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What is a Pass/Fail Grading System?

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A pass/fail system is different from the current A, B, C, D, F grading system in that there is no scale of performance in the pass/fail scenario. You either made it or you didn’t.

The pass/fail system is often accompanied by a narrative transcript, which is the part of the student’s history that explains their performance. In a typical pass-fail program, an advisor doesn’t grade the student and instead determines if the student accomplished what they set out to do in their learning plan. Advisors look to answer the following questions: Did learning occur? Is there evidence of growth? Overall is it a yes or a no?

One of the positives about a pass/fail system is that it eliminates the student’s desire to simply achieve an “A.” The pass/fail system ostensibly allows students to focus on performing the lessons to the best of their own ability without fear of being compared to fellow students. The letter grading system is arguably based on how well a student follows directions while the pass/fail system looks at innovation, motivation, and results.

In self-designed learning environments, it is common that a student will over design their learning goals. As a result, the student only achieves a portion of what they set out to do within a given semester, quarter, or term. If the student were being graded with a letter grade then the incompletion of their plan could be seen as a failure. However, in the pass/fail system the student could be recognized learning not to bite off more than they could chew and they could still pass.

A con with the pass/fail system in experiential education programs is that it’s hard to define the criteria for a pass or failure. Students often don’t know what’s expected of them and those who judge the student sometimes have a hard time reaching a verdict. What’s more, many of the experiential educations programs are smaller in size meaning that the student and the teacher form a more personal relationship. It can be very difficult for a teacher to fail someone if they like the student as a person, especially if the criteria are vague.

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