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Should a Pass-Fail Grading System Replace the Letter Grade System?


“Daveson Beron shot himself because he failed to graduate, and Don Benedict Pamintuan killed himself just because he got bad grades” (Ozaeta). This incident gives just a glimpse of how many problems students have to face from their first day of school until their graduation. In the United States, “one in 10 college students have made a suicide plan, and there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses per year” (Suicide Statistics). Being bullied by classmates, issues in time management, tuition fees, bad grades, homesickness, and relationships are among the various reason’s students commit suicide, among which bad qualities are the dominant ones. Students are too depressed and worried regarding their grades, and they find suicide an easy way out of this. To cope with this type of social issue, the trainees should be taught that rates are not the essential thing in the world. But this cannot be done until the traditional way of grading via letter grades is replaced by some other evaluation tool because it just assigns an alphanumeric character to the student, measuring how much he understands about a given subject and not the ability of how much he can learn and engage with the content. Although the traditional letter grade evaluation system provides an incentive for students to study, it should be replaced by a pass-fail evaluation system because it enhances learning, gives students an incentive to take more academic risks, and increases group cohesiveness.


The pass-fail evaluation system focuses on enhanced learning by students rather than cramming by them just for the sake of good grades. Since there are no alphanumeric characters assigned, the plausible outcomes are pass or fail. This​​ decreases academic pressure from students because now they do not have to answer their parents about why they had a C or a B, and why not an A? This methodology lowers the competition among students in a class because they do not have to worry about what marks others are getting and the mean or deviation for the test. Thus, all this results in a less tense environment for students where they do not need to worry about other factors and worry only about learning things, which ultimately enables them to step​​ up their game. “A study conducted to explore the effects of pass-fail grading in the second year of medical school determined that the discriminating grading scale (letter-grade) in the second year was undermining our efforts to promote peer teaching and collaborative learning in the context of pass-fail grading adopted to promote self-regulated learning and that pass-fail grading can meet several important intended outcomes, including “leveling the playing field” for incoming students with different academic backgrounds, reducing competition and fostering collaboration among members of a class, more time for extracurricular interests and personal activities thus increasing students satisfaction and maximizing utility. Pass-fail grading also reduces competition and supports collaboration, and fosters intrinsic motivation, which is the key to self-regulated, lifelong learning” (White and Fantone).

The pass-fail methodology of evaluating students gives the student an incentive to take academic risks. Let us take an instance to understand this. Suppose there is a course, X. When there is a letter-grade system, students might hesitate to get themselves enrolled in this course because they fear that this course is quite challenging for them. They might end up getting a C, and then they would be judged by other people because of that C. So, it is more likely that they do not take that course.

On the contrary, if the evaluation system used was pass-fail, students might take the time because they know that it is difficult for them, but they can at least manage to pass it. In this way, they would begin to explore new academic fields by taking a diverse range of courses without the fear of judgments. Here, I would like to state a personal example of this very case. I took German, a language course, during my undergraduate studies at Lahore University of Management Sciences. German was an all alien language to me, and I might not have taken the time if it was not a pass-fail course because I did not want to end up getting​​ a B. Most universities are trying to implement the pass-fail evaluation system for this very reason. Recently, “Boston University has started to implement a pass-fail grading system just to allow their students to take diverse academic courses which are not in their line of major” (Ramos).

Also, the pass-fail methodology of evaluating students results in greater group cohesion among students in a class. The reason is self-evident that when you do not have the letter grade lingering over your head, you automatically feel stress-free because now you do not have to worry about the steps causing​​ a more cherished mood. Besides, when you are not graded on the curve, the learning environment is changed in the pass-fail system compared to a letter grade, which allows students to indulge in group activities and thus provides a way for them to engage in the context conceptually. This phenomenon is elaborated by “a study conducted by Mayo Medical School.​​ The Mayo Medical School, beginning with the 2006 batch, replaced​​ the 5-interval grading system with a pass-fail system for the first year of medical school. The purpose of the study was to evaluate the possible sustained (primary goal) and immediate (secondary goal) effects of a pass-fail grading system on stress, mood,​​ group cohesion, and test anxiety in the first year of medical school compared to a 5-level grading system. Preliminary evidence provided by the results of this study supporting the benefit of a pass-fail grading system on psychological well-being, including decreased stress, improved mood, and increased group cohesiveness in medical school students. These data also show that the beneficial impact of a pass-fail system continues even after reverting to a standard 5-level grading system during the first year​​ of medical school in the second year of medical school” (Rohe, Daniel E., et al.).

 Although the pass-fail grading system should be implemented in colleges and universities, people argue that the letter grade system is much better because it provides students with an incentive to study. For example, they say that students would learn only if they have this thing in their mind that if they look hard, they will get an A. They question the lack of such an incentive to study in a pass-fail grade system. However, people sometimes​​ forget that simplification is the ultimate sophistication, and thus, they neglect a simple answer to this argument. There is always an incentive in the pass-fail grade system to study, which is that if a student does not study at all, he will fail the course just as if it was a letter graded course. He would get an F. Besides, the primary purpose of the pass-fail system is to foster learning, and that is the very reason universities and colleges such as Lahore University of Management Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, etc. offer some pass-fail courses with the policy that if one passes the time, there would be no effect on his cumulative grade point average and the credit hours would be counted. Still, if one fails the course, there would be an adverse effect on his cumulative grade point average, just as in letter-graded systems. Besides, “studies show that there is a whole range of variables that potentially influence grades' effectiveness as an incentive. Some​​ possible factors - each of which most likely interacts with one or more of the other factors – include personality, sex, age, intelligence, achievement motivation, socioeconomic status, family value system, student's status and role in his peer group, year in school, the structure of the classroom (e.g., open vs. traditional), the ability level of the class and school, the time in the semester and year when the points are offered or threatened to be taken away, the frequency with which the teacher utilizes​​ grades as a positive as opposed to a negative incentive, and the difficulty of the assignment. The more definitive conclusions can be drawn about the nature of the use of grades as an incentive, it appears that these and perhaps other relevant variables will have to be explored” (Cullen).

 In conclusion, the grades game is one of the most critical problems students face, which needs to be rectified. The pass-fail system of evaluation is one effective solution to this problem. It increases students' learning by removing pressures and decreasing competition and provides an incentive for students to take a diverse range of courses to explore their interests. Also, it fosters group cohesiveness by totally changing the classroom environment. Some people say that​​ the pass-fail evaluation system does not provide an incentive to learn, but studies have shown that they are wrong, and grades are not the only incentives students face. Students have suffered since the first-day grading was introduced. Now it is time to​​ end this suffering by implementing a pass-fail system of evaluation than the traditional letter gradesystem.

Works Cited

  • "Suicide Statistics." Suicide Statistics. Web. 13 Mar. 2017. <http://www.emorycaresforyou.emory.edu/resources/suicidesta istics.html>.

  • Cullen, Francis T., et al. “The Effects of the Use of Grades as an Incentive.” The Journal of Educational Research, vol. 68, no. 7, 1975, pp. 277–279.,​​ www.jstor.org/stable/27536752. ​​ <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27536752?seq=1#page_scan_tab contents>

  • Ozaeta, Arnell. "2 Students Commit Suicide over failing Grades." Philstar.com., Web. 13 Mar. 2017.<http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2013/04/08/928172/2-students-commit-suicide-over-failing-grades>.

  • Ramos, Blau. "New Pass/fail Course Policy Takes Effect in 2017, Encourages Students to​​  Explore Interests." Dailyfreepress.com., 4 Oct. 2016. Web. 14 Mar. 2017. <http://dailyfreepress.com/2016/10/04/new-passfail-course-policy-encourages-students-to-explore-interests/>.

  • Rohe, Daniel E., Patricia A. Barrier, Matthew M. Clark, David A. Cook, Kristin S. Vickers,​​  and Paul A. Decker. "The Benefits of Pass-Fail Grading on Stress, Mood, and Group​​  Cohesion in Medical Students." Mayo Clinic Proceedings 81.11 (2006): 1443-448. Web. 14 Mar. 2017. <https://facsen.wsu.edu/current_agenda/exhibits_092712_04113/mayo%20clinic%20full%20pharmacy.pdf>.

  • White, Casey B., and Joseph C. Fantone. "Pass–fail Grading: Laying the Foundation for Self-regulated​​ Learning." SpringerLink. Springer Netherlands, 12 Dec. 2009. Web. 13​​  Mar. 2017. <https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10459-009-9211-1>.


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