Pass or Fail When Everybody Gets An “A” (Update)

When schools decided, essentially overnight, to close up their physical shop and move online, it created something of a panic. Few knew how to make this happen at all, and almost no one was prepared to do it. Profs struggled to find their zoom-legs while teaching a course online, and students struggled to figure out how they were going to do it. It wasn’t optimum for anyone, but the alternative was to shut down completely for a semester, which raises many other troubling issues, and so they made the best of bad circumstances.

We’re now scrambling to transition everyone to remote learning on short notice, addressing each obstacle that arises as a problem to be fixed. Yes, taken individually, each student who doesn’t have a laptop or WiFi access off campus, who didn’t bring their textbooks home when they left for spring break, or whose survival depends on a paycheck now lost can be helped. Online learning and conferencing tools may groan under heavy usage, but we can hope they won’t break. We can also hope faculty and staff won’t break under the huge additional workload entailed in moving courses online that weren’t designed to be taught that way: a translation that poses particular challenges for science labs and practical classes in everything from physical therapy and nursing skills to dance and music performance.

That there are problems with it is neither surprising nor a problem. You play the cards you’re dealt, for better or worse. But then came the secondary question, after both profs and students struggled with whether this impromptu online gig was going to work at all.

But the cumulative stress on the system is too great, and the inequities in the ways this will all play out for different students means that grading as we know it is already over for the semester. It’s time to abandon our preconceived ideas about what needs to happen in a college class for a student to get credit for it.

Instead, colleges and universities should adopt three central principles to ease stress on students, who are reeling like everybody else: Strip down work expectations to the bare minimum; introduce mandatory pass-fail at the very least (opt-in pass-fail would just put undue pressure on our most driven students, many of whom already suffer from chronic anxiety and depression) . . .

Changing from grades to pass/fail seems like an obvious, if unfortunate for the gunners who are outraged over not getting the chance to ace the course, change. These aren’t the classes anyone signed up for, profs included. Nobody knows how well it will work or what will be lost in translation. To hold tight to the usual nuance of grades under unusual circumstances makes no sense when there is no assurance that the classes are doing what they were supposed to do.

But give every student an A?

. . . and consider giving enrolled students A grades as a default; and work to wrap classes up as quickly as possible in most cases, so students can turn their full attention to other pressing matters.

If students are unable to continue in their classes because of “other pressing matters,” then give them the option to bail on the semester, with tuition refunded of course, and retake the class in better times. But taking classes is what students do, why they’re there in the first place, and if they can’t give it sufficient attention to learn whatever it is they’re there to learn, then they don’t deserve a freebie A but the boot.

Education isn’t just about mastering material and improving skills. Education is about ethics. It’s about learning how to be a better member of a community, whatever that community is (a classroom or a college, but also a family, a workplace, a civic polity). It’s about understanding how to balance the drive toward intellectual development and mastery of new concepts and material with self-care and the sane management of responsibilities to the broader community.

It’s going to prove hard enough to manage to teach and to learn in the current online environment, but that’s what they go to college to do, and what the college and its professors owe them in return for their tuition and attention. Fudging the line by the rhetorical trick of saying it’s not “just about” mastery doesn’t change the fact that students didn’t take calculus to learn about “self-care,” but calculus.

There is no shortage of excuses during the best of times for why students struggle. Life has struggles. And in difficult times, struggles continue and are exacerbated by the situation. That’s why pass/fail makes enormous sense. But denying that education is about actually learning something is no reason to destroy any expectation of students not wasting the semester.

If everybody gets an A, nobody does, and the grade is rendered meaningless. And if everybody gets an A, what are the chances students, many students, are going to blow it off and learn nothing because they’re getting an A anyway? Circumstances are bad enough already. Don’t make them any worse than they have to be. Some day, these students will have to do something with their lives, and they just might need the material they were supposed to be taught. Don’t deny them the chance to learn by giving them a default A.

Update: In contrast to the “everybody gets an A” side, Jon Adler at Volokh Conspiracy presents the arguments against Pass/Fail.

18 thoughts on “Pass or Fail When Everybody Gets An “A” (Update)

  1. Dan

    > Education isn’t just about mastering material and improving skills. Education is about ethics.

    Education, writ large, is about learning to be a better member of a community–that’s why, for example, we require all those general ed classes that so many students hate so much. But Freshman Comp is entirely about demonstrating adequate mastery of the written English language to compose coherent writings of some length–ethics are involved in that class only in that, e.g., you can’t cheat. Substitute other class descriptions as preferred, but the class is “just about” demonstrating mastery of the subject matter and improving skills. But why not add the equivocation fallacy to the mountain of logical problems?

    1. SHG Post author

      Invoking the general vagaries of goodness warms the soul, but you better hope your doctor learned anatomy before he performs surgery.

  2. Jeff

    Where I am, it’s not just the post secondary schools, but the whole gamut – grades K through 12 have all passed the year with top marks. Since then, they’re introducing online supplements, but haven’t walked back on the initial statement as yet.

    In my household, the response was also the whole gamut. My oldest, struggling to pass her classes was relieved; the middle, who cares about an education and likes school, was outraged; my youngest celebrated. But the entire thing seems…poor thought out, I suppose. Which it probably was, actually.

    We have correspondence schools, have as long as I’ve been alive, I suspect. Online should be an extension of that. Yes, you don’t get the rich experience of an online class (as suggested, it’s hard to do science experiments from your own home) but theory can still be taught and, really, rote memorization is the root of the education system anyway. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when we already did it a long time ago. But maybe I don’t get it and maybe it really is more difficult than I think.

    Or, maybe, there’s concerns that since we’ve turned the entire educational system into a day care, that when we close the doors to the day care, the students haven’t been taught the tools to succeed, and they’ll fail when they’re forced to show competence. I mean, that’s entirely possible as well.

  3. Jason K.

    Justification for these recommendations aside, making courses pass/fail and giving everyone an A is a nonsensical combination. Pass/fail courses are just that; there is a score cutoff above which you pass and below which you fail. Pass/fail courses appear on transcripts with special designations, not a letter grade.

  4. Steve Brecher

    This post is the first I’ve encountered the auto-As idea. An as-yet incomplete survey of law schools maintained by the Reddit School of Law (r/LawSchool) shows no instances of it. Of those schools for which there are reports, the great majority are pass/fail or credit/no credit.

    On one hand, damn, I had a shot at my first straight-As semester in my first set of all non-curve-grading classes . On the other, grades aren’t likely to matter to my post-J.D. prospects. I feel sorry for my profs — one of whom is a sitting Fed. judge rather than a prof. — all of whom seemed in their element in the classroom (or courtroom).

  5. Scott

    The university where I am the Registrar is going to allow students to make the decision, after grades are posted, to either keep the earned grade and receive all the benefits and negatives attached or convert the grade they received to either Pass or No Credit. The second option would give them credit for the course (If they pass), but would not positively or negatively impact their GPA. Since D on up is considered a Pass where I am this is great for the mediocre students. We are extending this option to our students that are in out online programs as well. Go figure.

    If it was up to me I would give this choice only to our conservatory students (dance, cinema, or theater) since they have been more greatly impacted by the inability to be on campus.

    Grade inflation being what it is, I can see this as being a step towards pass/fail/no credit grading as the norm in the future.

    Sigh…if only I could have converted my plethora of C- grades 30 years ago to Pass.


      1. LocoYokel

        I think a certain segment of the population, and a larger segment of the student population – especially at schools or in majors that aren’t really all that rigorous anyway will demand it. And then they will wonder why they are having more problems getting those first couple of jobs out of school.

      2. Scott

        I would like to think that it would not become the new normal. Schools have been talking about making changes to grade inflation for years. Faculty complain about grade inflation but still assign A’s to entire classes. Removing grades completely would be one way to eliminate grade inflation and give faculty the out so they can feel like they are doing something.


        1. SHG Post author

          So the answer to eliminating grade inflation is not to eliminate grade inflation, but to eliminate grades. Marvelous.

          1. KP

            The Socialist Workers Paradise of NZ has been trying this for decades, every time a Labour Govt gets power. Having reduced grades to the minimum number they did push it to Pass/Fail, and have rendered any education meaningless to employers. Of course they never use the ‘F-word’, when C is a pass you ‘Achieved a D’.

            Along with ‘look and guess’ reading and ‘new mathematics’, the younger generation is considerable more stupid than their parents.. or maybe it always seems that way!

            When this virus turmoil turns out to be quite unneeded I’m looking forward to seeing how much society returns to ‘normal’, its just like the global warming pandemic.

            1. SHG Post author

              Too bad you couldn’t resist the impulse to dive down the rabbit hole in the last paragraph. You were doing so well until then.

              Fudging grades for the sake of students’ self-esteem may makes the kids feel better at the moment, but it costs them dearly on the back end when they want a job. Then again, so does watering down education so they’re great with self-care but can’t do the math.

          2. Scott

            Yeah it’s a bad idea I think, but then again a lot of what happens in higher education, at least administratively, seems to be sort of dumb to most everyone but the decision makers.

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