December 1, 2011

To Pass/Fail or to Not Pass/Fail

by Maisha Haque, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy 

One of the most talked about topics among my friends in pharmacy school is grades! This led me to research a very relevant question:  should pharmacy schools adopt pass/fall grading criteria for their courses?  Or should they stick with a traditional A through F system of grading? The type of grading system can cause changes in classroom behavior and perhaps the outcomes of student learning. As future educators I think it’s very important for us to understand the different grading systems in order to maximize the learning environment. This blog essay covers the summaries of three articles I found regarding the effects of different systems for assessing student performance. 

In the first article, the researchers studied the benefits of a pass-fail grading system on stress, mood, group cohesion, and test anxiety. This prospective study was conducted at the Mayo Clinical College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnisota.1  The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine recently changed over their grading system from a 5-interval grading system to pass-fail grading system. This allowed the authors to compare the graduating class of 2005 (which experienced the traditional grading system) to the class of 2009 who experienced only the pass/fail grading system. The two groups were compared at three time points:  at the end of their first year, the end of their second year, and after step 1 of their licensing exam.1 The results showed that the students graded on the pass-fail system had significantly less perceived stress and greater group cohesion.  The authors also observed that letter grades represented extrinsic rewards (such as when someone else tries to motivate you to do something) rather than intrinsic rewards (internal and personal motivating factors).  Thus, traditional grading systems, by their nature, tend to transform intrinsically motivated learners into extrinsic learners.1 

In another study, the authors examined the student’s perspective on the two grading systems and the affect they have on student motivation.2 A questionnaire was given to law students whose curriculum changed from pass-fail to a letter grade system. The responses revealed that students believed there was a higher concern for their standing in relation to other students and their position in the eyes of the professors.  There was also more competition in letter graded courses than there was in pass/fail courses.2  The respondents indicated that students were less embarrassed to ask questions in a pass/fail classroom.2   This seems like a very important learning tool that was somewhat inhibited under a letter grade system. The authors concluded that students were more oriented towards social comparisons and competition in a letter graded class … and less oriented towards task mastery.2 

The final paper examined whether a pass/fail system adequately reflects student progress or not.3 The primary purpose of any grading system is to measure student achievement and to establish the development of needed competencies.3  In letter-graded classes students are perhaps more motivate while a pass/fail class establishes only the minimum requirements.3  The authors contend that a letter grading system encourages the habit of always aiming for the best which would be a positive thing if translated into the work environment even when grades are not allocated. The interesting observation made by the authors is that faculty role modeling, selection of criterion, careful and inclusive selection of the qualities that are being assessed, and the use of criteria based grading system are more important contributors to student learning than whether or not letter grades are assigned.3 

After reading the different sides presented by these articles, it’s evident that there is not one clear winning strategy for student assessment.  Doctoral and graduate degree programs are always going to be very rigorous and stressful learning environments. The evidence indicates that the pass/fail system leads to less stress, increased group cohesion, and increased task mastery.  Thus I believe the pass/fail system should be adopted in all graduate schools. The competition and pressure to get good grades is commonly experienced during undergraduate education – thus people admitted to pharmacy (and medical and law) school have a proven ability to succeed in a competitive environment.  I believe once you start your graduate program the focus needs to be on learning rather than promoting competition between students. 

The most important principle, and the part that I think applies to this class, is that it’s the educator’s role to facilitate student learning, and this is based on how they teach, not grade.  Professors can balance the positive and negative aspects of both grading systems, but this requires understanding the effects of both systems. It’s up to the professor to maximize the benefits of both and leave the students with the best education possible. 

1.  Rohe DE, Barrier PA, Clark MM, Cook DA, Vickers KS, Decker PA. The Benefits of Pass-Fail Grading on Stress, Mood, and Group Cohesion in MedicalStudents. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006; 81(11); 1443-48.
2.  Michaelides M, Kirshner B. Graduate Student Attitudes toward Grading Systems. College Quarterly. 2005; 8(4).
3.  Miller BM, Kalet A, Van Woerkom RC, Zorko N, Halsey J. Can a Pass/Fail Grading System Adequately Reflect Student Progress? Virtual Mentor 2009; 11(11): 842-51.

No comments: