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Faculty concerns, 'vertical' learning: Why Pratt didn't expand S/U grading this semester

The Trinity College of Arts and Sciences made changes to its spring 2021 grading policies, including mandatory S/U grading for certain classes which count towards graduation and curriculum requirements, but despite student advocacy, these changes don’t extend to the Pratt School of Engineering. 

In fall 2020, certain courses numbered 199 and lower switched to a mandatory S/U grading policy, and students in these courses could not opt in to receive letter grades in the courses. The Arts & Sciences Council, Trinity’s faculty governance body, voted to keep this policy for spring 2021. 

All of these courses would still count towards Trinity students’ major, minor and certificate requirements, as well as any T-reqs and graduation requirements. Additionally, any S/U course taken in spring 2021 by Trinity students will not contribute to the number of S/U courses they’re allowed to take each year or before graduating. S/U courses do not count towards Trinity students’ GPAs or selection for Dean’s List.

Trinity students also have the option to apply for S/U grading with permission from their academic dean and approval by the course instructor.

The policy, however, does not apply to courses that originate in Pratt, the Nicholas School of the Environment or the Sanford School of Public Policy.

A Jan. 27 email from the Duke Student Government Executive Board restated the policies from Smith’s email. The email noted that “despite DSG advocacy,” Pratt will maintain a normal grading policy for engineering students. Similar to Trinity, Pratt administration approved a part-time enrollment extension for juniors and seniors.

Juniors Jackson Kennedy and Bennett David, both senators on DSG’s academic affairs committee, worked to lobby Pratt administration to allow for an S/U grading expansion for engineering students. They reached out to Linda Franzoni, associate dean of undergraduate education and professor of the practice in Pratt.

In an email to The Chronicle, Kennedy and David wrote that Franzoni indicated that there was “widespread agreement” between the Pratt directors of undergraduate study that they did not plan to modify Pratt’s grading policies. 

Franzoni wrote in an email to The Chronicle that she asked Pratt Directors of Undergraduate Studies if their departments would want to offer any of their 199-or below numbered courses on a mandatory S/U grading policy, “and the consensus was that we did not want to do that.”

Franzoni also noted that DUSes voted to allow Pratt students to take social science and humanities requirements—Pratt students must take five to graduate—on a voluntary S/U basis. They also extended underloading and part-time policies for students who “felt like they could not handle four courses this semester.”

Pratt is also accepting Trinity courses that use mandatory S/U grading, such as Math 111L and 112L, the equivalents of Calculus I and II, respectively. Kennedy and David wrote that first-years who did not have Advanced Placement credits coming into Duke wouldn’t have been able to fulfill their math requirements on time if Pratt did not allow these math courses to be taken with S/U.

Kennedy and David added that the decision was influenced by Pratt’s “vertical structure,” in which concepts that students learn in introductory courses are applied in upper-level classes. Faculty members were concerned that S/U grading policies, which let students pass classes with the equivalent of at least a C-, would allow students to get by without really learning foundational material, leading them to then struggle in later classes.

“A source of concern for faculty was that a Satisfactory grade may stop short of ensuring full mastery with that class’ material,” Kennedy and David wrote. “This is part of a larger philosophical discussion about grading and what it means to master material, but it is admittedly possible to earn the equivalent of a C- and have a poor understanding of much of the course material.”

Despite the concerns, Kennedy and David, both mechanical engineering majors, wrote that they believe Pratt should have implemented targeted grading relief “because the effects of COVID-19 are felt all across Duke, not just Trinity.”

“COVID-19 is school agnostic; almost [one-fifth] of undergraduates are in Pratt, and they can experience the same financial pressures, toxic home situations and connectivity issues that led Trinity to adopt its updated S/U policy,” they wrote.

Sophomore Sydney Hunt is double majoring in electrical and computer engineering and computer science. She said that while she understands that Pratt and Trinity run under different administrations, it was “a little frustrating” for her to not have the S/U grading option like some of her peers.

Hunt described several days last semester where she had two midterm exams, two classes and a two-hour discussion all on the same day. Preparing for and enduring these days made it “harder to attend club meetings and fit in the self-care [she’s] trying to practice more frequently,” like sleeping enough and getting exercise, she said. 

“I think having the S/U option would’ve taken a lot of stress off of Pratt students during the past semester, since I know I wasn’t the only one who had this schedule conflict,” Hunt said.

Sophomore Colin Bernstein, also double majoring in ECE/CS, told The Chronicle that he feels Pratt doesn’t give its students the same leniency as Trinity, but for a reason.

“Engineerings have safety-critical jobs. If a circuit board or beam fails, it could mean a building burns down or a plane falls out of the sky,” he explained. “Our GPAs reflect our ability to do them.”

Bernstein noted that despite this, grades don’t carry the same value this semester because of prevalent cheating among students, so the decision to maintain standard grading policies “is really just to keep the precedent.”

Chloe Tamis, an undeclared first-year in Pratt who intends to major in biomedical engineering, wrote that she feels “the Pratt course load is already so much, especially with COVID where we can’t have classes in person.” To Tamis, an S/U option would have taken away a lot of academic pressure from students, and despite the vertical nature of engineering majors, students would still work diligently.

“I think that Pratt students are very motivated and passionate and would still aim to have a good understanding of the material, even if it was S/U,” she wrote.

Sophomore Katherine Drinkwater, a mechanical engineering major, wrote that she agrees with the vertical structure argument. Additionally, because the only classes with numbers below 199 that all Pratt students take are Engineering 101 and 103, which are taken during Pratt students’ first year, the Trinity policy would really only help first-year students.

“It seems inequitable to have some S/U options for underclassmen and not upperclassmen,” she wrote.

She also noted that she appreciates that social science and humanities requirements can be taken S/U, as “it would be weird for Trinity students to have the choice of S/U and for Pratt students taking the same class to not have that choice.”


Leah Boyd | Editor-in-Chief

Leah Boyd is a Pratt junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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