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02/22/94

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Most faculty favor return of the "F" grade

Three-quarters of Stanford faculty members responding to a survey on grading policy favor the return to a more "historical" student transcript, one that would include the "F" grade to indicate a failing performance.

Geology Professor Gail Mahood, chair of the Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement, reported that general finding to the Faculty Senate on Thursday, Feb. 17.

Her committee last spring surveyed 1,622 professors and lecturers regarding grading policy. A total of 732 questionnaires were returned.

Mahood told the senate that the survey produced no clear mandate on how to achieve a historical transcript. No consensus arose, she said, about such issues as retaking courses, changing the add/drop deadline or changing pass/fail policies.

During past senate discussions of grading, professors have complained that students can decide to drop a course immediately before taking the final. Currently, dropped courses are not recorded on the transcript.

Professors also have said that, in a twist they consider bizarre, students who earn a "D" often ask for "no credit" instead because "NC" is not recorded on the transcript.

Mahood said she would return to the senate April 28 with a more detailed report on the faculty survey, along with recommendations from her committee for changes in the grading policy.

"We're anticipating that will generate a lively discussion," she said. The vote on a grading policy change is tentatively set for the May 26 meeting.

In 1970, the senate substituted "no credit" for the "D" and "F" during a liberal trend that also produced substantial loosening of curricular requirements. As part of the grading overhaul, the faculty decided that a student's transcript should be a record of achievement - "A"s, "B"s and "C"s - instead of a record of all courses taken. The "D," however, was reinstated in 1975.

The 1970 changes grew out of the Study of Education at Stanford (SES). In its final report in 1969, the sub-group examining undergraduate education noted a significant upward shift in grades given to undergraduates and attributed this to the increasingly high caliber of students.

At the time, less than 4 percent of grades were "D" and even fewer were "F," SES said. Its members recommended encouraging progress toward a degree rather than fear of failure. Thus, "the sole penalty for failing to complete a course satisfactorily should be the loss of credit toward graduation," they said.

At the Feb. 17 senate meeting, Richard Zare, chemistry, told Mahood that his views coincide with the faculty who now favor a historic transcript, but he said he wants to assure that grading be treated in "as humane a fashion as possible."

Students often get in over their heads, he said, "by signing up for too many courses, getting sick or falling in love - which can be the same," he said to laughter.

The committee should consider issuing each student one silver bullet "to be fired at the Registrar's Office" to remove one "F" grade during his or her career. That would get the university "back to a more historical record, but take into account the real nature of human behavior," Zare said.

Mahood acknowledged that she had heard the idea before. "One professor claimed that would be a revisionist historical record," she said. Wide laughter ensued.

Jeff Koseff, civil engineering, asked about the rationale behind the limit of 20 units a student may take in a quarter.

Mahood responded that the point is to keep students from getting overcommitted. Students who have good grades are allowed to exceed the limit for reasons such as scheduling conflicts, she said. The problem is that students already in academic trouble often try to catch up by registering for extra courses.

John Brauman, chemistry, asked if Stanford could foster a culture in which students could receive credit for passing a final in a course even if they had not signed up for it.

Robert Simoni, chair of biology, responded that he has seen "a fair number of students take the final without ever coming to class, and do quite well."

Brauman said he understands that, but wanted to "do away with the whole business of signing up for the course in the first place."

Among other issues covered in Mahood's 1992-93 annual report:

  • The Committee on Academic Appraisal and Achievement studied Stanford's undergraduate residency requirement in the context of advanced placement and transfer credit policies. A student theoretically could graduate with 45 units of advanced placement credit and 90 units of transfer credit, which means that Stanford's residency requirement is, in effect, one year. The committee would prefer a maximum of 90 units of combined advanced placement and transfer credits, the report said. It recommended that the Committee on Undergraduate Studies consider the residency issue.
  • The committee considered a request from Humanities and Sciences to move up the study list deadline by one week and to eliminate the second day of autumn quarter registration. The first would make advising more hectic and the second would negatively impact some administrative offices, including the Bursar, the committee said, rejecting the suggestion.
  • The committee considered the issue of conflicts between religious holidays and the academic calendar, a concern of the Jewish community transmitted through President Gerhard Casper. The issue is not yet resolved.
  • Regarding Dead Week, the committee considered suggestions for changes, but deferred the issue for discussion in the context of the academic calendar. That discussion will not take place until the grading review is complete. The committee felt that the present policy could be better implemented with wider publicity.

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