Faculty Today Students Today

Giving pass-fail grading a pass

Stack of books in front of a chalkboard

Pass-fail grading is commonly presented as an alternative to letter grading that can minimize student stress and anxiety. In their article, Spring et al. (2011) assess the impact of pass-fail grading on medical students’ well-being and academic outcomes. The authors explain that the positive outcomes typically associated with pass-fail grading are a “leveling of the playing field” for incoming medical students with a variety of academic backgrounds and encouragement of collaboration. Those who raise concerns about pass-fail grading fear a decline in class attendance, academic performance, licensing exam scores and residency placements. 

As of 2016, the Integration Workshop, the legal methodology and research course for first-year McGill law students, is graded on a pass-fail basis. Students can develop the skills essential to good lawyering without the typical competitive pressure and are even given many chances to turn a fail on an assignment into a pass (either by re-doing the assignment or completing additional coursework). As a Tutorial Leader (TL) for this course, I have observed the positive aspects of pass-fail grading and I am learning techniques to encourage student motivation and performance.

McGill law students are an incredibly academically diverse cohort. Some students have entered law school directly from CEGEP whereas others have multiple degrees and work experience. Students come from all kinds of previous studies, including humanities, engineering, business or even medicine. Pass-fail grading levels the playing field because it allows students to focus on their own skills without worrying about their strength in comparison to others. Students of all ages and academic backgrounds eagerly participate in class discussions and are unafraid to ask questions. Allowing students to re-submit assignments also contributes to a leveling of the playing field because it gives students with weaker performance a chance to learn from their mistakes and achieve the same academic standing as their peers. I have noticed that students who did not pass their first assignment did not repeat the same mistakes on their second and third assignments. I am impressed by the improvement demonstrated by these students.

One of the concerns that someone might raise about pass-fail grading is the negative impact it could have on student motivation. However, such an impact has failed to materialize in my Integration Workshop section. I believe that although grades can be an effective motivator, student motivation can come from a variety of sources. Seeking alternative sources should be encouraged as grades have been shown to instill low self-esteem and feelings of unfairness in law students at McGill. With this in mind, I have tried to understand what keeps my students motivated. I have noticed that an important source of motivation is a student’s appreciation of the utility and long-term benefit of listening in class and completing their assignments. An important part of the Integration Workshop sessions is that at the beginning of each session, the instructor explains to the students why they are learning a certain skill and how it will help them become better jurists. This is very important for students as it gives them a justification to use their time and energy for a class that will not affect their grade-point average. My experience has shown me that the fear of declining student motivation is unfounded because there are other ways to keep law students focused and on task. It seems to me that an added benefit of these alternative methods is that they are less likely to affect a student’s self-esteem.

In sum, being a TL has shown me that pass-fail grading can inspire positive student behaviour and performance without reducing motivation. What additional creative methods to motivate students in a pass-fail system can you think of?

Check out the other posts in the Law series:

0 comments on “Giving pass-fail grading a pass

%d bloggers like this: