What Is Pass/Fail Grading System?

By Susannah Gruder · April 22, 2021 · 6 minute read

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What Is Pass/Fail Grading System?

The Pass/Fail grading system seeks to partially ease the burden of grades so students can focus on getting the most out of their college experience.

Colleges and Universities may give students the option of taking classes “pass/fail” as a way to take a break from the rigid letter grading system and explore new academic areas without having to worry about it affecting their transcripts.

There may be restrictions on which classes, and how many, students can take pass/fail each semester. For example, classes required for a student’s major generally cannot be taken pass/fail.

When a student takes a class pass/fail, they will receive a standard letter grade from their professor, which is then weighted according to the school’s specific requirements—some schools will assign a “pass” to any grade above a D, others may require as high as a C.

As a result, students may feel more comfortable taking a course in a subject area where they may lack confidence or may choose to simply take a course for the enjoyment of it, without working toward the goal of a specific grade.

Many schools expanded their pass/fail options amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 in an effort to help students adapt to online learning, and to mitigate the negative effects of this new academic landscape.

While many colleges returned to a traditional grading system in the fall 2020 semester, some students at these schools are petitioning their administrations to return to a pass/fail system, arguing that working from home and abiding by social distancing rules presents unprecedented challenges to learning.

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What is The Purpose of Pass/Fail?

While college can be a rewarding and stimulating time for students, it also has its challenges, from deciding what to major in to figuring out how to pay for college. The beauty of taking a class pass/fail is the sense of freedom it gives students—once the stress of getting a perfect grade is removed, students are at liberty to fully embrace the kind of intellectual curiosity that should be at the heart of a college experience.

Maybe a pre-Med student wants to take a painting class, or a sociology major wants to dabble in art history. These kinds of options can lead students down unexpected paths, opening creative doors they might have avoided if they were solely focusing on their GPAs.

The traditional grading system was initially established centuries ago by English universities like Oxford and Cambridge as a way of encouraging students to work harder. While letter grades may still be the dominant system in American universities, some schools have deviated from this structure, establishing their own ways of evaluating students largely based on the pass/fail system.

Reed College in Portland, Oregon has a unique style of grading that encourages students to “focus on learning, not on grades.” While students are still assigned grades for each course, these grades are not distributed to students.

Instead, students are given lengthy comments and reports on their academic performance.

Reed does not have a dean’s list or honor roll either. At Brown University students can take an unlimited number of classes “satisfactory/no credit (S/NC),” and GPAs are not calculated.

Some schools, including Swarthmore College and MIT, have students take all classes pass/fail in the first semester of their freshman years. Swarthmore’s policy is meant to encourage students to stretch themselves and take risks, and is aligned with their policy of collaboration as opposed to competition with classmates, while MIT’s policy is designed to help students adjust to increased workloads and variations in academic preparation and teaching methods.

In both cases, taking the emphasis off grade is meant to improve students’ experiences of higher education, helping them to take full advantage of their time on campus.

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The Limits to Pass/Fail

Of course, most schools emphasize letter grades much more than Brown and Reed, a choice that many students are in favor of (at least prior to Covid) as a way to distinguish high achievers and highlight specific areas where students excel or may need to improve.

Generally, schools allow students to take one class pass/fail per semester. While a passing grade usually does not affect a student’s grade point average, a failing grade tends to be counted towards their GPA.

While this could be a life-saver if a student isn’t doing great in a course they’re experimenting with, it could also prevent a student from reaping the benefits if they unexpectedly ace the course. Of course, a student likely wouldn’t know the grade they received if they took a class pass/fail.

Sometimes, as with the University of Rochester, requests from Seniors in the College to convert all their pass/fail grades to letter grades are routinely approved. It’s all or nothing, though, students can’t selectively choose which grades to convert.

Schools also may have limits on when you can choose to convert a course to a pass/fail grade, though some are more lenient than others. The University of Rochester lets students decide up to their 11th week of a 15-week semester, while Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio requires students to decide by the end of the sixth week of the course.

Pass/fail grades generally don’t count toward a major or minor, which further limits students’ options when deciding whether or not to go this route.

While it’s hard to say for sure, some students may feel that taking a higher number of pass/fail classes may reflect poorly on a student’s overall motivation and academic performance, some potential employers or graduate schools may be impressed by a student’s breadth of study and sense of initiative in studying “outside the box.”

Pass/Fail During Covid

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, some colleges loosened their restrictions on pass/fail grades. At some schools, students could opt to take more classes using this grading system, and some lengthened the period during which students could enroll in a pass/fail grading system.

According to an announcement from Boston College, the policy change was meant to “ease the potential negative impacts of online learning.” Salvatore Cipriano, assistant director of Boston College’s Career Center tried to alleviate student concerns about taking classes to pass/fail: “[Graduate] programs understand that the pandemic has caused a major disruption to learning in the spring 2020 semester, and they will be understanding that many students may opt to take courses pass/fail.”

At Georgetown, where administrators did not extend their more lenient pass/fail policies from the spring 2020 semester into the fall semester, students started a petition on Change.org to reverse the decision. They argued that zoom classes cannot replace in-person meetings with professors and TAs, or access to campus resources including the library, labs, and practice rooms.

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The Takeaway

Taking a class Pass/fail can be a great option for students looking to explore new academic areas of interest during college, and is also a helpful alternative during virtual learning, where students may encounter unforeseen obstacles that may affect their performance.

It’s too soon to tell how employers and graduate school admissions departments will interpret this year’s pass/fail choices, but administrators seem confident that people will understand that the pandemic changes everything.

Regardless of whether you’re taking a class pass/fail or with a traditional grading system, you’ll still need to pay for tuition. In situations when financial aid, scholarships, and federal student loans aren’t enough to pay for school. Private student loans can help students fill the gap.

Learn more about private student loans offered by SoFi.

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