April 22, 2013

Grades – How Important Are They?

by Justine Beck, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

The type of evaluation system used by an academic institution, pass/fail versus assignment of grades, has been a point of controversy for decades.  I hadn’t put much thought into this issue, since all of my education was completed at institutions that utilized a traditional grading system and where the overall performance was determined by calculating a grade point average (GPA).  However, this year I was no longer an applicant but rather a participant in the residency selection process.  When reviewing and compiling the information on the residency applications, I came across a few pharmacy schools that use a pass/fail evaluation system and, therefore, do not report a GPA.  At first I was taken aback, unsure how to compare the academic performance of the applicants from these schools to applicants who were graduating from more traditional programs.  My natural instinct was to question whether an applicant who ‘passed’ pharmacy school would perform the same in a residency program as an applicant who had a numeric GPA.

With an overwhelming number of applicants to pharmacy residency programs
1, an applicant from a program that uses the pass/fail grading system may be at a disadvantage when competing against applicants who have a GPA.  Admittedly, the most important criterion used when making selection decisions for residency programs is the personal interview.  However, there are several pre-screening hurdles that applicants must jump over before an interview is offered.

While there is a paucity of literature available specific to pharmacy regarding the impact of pass/fail grading, there is some data related to medical residency programs.  Dietrick et al. polled general surgery residency program directors to determine whether pass/fail versus competitive grading systems affected an applicant’s ability to compete for a residency training position.  The results demonstrated that 89% of program directors in general surgery preferred a transcript with grades over a pass/fail evaluation system. Also, 81% of the survey respondents thought that the medical students’ ability to compete for a residency position was adversely influenced by the pass/fail method of evaluation. Interestingly, 72% of the respondents stated letters of recommendation most frequently misled them in choosing a candidate for a residency position.2

Another survey conducted in Ontario found that 66% of program directors felt that students applying to their program from a school that used a pass/fail system would be disadvantaged.3   Moss et al. reported that the application performance index of residents from medical schools that reported grades performed significantly better than those from schools that used a pass/fail system.  Additionally, no residents from a school that used a pass/fail system ranked above the 87th percentile, and 82% of those who ranked below the 15th percentile came from pass/fail schools.4

Advocates for a pass/fail grading system reason that grades discourage collaboration and rely too heavily on external motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is learning prompted by true interest and enjoyment, whereas extrinsic motivation is based on external rewards, such as grades and honor society inductions.  Further, they argue, pass/fail grading systems improve student well-being by reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Interestingly, over the years, many schools that adopted the pass/fail grading system have reverted back to multi-tiered grading systems (i.e. pass/fail/honors/high honors).5   Despite the potential benefits of pass/fail grading, it seems that the preference is an evaluation system that can differentiate students.

Inevitably, grades matter.  The much maligned GPA is the only way to sum up a student’s academic achievement in a quantifiable form.  Peter Filene wrote in The Joy of Teaching that, “grades can be used as a pedagogical whip to reinforce the mentality of working-to-get-a-grade, or they can be used in creative ways as carrots to encourage learning.” 6 I believe the real challenge is finding ways to use grades as a means to stimulate learning rather than a quantifiable measure of success or failure.  Students need feedback to help stimulate self-improvement.  Developing unique and creative ways to evaluate students would help achieve the dual aims of differentiating performance while cultivating intrinsic motivation to learn.

1. National Matching Services Inc. 2012. ASHP Resident Matching Program, Match Statistics. Accessed March 17, 2013.
2. Dietrick JA, Weaver MT, Merrick HW.  Pass/fail grading: a disadvantage for
students applying for residency. Am J Surg 1991;162(1):63-66.
4. Moss TJ, Deland EC, Maloney JV Jr. Selection of medical students for graduate training: pass/fail versus grades. N Engl J Med 1978;299(1):25-7.
5. Spring L, Robillard D, Gehlbach L, Moores Simas TA. Impact of pass/fail grading on medical students’ well-being and academic outcomes. Med Educ 2011;45:867-877.
6. Filene P. The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Chapter 8, Evaluating and grading; p.93-111.

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