Schooling is a significant part of every child’s life while growing up. The decisions and policies that exist in a school do not only affect a child’s life at school but are usually seen to have greater implications that stretch well and beyond into personal and professional life in the future. The issue of replacing a letter grade system with a pass-fail system is not a new one for the academia. There are a lot of well-documented research articles that talk about how anxiety and frustration that are a result of a letter grading system, lead to negative impacts on learning.
For me, the fundamental issue boils down to the simple question of what is the underlying objective of any education system? I believe that it is to foster growth and learning in a collaborative environment where students are not only good at academics but also develop holistic personalities, along with emotional intelligence. Although the letter-grade system will reward high achievers for their performance, however the pass-fail system should be implemented as a method of evaluation because it leads to the development of the personality of a person as a whole, supports the children who have special educational needs, and creates a culture of growth through collaboration rather than cut throat competition.
One of the most prominent problems of millennials is that the education system does not groom them for the challenges they are most likely to encounter in the professional world. With the use of the letter-grade system in educational institutions, students are impelled to think in a narrow horizon which limits their capabilities. This can be explained by using the experiment of the Candle Problem created by Karl Duncker in 1945, where the individual is given a candle, some thumbtacks and matches and is asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax does not drip on to the table. The solution is not evidently visible as one tries to attach the candle to the wall by using thumbtacks.
Sam Glucksberg, a scientist divided people into 2 groups and ask them to solve the candle problem. One group was offered rewards on completion while the other was just timed. Surprisingly, the group which was offered rewards approximately took three and a half minute longer than the other group to figure out the solution which was to use the thumbtacks’ holder as a stand for the candle by pinning it to the wall (TED, “The Puzzle of Motivation | Dan Pink”). Letter Grades are assigned to students as a reward, compelling them to find a solution with narrowed vision while it lies on the sides. It leaves them with no time to focus on extracurriculars and pursue their passions.
With a switch to the Pass-Fail grading system, students can focus on acquiring skills on public speaking and communication which will help them gain an added advantage when they step in the job market. The Mayo Medical School in Rochester changed its grading system from a letter grade to Pass-Fail Grading System and observed significant improvements in students’ stress level, mood and group cohesion (Rohe, Barrier, Clark, Cook, Vickers and Decker 1445). Additionally, the Pass-Fail grading system will aid students to cope with the problems they face with the traditional learning structure of the educational system. While the ones who excel in traditional environments may favor a letter grade system that acknowledges their performance, it must be noted that such a system can leave the non-traditional learners behind.Taare Zameen Par, an Indian film directed by Aamir Khan shows a child with dyslexia unable to cope with his academics and as a result, consistently receives poor grades in his class.
The child’s self-confidence is shattered with everyone labeling him as incompetent before his talent being a painter is recognized. Similarly, to narrate a personal experience, one of my classmates from school suffered from depression as in spite putting in maximum effort, he would receive poor grades mainly because he was a slow learner than his classmates. A diligent student might suffer from illness during an exam, which would reduce his concentration reasonably. The grading instruments include standardized exams with a time-limit leaving no consideration for slow workers. Letter Grades impel students to compare themselves to others and thus forming a superiority or inferiority complex at an early age. They tie their self-esteem with some bunch of letters on their report card and struggle hard to maintain them, not recognizing their own abilities.
To share an unfortunate experience, I had without quoting any names, I would narrate an incident from my very first semester at LUMS. I appeared for my very first midterm, where our professor had allowed us to prepare a cheat sheet that we could bring in for the exam with the clause that it should only be one-sided. I adhered to the instructions, and when I was finally in the exam room I wrote down my name at the back of the sheet to pass it to the instructor for approval. To my surprise, the instructor rejected my sheet (even though my course TA had allowed me to write my name at the back).
This incident had a devastating impact on my mental health. The rest of my semester was spent grudging the system and drowning in this feeling of how I have lost everything in my first semester. Likewise, some students face novel problems like adapting to fast-paced university life. Some may have issues settling in their hostel or might not get along with their roommate. Another example from literature is of National University of Singapore (NUS), which implemented a Pass-Fail grading system in August 2014 for the first semester and observed improvements in four areas namely reducing stress, taking academic risks, maintaining better GPA and adapting to the university lifestyle (McMoran, Ragupathin, and Luo).
Lastly, the shift from Letter Grade system to Pass-Fail Grading System will foster greater collaboration in society. With the use of ranks and grades, students are taught to treat academics as a race and beat their fellow mates. This further worsens with the use of relative marking, destroying some key organizational behavior’s concepts like team work and cohesiveness, encouraging them to act in a self-interested manner. These attitudes, when taken to jobs, result in a stressful environment with employees trying to pass off as better than his co-workers to impress his boss by demeaning them.
Similarly, it encourages rote learning with students trying to memorize essays to have a good grade in the exam. Talking from my experience, one of my closest friends refused to share his notes with me for an upcoming exam only because it was relatively graded. Apart from promoting self-obsessed personalities, the competition arising from the system creates fear in the students which encourages them to take up drugs and in worse cases, quitting their lives. Recently, a junior at my university died of drug overdose. One of his friends who happened to be my coach for my orientation week informed me that he had been taking a lot of stress lately to maintain his high GPA. The use of Gradeless assessment will counter these problems by establishing a collaborative learning environment in contrast to a competitive one.
Conversely, researchers might argue that the pass-fail system will not reward high achievers for their performance and will thus reduce their motivation to put in the effort. Unlike the Letter Grade System, the Gradeless learning System does not provide students with the feedback of their work or their ranking in respect to other students. Although some researchers have proved better motivation among students of Letter Grade System, it should be kept in account that this increases their expectations when they enter the job market, where they are not satisfied with their salaries which adversely affect their productivity.
This explains why graduates of my university, LUMS, which follows a Letter Grade in most of the courses, are known to be job hoppers in the job market because of the feeling that their hard work in university is not being compensated well. In contrast, the use of Pass-Fail Grading system will lower their expectations from the real world which ideally is essential. Moreover, it will help combat demotivation from poor grades and allow all kinds of students to learn in an environment where they are not being constantly judged.
In conclusion, the Pass-Fail Grading System should be practiced in all educational systems which will encourage cooperation among students and motivate them to take the courses in which they are interested. It would allow room for errors which form an integral part of the learning process. In countries like China, where the suicide rates are high among students, this system would be the ideal solution and would ease their burden. Unlike the Letter Grade System, the Pass-Fail Grading System would focus on personality development instead of just academic development and would cater for all kinds of students depending on their needs. It would give them time to focus on extracurriculars which mean that in the long run, there would be a healthier and a satisfied workforce.
McMorran, Chris., Ragupathi, Kiruthika. and Luo, Simei. “Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education.” Taylor and Francis Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017. <http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/caeh20>.
“The Puzzle of Motivation | Dan Pink.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 25 Aug. 2009. Web. 16
Mar. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y>
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. 16 Mar. 2017. <https://facsen.wsu.edu/current_agenda/exhibits_092712_04113/mayo%20clinic%20full%20pharmacy.pdf>.
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