Senate explores satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading for spring semester

March 17, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In a special meeting of the Penn State Faculty Senate held remotely on March 17, the senate approved a resolution asking the University administration to consider allowing students to request courses be graded as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, rather than with a letter grade, during the spring 2020 semester.

Mary Beth Williams, chair of the senate committee on curricular affairs, said the resolution was drafted in an effort to support students following Penn State’s decision to move all classes to remote learning in response to the public health concerns related to the novel coronavirus.

Under the non-binding resolution, which will be considered for implementation by University administration, students would be able to coordinate with their academic adviser to request certain courses be graded as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” with “satisfactory” representing a grade of C or better. Any courses graded as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory would not impact a student’s GPA.

The resolution also asks the administration to consider not penalizing students’ academic standing for grades earned during the spring 2020 semester in recognition that some students have faced challenges during the transition to remote instruction, such as students in other time zones or in areas with poor internet connection.

Nicholas Rowland, chair of the Faculty Senate, clarified that the resolution is “a matter of exploration” that must be the subject of further discussion with University administration before potential implementation. Williams also noted that the resolution specifically reflects “a relaxing of senate policy,” and that the resolution would require partners across campus to implement.

Provost Nick Jones acknowledged the vision of the senate expressed in the resolution, and noted that the University “does have a group that is looking at this issue,” is considering all possible options, and welcomes the input.

Also at its special meeting, the senate passed a second resolution asking the University administration to consider using Student Ratings of Teacher Effectiveness (SRTEs) only for “formative and not summative” purposes. Rowland said that this resolution was drafted in response to faculty concerns and questions about how the transition to remote learning will impact the standard faculty review process.

Commencement, child care refunds, and other updates from University leadership

Penn State President Eric Barron and Provost Jones both provided updates and answered questions from faculty members about the University’s ongoing response efforts surrounding the novel coronavirus.

Jones explained the University has formed action groups related to different issues. The action groups are respectively in charge of communications; campus health preparedness and response; study abroad and supporting international students; general emergency preparedness and response; community interaction and coordination; semester and summer course delivery interruption; commencement; summer and emergency accommodations; enrollment management; general business continuity; research support;  athletics and other large events; and academic support.

Jones noted that the commencement action group is considering options for the spring commencement ceremony, and that additional details will be forthcoming.

In response to a faculty question, Barron said that University is planning on refunding money to faculty and staff who paid tuition for the University’s childcare services that are not currently being received due to Gov. Tom Wolf’s order temporarily closing all childcare facilities in the commonwealth. Additional details are forthcoming.

Barron also said that he expects the University to make a decision on March 18 on whether to implement remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester. ­Jones noted that the transition to remote learning has seen “extraordinary” success, with over 63,000 students participating in around 350 zoom sessions across the University as of 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning alone.

However, Jones also acknowledged the additional burden placed on faculty by the transition to remote learning. He assured the senate that this decision was the best course of action to help safeguard the health and safety of Penn State’s students and employees, and thanked faculty members for “going above and beyond the call of duty” to continuing delivering a quality education to Penn State students.

Barron and Jones also explained that enabling students to continue to receive financial aid has been another major factor guiding the University’s decisions. They said that a major factor in the University’s decision to move to synchronous remote learning, as opposed to asynchronous learning, was so that students would continue to meet financial aid requirements established by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA).

They concluded their remarks by affirming that University will explore all options to best support its faculty, students and staff during these challenging times.

“We will do the best we can, in every instance, to support everybody,” Jones said.

Other senate business

In addition to its special meeting to discuss the two resolutions related to the impacts of remote learning and the novel coronavirus, the senate also held a regularly scheduled meeting and passed two pieces of legislation.

Faculty members approved a new policy detailing the senate’s guidance to faculty members when classes are cancelled due to unexpected campus closures, such as those due to weather. Rowland clarified that this policy would not extend to the current remote learning situation, as the University is not “closed” during this period. The new policy provides guidelines such as when faculty should reschedule tests following a weather-related campus closure.

The senate also passed legislation recommending new faculty office space guidelines. Previous guidelines included maximum sizes for faculty offices, for example, but not minimum dimensions. The new policy aims to bring office space standards into alignment with current practice at the University.

Both pieces of legislation will next be shared with University administration for implementation.

Senators also nominated faculty members for senate officer positions and committee membership, to be voted on during April’s Faculty Senate meeting.

The next meeting of the Faculty Senate, and final meeting of the spring semester, will be held at 1 p.m. on April 28. Meetings are traditionally held in the Kern Graduate Building, but may be held digitally over Penn State’s Mediasite if remote learning continues. Additional details are forthcoming.

Last Updated March 18, 2020