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A pass-fail grading system is exactly as it is – a student receives either a pass or a fail mark instead of the traditional number or letter grading system. Some educators prefer this grading system since they see it as something advantageous to both the faculty and students, given the assessment level only comes in two options. This means that those who receive a C or a higher will pass, while students who get a D or lower will fail, or in some institutions wherein an F is the only failing mark.

Having only two options, teachers are left to decide upfront when it comes to the performance of each student. From the students’ point of perspective, they won’t have to deal with the pressure and stress of competing for higher grades. And it’s proven to be effective.

The pass-fail system has been used by Yale since the 1960s. Stanford and Harvard followed suit, and it has been that way since then.

There are also studies concluding that the pass-fail grading system is beneficial when it comes to alleviating the stress levels of students. One of them was conducted through the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota, in which they tested a group of medical students. Students who were taught using the pass-fail grading system perceived less stress and actually showed better cohesion than those students who were graded using the traditional grading system.

When it comes to the mood of the students, the difference between the two groups didn’t differ that much. To conclude, the pass-fail system increases group cohesion and reduces stress in students.

The pass-fail grading system has advantages for sure, but there are those who oppose to the idea.

The Advantages of Pass-Fail Grading System

Students perceive less pressure

As mentioned, a pass-fail grading system doesn’t rely on scores to assess how much a student has learned. Actual scores are not indicated on the records, meaning a student’s GPA will not be affected with either a fail or a passing grade. This saves students from the pressure of getting a mark higher than their peers, allowing them to take it easy and relax, while still getting the education they need to find work later on and become good, well-rounded individuals. Because e students don’t get to see letters or numbers, they are more likely to enroll in more challenging courses that they would have avoided if the traditional grading system was used.

Students are given a clear idea what their strengths and weaknesses are

The pass-fail grading system is as blunt as it could ever be – students know exactly which subjects they fail in, which is a good thing, because now they can switch their focus on something that they really excel on. A letter grading system can be very conflicting, since there are subjects where you get a so-so grade, and there are some where you a D or an F. Where should they concentrate all their efforts on? Having a clear cut idea of the subjects you’re good at enables students to focus on those that will have a positive effect on the chances of being employed in the future.

Makes learning easier

Students are able to focus on retaining information rather than gather information in order to get a grade higher than C. It’s more important to know general information by heart than know specifics for the reason of acing the test and get an A, which probably won’t be significant in your job later on.

Allows for better engagement

Courses or classes that most students find difficult should definitely follow a pass or fail system because this allows students to tackle difficult content in a way they find suitable for themselves. They can learn hard concepts at their own pace and will have a better chance of excelling rather than focus on getting a high mark without retaining useful information.

The Disadvantages of Pass-Fail Grading System

Students are less competitive

Sometimes, this can be a disadvantage. Since all you need is a passing mark, a lot of students won’t find it necessary to strive harder in order to get an A. An A means that you’ve performed your very best in a subject, whereas a C means you’ve only performed enough to pass. Without seeing these figures, students are easily satisfied with just a good enough or satisfactory grade. While some students will thrive with this kind of environment, there’s a chance for some to become less focused and lazy. This lack of competitiveness can result in laziness, a habit that students will likely take with them in their future jobs. If this is the case, then the pass-fail grading system would become a failure.

Provides no clear figures of a student’s performance level

Let’s say a student passed his exam, but how well did he perform? A good enough grade may be okay in class, but is good enough okay in the real world? Let’s say a student failed – how bad was it? Which areas were his lowest points? This is the problem with the pass-fail system. There’s no way of pinpointing which areas should be worked on. The teacher will have an idea, but unless a student asks, he will never know the figures.

No exact scores

In a pass-fail grading system, students won’t have the idea how much they scored, which matters to some because this gives them a sense of achievement. After all, the feeling of getting an A is very different from getting a C. The same is true with students recovering from a failing grade. If they manage to pass, they won’t know the exact conversion of their scores.

No incentives

In a traditional letter grading system, every letter represents a chance to get better. For example, if a student gets a B, this could encourage him to strive harder in order to get an A, because an A represents something better. There’s no chance for this in a pass-fail system since it prompts many students to be content with a mediocre grade.

We’ve already laid out the advantages and disadvantages – can you say that the pass-fail grading system should be the standard for all educational institutions?

Here’s a takeaway: we don’t need grades to develop practical skills.

Education, particularly at the college level where practical or technical disciplines are taught, should go beyond relying on grading systems alone. This ranking and rating orientation represent the old American industrial era.

In the modern world, education is built on knowledge, information, ingenuity, and ideas. In an article posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education, the author points out the rising emphasis on “competency-based education,” which could be a better way to assess learning than giving out grades.  

This approach is already being used in some online models of education. The Chronicle cites the Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University as examples. These colleges have restructured their approach and switched to competence-based assessment. They still follow a pass-fail system, but students are allowed to work at their own pace, and they’re only allowed to move on the next level or lesson once they’ve already mastered the skills needed to pass a particular subject.

Other colleges have followed suit, include Hampshire College, New College of Florida, The Evergreen State College, Bennington College, Antioch College, and Alverno College.

This model may be the way to provide students with the right learning capabilities without having to compete but still get the education they need to succeed in their future careers.

In the end, educators should accept the challenge of providing students with a more meaningful and richer evaluative feedback.


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