Undergraduates petition chemistry department, seeking S/NC grading

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Undergraduate chemistry students have created an online petition urging the department to offer only the Satisfactory/No Credit grading basis for its courses in light of virtual learning difficulties during the ongoing pandemic.

The petition, started two weeks ago on Change.org and addressed to professors in the chemistry department along with University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, now has 166 signatures. Its authors did not reveal their names. 

Chemistry courses currently offer both a letter and Credit/No Credit grading basis to students, as mandated by the July 30 faculty senate decision on fall quarter grading. Yet, the petition argues that students who opt for CR/NC due to ongoing difficulties could be disadvantaged when peers with better conditions can get a letter grade. 

“The inequitable circumstances of the Chemistry Department’s undergraduate courses are placing burdens and undue stress on their students with a grading policy inconsiderate of personal, remote obstacles such as poor WiFi connection, lack of technological support, medical needs and mental health during these unprecedented times,” the authors added. 

The petition has yet to reach its goal of 200 signatures. The chemistry department has not responded to The Daily’s comment requests. 

While Stanford has mandated that all courses, with some exceptions, offer Letter/CR/NC grading, the Faculty Senate urges departments to count courses taken for a non-letter grade toward degree requirements. 

The decision, however, “has been left to the local department,” Joy Leighton, senior director of public relations for the School of Humanities and Sciences, told The Daily in a written statement. Students in the chemistry major must take all classes for a letter grade in order to fulfill graduation requirements.

Stefan Velculescu ’24, who is currently enrolled in CHEM 33: “Structure and Reactivity of Organic Molecules,” intends to major in chemistry with the goal of applying to medical schools in the future. The University recommends pre-med students take two years of chemistry courses with lab work. 

“As medical schools heavily weight undergraduate GPA when determining admission, this current grading system might make students who apply to medical schools with grades from these classes less competitive,” Velculescu told The Daily in a written statement. 

Ella Wang ’23, who plans to major in bioengineering, is also taking CHEM 33, her second chemistry course at Stanford. While she understands that the department is concerned about students not putting in their best effort, she said that many are now in difficult situations not conducive to remote learning. 

Wang currently lives in an area without consistently reliable internet access. “My WiFi has failed during several lectures so far, and I have had to rely on screenshots of [the] lecture from peers,” she wrote in a statement to The Daily. 

The petition cited the physics department’s decision to adopt the S/NC grading basis. The 20-series and 40-series courses, which are required sequences for a number of STEM majors, are now offered as only Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, according to ExploreCourses. 

Similarly, the biology department has made introductory courses such as BIO 83: “Biochemistry & Molecular Biology,” which Wang is taking, S/NC only. 

Wang says she tried to request access to lecture videos due to poor internet connections, but she was denied because “only those with OAE accommodations are allowed access.” 

“The course instructors refuse to even post annotated lectures [sic] slides,” she added. 

According to their website, the Office of Accessible Education “encourages all instructors to record their class sessions” during virtual lectures. While the student’s right to accommodation may override an instructor’s objection to recording, it is considered on an individual basis and requires OAE approval. 

One fourth of Wang’s grade consists of weekly 20-minute quizzes — the same percentage as exams. “We are required to stay on the Zoom call in breakout rooms while we take a quiz in 20 minutes and upload it to Gradescope,” she wrote. “My internet trouble also makes downloading and uploading the quiz challenging.” 

Due to the online format, the assessment is “the most stress-inducing part of my week, by far,” she added.

Leighton told The Daily that despite the lack of access to physical lab facilities, departments including chemistry are shipping lab kits to students free of charge. While they cannot substitute for the on-campus lab experience, “they provide an opportunity for students to safely engage in hands-on learning at home.”

Complaints about the chemistry department have also recently flooded Stanford Missed Connections, an Instagram page where students anonymously share their views. One poster noted that CHEM 121: “Understanding the Natural and Unnatural World through Chemistry” has four exams which count as 90% of a student’s grade. “Chem 121 is giving us a timed exam on friday and I’m worried my wifi will fail and i won’t submit it in time,” wrote another. 

“I cannot even imagine what this class experience is like for international students or for students in situations less ideal than mine,” Wang added. 

Contact Tianyu M. Fang at tmf ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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