.
J. Clare Woods, director of the Thompson Writing Program, explained that program faculty discussed the pros and cons of S/U grading in a department-wide meeting, and ultimately the “vast majority” voted in favor of the S/U system.
“We wanted to help make this semester as minimally stressful for new students as possible, especially since we still aren’t sure what disruptions might lie ahead,” Woods wrote in an email.
Other departments used a similar team-based approach yet arrived at the opposite conclusion. Jiyong Hong, interim director of undergraduate studies for the chemistry department, wrote in an email that a department-wide discussion resulted in the continuation of standard grading coupled with “several adjustments to courses and teaching approaches for disruptive and uncertain times.”
Meanwhile, other departments left the choice to individual instructors rather than a collective deliberation or vote. For example, public policy DUS Christina Gibson-Davis and philosophy DUS Walter Sinnott-Armstrong both wrote in emails that faculty members implemented their own decisions regarding S/U based on their respective classes.
No course in either department converted to S/U grading, though undergraduate public policy courses are overseen by the Sanford School of Public Policy, which was not covered by the Trinity grade-change plan.
Beyond the instructor and department level, Linda Franzoni, associate dean of undergraduate education in the Pratt School of Engineering, explained why the updated policy only applies to Trinity.
“In the Pratt School, we polled our faculty responsible for teaching 100-level classes, and their overall preference was to keep letter grades on those courses to motivate all students to put forth their best effort, including those working on team-based engineering projects,” Franzoni wrote in an email. “Especially for those courses that have multiple sections taught by different faculty, we wanted to come to consensus to ensure that the same grading standards would apply across the various sections, instead of having some sections graded and some sections S/U.”
While Duke’s policy adjustment may have provided leeway for Trinity instructors in making decisions regarding S/U, obstacles existed beyond the department that influenced instructors’ ability to convert their classes to S/U.
When asked about Economics 104, the only new S/U addition within the economics department—although Economics 101 has used mandatory satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading since fall 2019—economics DUS Connel Fullenkamp said, “In order to change a course to S/U, the course has to not only be listed in your department, but you have to own it; it can’t be cross-listed.”
Furthermore, departments needed to consider the S/U implications for Duke students beyond their undergraduate years. Within the statistics department, Statistics 101 transitioned to S/U while all other 100-level classes remained standard.
Statistics DUS Amy Herring wrote in an email that “many students planning applications to medical school or interested in biomedical research take biostatistics [Statistics 102].”
“Because medical schools have indicated that graded courses are heavily preferred in their admissions processes, even during the pandemic, our group quickly determined that Statistics 102 would remain graded, given the strong desire to keep our pre-med students as competitive as possible for admission to the medical schools of their choice,” Herring wrote.
In addition, student feedback forms showcased that only 36% of students in 100-level statistics classes opted for S/U grading last semester, according to Herring, when Duke gave students the option to choose between S/U and letter grading after moving online.
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Madeleine Berger is a Trinity senior and an editor at large of The Chronicle's 119th volume.