Spring 2020 Grading Options

VP Bennett sent the following letter about student concerns to all directors of undergraduate studies on 4/8/20.

Dear colleagues, 

During the past two weeks, we have received concerned inquiries from undergraduate students about their Spring 2020 grading option (i.e., S/U or letter-graded) and their future applications to graduate/professional schools.  Indeed, we've heard from students with a range of perspectives on the issue; for every student who advocates for a change to a universal S/U policy, we receive a message indicating strong support for the current approach. These concerns are not unique to Duke; understandably anxious and uncertain about their futures, nationally students are expressing concerns about how graduate/professional schools will consider their Spring 2020 grades. 

Across the country, there is considerable variability in Spring 2020 grading policies. In a recent survey of our peer schools – selective research universities and liberal arts colleges – approximately 65% have chosen plans like ours, with varying dates for students to designate their choice of a letter grade. It is increasingly clear that there is no single policy that will satisfy all of our students' concerns (in fact, at a peer institution that adopted a universal pass/fail system, students launched a petition to change to our plan!). 

In choosing to set a default grade of S/U (with the option to receive a letter grade), we wish to acknowledge the extraordinary nature of this moment, appreciate the tremendous stress that students have experienced in their transitions to new learning environments, consider the variability in students' living conditions, and respect that students may not be ideally situated to maximize their fullest academic potential -- all while respecting individual needs. Indeed, nearly every day, we hear from students who, despite the ongoing complexities of the semester, extoll the benefits of the letter grade option -- to reflect their pre-crisis efforts in a given course, to realize improvements in their GPA, to secure Latin honors. While imperfect, our grading policy attempts to embrace the population-level challenges imposed by COVID-19, while providing relief for individual student circumstances. 

Ultimately, many of our students want to hear that graduate and professional schools will consider their Spring 2020 performance, irrespective of their institution's grading policy. Both at Duke and many of our peer institutions, graduate and professional programs have been clear that they will be both forgiving about the current semester and focused on the holistic evaluation of candidates.  

I would ask that you share with your students the following points about Duke's response, which we hope may play some small part in easing their concerns:

Like most of our peers, Duke's student transcripts will bear a notation indicating that COVID-19 changed our grading policies for this semester.

Duke’s Graduate school and several professional schools have already formulated policies that indicate they will be fully flexible in reviewing applications and will accept any grading system, particularly as their evaluations are holistic, and not solely based on grades, particularly not grades from a single semester.  See below for individual schools.   Many of our peers have released similar statements.

As always, we remain open to feedback from all members of our community. We greatly appreciate your partnership, leadership, and support as we work to assist our students in traversing this most extraordinary semester. 

Thanks, Gary

Gary G. Bennett, Ph.D. 
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Duke University
Bishop-MacDermott Family Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience