November 11, 2008
To: Members of the Graduate Faculty
From: Dennis G. Hall, Associate Provost for Research and
Dean of the Graduate School
Subject: Announcement of a New Grading Policy for All (Research) Courses Numbered
369, 379 and 399
Brief statement of the policy. Beginning with the (current) Fall 2008 semester, a grade of
Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory (S or U) must be assigned at the end of each semester to every
graduate student enrolled for research hours (including for “zero hours”) in courses numbered
369, 379 or 399.
Introduction. Monitoring graduate-student progress and documenting it at regular intervals are
essential for responsible oversight and to facilitate the timely, successful completion of advanced
degrees. This is as true for the research components of graduate-degree programs as it is for the
classroom components. Benefits accrue to both students and faculty.
At Vanderbilt, documenting graduate-student progress in research has been erratic. Historically,
some faculty members have turned in grades each semester for students enrolled in research
courses while others have not.1 Perhaps this reflects differing views on the purpose served by
such grades, with the former believing that it is progress that is being graded and the latter
believing instead that it is the end product, the thesis or the dissertation, that is being graded.
Those in the latter group might have felt the need to wait until the conclusion of the research to
see how those end products turn out before assigning grades. Vanderbilt needs a policy that (1)
clarifies the purpose of assigning grades for research enrollments and (2) states what is expected
with regard to assigning those grades.
The absence of such a policy produces at least three adverse practical consequences. First is the
core concern that some students might not understand whether or not they’re making acceptable
progress. Surprising at this might seem, it does happen. Second is the obvious problem of
making it all-too-easy for the institution to lose track of a student, something that is not
consistent with quality mentoring and keeping time-to-degree under control. This, too, happens
from time to time. Third is the problem of failing to establish a "paper trail." The institution can
find (and has found) itself on more than one occasion in a position where action needs to be
taken in connection with a given student, but the student's record shows no evidence that the
required or recommended action is justified or that the student has had any earlier indication that
difficulties were developing. There needs to be an academic record in place to help everyone
involved, especially when situations arise involving a student’s lack of progress toward a degree.
In Fall 2007, the Graduate Faculty Council (GFC) took up the matter of the grading practices in
use for the research components of Vanderbilt’s graduate programs. Because no previously
enacted policy could be found, the Graduate School and the GFC developed the policy described
in this memo, recommending adoption at the GFC’s September 8, 2008, meeting. School and
1. Note: grades in research courses are not calculated into a student’s GPA
College Deans’ offices were brought into the discussion and asked for feedback starting on
August 5, 2008. The various Associate Deans in those offices were notified directly of this
impending change on October 6, 2008, and encouraged to alert department chairs and directors
of graduate studies (DGSs), as appropriate.
The Policy. Beginning with the Fall 2008 semester, a grade of Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory (S
or U) must be assigned at the end of each semester to every graduate student enrolled for
research hours in courses numbered 369, 379 or 399. This includes those enrolled for zero credit
hours, i.e., those who have already accumulated the number of hours required for the intended
degree. S and U are the only two grades permitted for courses numbered 369, 379 or 399.
Grades of S and U are defined as follows:
Grade of S: Satisfactory. Graduate student made satisfactory progress toward the
intended degree during the semester for which the grade is awarded.
Grade of U: Unsatisfactory. Graduate student failed to make satisfactory progress toward
the intended degree during the semester for which the grade is awarded.
The purpose of grades in research courses numbered 369, 379 and 399 is to indicate progress
toward the intended degree in a single semester. Grades of S and U do not indicate the quality of
the end-product thesis or dissertation. Such assessment and judgment are made at the time of the
thesis or dissertation defense. Because the new policy requires a grade for each semester of
enrollment, a particular faculty member must be identified as the supervisor-of-record for every
research-hour of enrollment. If a grade is not recorded, a student will receive by default a grade
of Z, which needs to be changed to an S or U within one month of the end of the semester. The
Graduate School will send reminders as needed.
Consequences of U grades2: One U grade requires consultation between the student and
the research advisor; a second U grade triggers a locally defined program-level intervention
process involving (at least) the student, the research advisor, the student's thesis or
dissertation committee and the DGS; and a third U grade leads to de-matriculation. These
steps are triggered by the accumulation of U grades, not simply U grades in succession.
Each U represents approximately one-half of one academic year of unsatisfactory progress.
No credit hours are awarded for an enrollment that earns a grade of U.
Consistent with the above, each program will need to develop the review process that will be
used in what is likely the rare instance when a given student receives a second grade of U.
This new policy takes effect with the Fall 2008 semester. The Office of Management
Information Systems (MIS) has advised the Graduate School that the new S/U system will be in
place in the on-line grading system and have completed testing by November 20, 2008, in time
for the assigning of Fall semester grades.
Thanks for your attention to this new Graduate School policy. It will be included in the Graduate
School Bulletin at the next opportunity.
2. Note: the standard leave-of-absence policies remain in place to deal with special situations, just as in the past.