Open letter about spring quarter grading and exam policies

Opinion by Sarah Church and Tim Stearns
April 8, 2020, 10:07 p.m.

With the launch of an unprecedented Stanford spring quarter of online instruction, we want to offer greater clarification around the impact of two key changes in place this term: a single Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) grading basis and the elimination of final exams. We are taking this opportunity to unpack these limited-term policy changes and what each means for students and instructors going forward. 

The shift to S/NC raised concerns from students about how their performance would be assessed in graduate or professional school applications and about how the decision removed their opportunity to positively influence their GPAs. Importantly, most graduate and professional schools nationwide, including those at Stanford, have announced that applicants will not be disadvantaged in the admission process for taking ungraded courses this spring. Stanford will be placing a special notation on transcripts indicating that emergency grading was in effect for spring 2019-20, and the University asked instructors to track “shadow grades,” so that students get feedback on their performance. Faculty can choose to disclose those shadow grades in a reference letter if a student requests it.

Some students have also expressed concern about how faculty are approaching testing this term. Final exams — typically a significant stress point for students — are being cancelled for spring quarter due to our increased concern for students’ well-being and mental health during this period of great uncertainty. It is still necessary for instructors to be able to assess student achievement throughout the course, and for many courses, this is best accomplished with timed midterm exams. While we have issued broad guidance to instructors, they independently determine how they integrate exams in their courses to best measure their students’ learning. 

As an example, replacing a three-hour final exam by adding extra midterms spaced through the quarter is a valid interpretation of spring quarter policies, and does not violate either the spirit or the wording of the guidance given to instructors. Spacing several midterms through the quarter reduces the dependence on a single “high-stakes” final exam. The S/NC grading basis that has been put in place also recognizes that students may encounter unexpected difficulties with the online format that might affect their exam scores. We expect to see a diverse range of exam policies,  but also a commonly shared interest in working supportively and compassionately as a community to help ensure we can all be successful in our learning and teaching outcomes.

We recognize the enormous pressure many students feel to continue to perform at their best, even during this period of great disruption, as well as the confusion some might feel when discovering that their instructors might approach testing differently across courses. We are hopeful, however, that when we reflect back on spring quarter 2020, we will collectively feel a great sense of pride that we accomplished something remarkable in a time that requires enduring resilience, patience, understanding and self-compassion. 

More than anything, we are impressed with how the Stanford community has met this challenging moment with purposeful resolve. We look forward to a successful spring quarter and appreciate the many meaningful ways in which our students, faculty, and staff are contributing to that shared objective.

Sarah Church, Vice Provost for Faculty Development, Teaching and Learning; Professor of Physics

Tim Stearns, Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor; Chair, Department of Biology; Chair, Faculty Senate

Contact Sarah Church at schurch ‘at’ and Tim Stearns at stearns ‘at’

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