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Letter to the Community: ASSU Grading Survey Results

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Dear Stanford Community,

The Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) is committed to ensuring that student voices are solicited and heard when decisions are made at the University. As we all know, next year will bring many challenges (as this past quarter has so clearly demonstrated) and at all points throughout the process, the ASSU hopes to ensure that student opinions and perspectives are front and center. The Faculty Senate will decide the grading basis for the coming months on Thursday and this document presents the key insights from a student body wide survey administered on the subject. You can find the full, albeit less polished, survey results here

Thank you to all students who responded to the survey. As of July 28th, there were 3,717 responses  (118,328 words of textual responses!) distributed among class year as follows:

Key Takeaways

  • The student body is divided between Optional CR/NC and Universal S/NC, but there is a clear dislike of regular grades and Honors/S/NC.
  • Inviting students to apply for an exception to return to campus did not succeed in removing all barriers to learning.
  • Few students are planning to take a leave of absence, though many remain undecided and the data suggests Universal S/NC would result in the highest enrollment.

How did Spring Quarter Go?

There were a number of key takeaways on students’ perspectives about learning and grading during Spring Quarter:

  1. Students on average were happy with Spring Quarter grading, rating it on average halfway between an and on a scale of with a standard deviation of 1.19 emojis.
  2. 67% of respondents said that Zoom was a barrier to their learning and most students felt Zoom classes were too long. Students on average self reported being able to concentrate over Zoom for 62 minutes, much shorter than the length of the proposed 80 minute class length for next year. Indeed, students who faced other barriers to their learning were on average able to concentrate for even less time.
  3. Some students who were initially opposed to S/NC for Spring quarter, found themselves very thankful for it. Students noted that the S/NC grading system was very beneficial to their mental health during a time when they were separated from friends and Stanford’s support structure. Others reflected that they misjudged the difficulty of online learning. Many remarked at how surprised they were by the extra burden of being at home. Students also noted that many of their friends at peer institutions were unhappy with regular grading during the same time period. Others reflected that they would have struggled to maintain normal academic output given world events such as the death of George Floyd and its aftermath.
  4. Other students remain unhappy with S/NC. In particular, frustration was high among:
    1. students who felt their GPA was essential for applying to further opportunities
    2. rising seniors who felt as though Spring was their last significant opportunity to showcase their abilities
    3. students who had already front loaded difficult classes in earlier quarters
    4. students who come from under-resourced high schools and initially struggled to adjust to the rigor of Stanford, and felt that Spring was a particularly important opportunity to showcase an upward trajectory
    5. students who felt they were “not getting their money’s worth”
    6. students who were disappointed that their hard work went unrewarded at the end of the quarter
  5. 34% of students found it difficult to be motivated in the absence of grades. This manifested in a difficulty for individuals themselves, but also a frustration that other students were not incentivized to prepare for class discussions, contribute to group projects, and attend class. In particular, many of these students emphasized that the lack of graded cumulative final exams was harmful to their learning as it removed incentives for them to “go the extra mile” and ensure they had mastered the material. Another common theme was students struggled to find motivation after they reached the passing threshold in a class. It was also clear that those who are planning to pursue future opportunities where GPA is a relevant factor found that the lack of grades was a barrier to their learning at the highest rates.
  6. S/NC didn’t fully eliminate learning inequity: Some respondents noted that many students in conducive learning environments took advantage of the S/NC grading to take more difficult and a greater quantity of classes. 

Barriers to Learning

The chart below shows the barriers students faced in the Spring:

The data suggests that inequity in learning situations will continue in the Fall, only slightly diminished and that those with the most barriers to their learning struggled the most with online learning.

Looking to the Fall

As we approach the Fall, there is every reason to believe that students will continue to face challenges:

  • COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the country (8% of students reported that they or a loved one were infected during the Spring).
  • The University will be embarking on an ambitious and challenging experiment to bring students back to campus during the pandemic. Modeling from Cornell (Cashore et. al.) suggests that 280 undergraduates might be infected while on campus over the course of the quarter. 
  • The economic fallout caused by the pandemic is worsening for many (15% of respondents reported financial insecurity during the Spring)
  • Online learning is inferior to in person instruction (77% of students either found it difficult to learn over Zoom or will be off campus next year and reported that being off campus was a barrier to their learning)
  • Campus support services are diminished and student communities are divided

Despite the challenges, there is reason to believe next year could be less tumultuous than the Spring:

  • The University plans for some undergraduates and, importantly, those with dangerous and/or unstable home situations to be on campus. However, the data suggests that a significant number of students who faced equity barriers will spend a portion of next year learning off campus, despite this measure (see chart above).
  • There is much more known about the virus and despite the horrors it inflicts and we know much about how to prevent its spread. 
  • The University has had more time to prepare for this upcoming year.

Grading Preferences

The two charts below show general preferences for the grading basis. The first shows the average number of stars out of 5 assigned to each. The second shows the average ranking position (where 1 is the highest rank possible/most preferred). As you can see, students prefered Universal S/NC when asked to assign stars and preferred Optional CR/NC when asked to rank options — both by small margins.

There were a number of other key implications for grading:

  1. A regular grading scheme is quite unpopular overall. Regular grading was particularly unpopular with students who struggled to learn over Zoom during spring quarter and faced barriers to their learning. Even students who care significantly about their GPA prefer Optional CR/NC. 
  2. While there was no clear preference for Optional CR/NC or Mandatory S/NC, students with equity barriers and students who struggled learning over Zoom preferred Universal S/NC and those hoping to pursue future opportunities prefered Optional CR/NC. All agree that courses taken for CR would need to count for requirements in order to make an Optional CR/NC basis viable. Honors/S/NC was unpopular and confusing to many students. A list of other grading schemes that were suggested can be found in the Appendix of the full report.
  3. Frosh and Juniors don’t have a clear preference, transfers and seniors prefer Optional, and Sophomores prefer S/NC. Grad students are less passionate about grading, but prefer Universal S/NC.
  4. Among students who are still determining their plans for next year, those who reported that the grading basis would affect their plans particularly disliked regular grading, suggesting a negative impact on enrollment if chosen. Further, the data suggests, a Universal S/NC grading scheme would lead to the highest enrollment overall and higher enrollments of students who face the most difficult circumstances. However, Universal S/NC would lead to lower enrollments of students who desire to pursue future opportunities that consider GPA as a material factor.

Leaves of Absence

Few responded they had plans to take a leave, but many (around 25% of Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors) remain undecided. A small methodological note is that there is likely a response bias at play: those who are planning to take a leave would have less of an incentive to complete the survey.

As always, your feedback, opinions, and questions are welcome. Ultimately this decision will be made by the Faculty Senate, and the ASSU is here to support you and to advocate for the best possible policies. Feel free to learn more about the Faculty Senate or request to watch Thursday’s meeting at https://facultysenate.stanford.edu.

Sincerely yours,

Jonathan Lipman ’21, ASSU Undergraduate Senator (he/him)

Contact Jonathan Lipman at jlipman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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