What You Need to Know About the Pass/Fail Grading System

Andrea Alcid

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact our daily lives, many universities are offering more online learning options. This option is safe, but it can be a challenge for those who struggle with remote learning and/or don’t have reliable access to a computer or wifi. That’s why colleges are helping students continue to adapt online learning with classes that are graded on a pass/fail basis. While some may be familiar with this grading system, many will be experiencing it for the first time this semester. Here’s everything you need to know about pass/fail classes before the first day of college.

What Are Pass/Fail Classes?

Pass/fail classes operate on a binary grading system, meaning that no letter grade will be recorded on your college transcript. Instead, you will simply earn credit depending on whether you did satisfactory work in the class. This allows all final grades of A, B, and C (and, in some cases, D) to be weighed equally as a passing score. Typically, most universities award passes for earning any grade higher than a D. However, some universities may only give out passing grades to students earning grades higher than a C, especially if the course is specific to their major. It’s always important to check your professor’s grading policies or to speak with your academic advisor before registering on a pass/fail basis.

As a result of the binary grading system, GPA is not affected by any pass/fail courses so long as you finish the semester with a passing grade. If passed, the course units will count toward your graduation requirements with no effect on your GPA. If a fail is given, however, your GPA can be harmed severely. A failed class in the pass/fail system earns you zero points (as opposed to a 1.0/2.0 for partial completion in a regular grading system), ultimately weighing heavily on your overall GPA.

Pros

When GPA weighs less as a factor, students become more willing to register for courses outside of their intended major and into those with which they are less familiar. Pass/fail classes allow students to take risks and explore topics they’re interested in without worrying about how a potentially low grade would affect their GPA. By using this to their advantage, they can go out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves while still having time to prioritize courses directly related to their degree.

Another advantage of taking classes on a pass/fail grading system is that it removes the stigma around poor grades. The traditional grading system punishes students with low grades, even if they are technically passing. As and Bs reward those who already excel academically, while lower grades can discourage students and make them afraid to ask for help. Not to mention the competition that students can have between one another! Pass/fail classes encourage collaboration with everyone on an equal playing field, so nobody gets caught up in the difference between a B and a B-. All students tend to engage more deeply in the course content with one another, forgetting about the pressure to receive an A on every assignment.

Cons

Although the pass/fail system can be advantageous in many regards, it still comes with its fair share of setbacks. The most glaring problem is that many students can come to the conclusion that their performance no longer matters. This grading system asks that students only fulfill the bare minimum to pass. But the problem is that working not to fail and working to earn an A are two very different academic goals. Because of this, students have a higher risk of slacking off when they know that a class is graded on a pass/fail basis. This mentality is especially harmful if they choose to stop attending class when attendance and participation end up counting toward their grade. It’s important that students continue to try their hardest and take into consideration the time and effort required to pass for course credit.

Pass/fail courses can also be disadvantageous for those who want to measure their individual performance in class. All students earn the same credentials, whether they understand the content thoroughly or if they just barely scrape by. Not only do students who excel in these courses miss out on a positive addition to their GPA, but they also lose a clear sense of where they can improve in their studies. For example, in majors whose grades accurately gauge how well prepared a student is for a specific profession, such as medical and engineering fields, students are only taught to be “good enough” in a pass/fail class, rather than to work harder to raise the bar.

Lastly, for those planning on attending graduate school, pass/fails may be seen by admissions offices as inadequate. Without an actual grade to show academic performance, a grad school may decide to ask you to retake a course that could have otherwise counted in your undergraduate transcript. In this case, it may be better to show that you earned a B in a class over nothing more than a passing grade.

There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to take a class on a pass/fail basis. Before thinking about it, you should first check to make sure you’re eligible to take courses with this grading system in the first place. Many universities only allow those in upper-division (junior and senior) standing to have this option, so it’s always best to get in touch with an advisor to review policies and deadlines for declaring a class as pass/fail.

Along with this, there are a number of other limitations universities usually put on pass/fail systems. Most do not allow students to take pass/fail courses within their major, minor, or general education requirements, and some limit the number of pass/fails that a student can take. School policies may also state that students are not allowed to retake a course if it was graded on a pass/fail basis. As a general rule of thumb, it is good to take no more than one pass/fail class per semester and no more than four total within a single degree program.

After doing your research, you may find that you don’t need to take any classes for pass/fail at all during your degree program. The option is simply becoming more accessible nation-wide as a result of COVID-19’s effects on higher education, including a large percentage of university closures. The pass/fail system is simply meant to benefit those who want to learn a diverse array of subjects, get some help in transitioning to online learning, or need to balance out academic responsibilities without having to worry about GPA as a factor. It’s important to find a learning system that works best for you so that you can succeed and achieve your academic and professional goals.

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