Starting in fall 2023, students in Duke’s introductory public policy course will no longer receive letter grades.
Public Policy 155, Introduction to Policy Analysis, will adopt a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading structure starting next fall, according to Nicholas Carnes, professor of public policy and sociology, who is the lead instructor for the course. He cited prioritizing the student experience and reducing anxiety as the primary reason for the change.
“This is the rare time where you can make a policy change and have only upsides,” Carnes said.
Four years ago, Sanford School of Public Policy faculty began the conversation about modernizing the public policy curriculum. The initial goal was to preserve the traditional public policy content while adding in modern developments in the social sciences. At the time, Sanford faculty also had conversations related to grading, and Carnes recalls that the possibility of transitioning the gateway course to the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading model kept resurfacing.
Many faculty initially expressed concerns that students would not work as hard under a S/U model, but over time “the evidence just kind of went in the opposite direction,” Carnes said, citing the unplanned trial of S/U grading in spring 2020 during the pandemic and the experiences of other introductory courses that transitioned away from a traditional grading model.
“A lot of faculty members were really supportive of the idea of reducing student stress without reducing student learning,” Carnes said. “What I hope is that it makes it so that students who are on the fence or who are not sure about public policy feel comfortable giving it a try in a safe environment.”
Carnes said that a lot of the recent changes to the course, including this grading change, have been made in response to “students flagging a part of the course that doesn’t work.”
Faculty at Sanford talked to the pre-med advising groups, the pre-law advising groups, and the Office of University Scholars and Fellows to ensure that this change would not affect students' ability to go to medical school, law school or qualify for scholarships beyond Duke.
Carnes reaffirmed that this is a “big win-win” for students by affording them the opportunity to try out public policy and see if they are passionate about the topic “without putting their GPA on the line.”
For Carnes, the primary focus has been understanding how faculty can make life better for students. He noted that it’s a luxury to be able to learn, and he is committed to making learning a more joyful experience for students without diminishing their learning outcomes.
Despite not receiving a final grade at the end of the semester, students will still receive “every single little bit of feedback” on memos and other assignments.
“We're not going to back off on giving students constructive, sometimes tough feedback. We want students to become better writers. We want students to develop these skills,” Carnes said. “Now they can do that in this foundational course, without worrying about their GPA taking a hit.”
Carnes conceded that memo writing is hard, and this new approach to grading will “give students a little bit of breathing room” to “struggle with memos.”
According to Carnes, the average final grade of students in the course never came up in conversations about transitioning to S/U, emphasizing that this change is not about grades but rather about prioritizing the student experience and responding to student feedback.
In a similar move in fall 2019, the introductory economics course, Economics 101, also changed to a S/U grading model. The move had similar motives, namely to make the course and the major more welcoming for students.
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Kathryn Thomas is a Trinity junior and news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.