What is Pass/Fail Grading?

small boy scared of teacher who is holding a ruler

A pass/fail grading system is different from the standard A through F grading system in that there is no scale of performance in the pass/fail scenario. In a pass-fail grading system, you either pass or you fail.

Pass/fail grading is often accompanied by a narrative transcript, which explains the student’s learning. In a typical pass-fail program, an advisor doesn’t grade the student, but instead determines if the student accomplished what they set out to do in their learning plan. Advisors look to answer the following questions: Did significant learning occur? Is there evidence of growth? Did the student do what they set out to do?

One of the positives about a pass/fail system is that it eliminates the student’s desire to simply achieve a high letter grade, and thus they can focus on experiential learning. Students can perform to the best of their own ability instead of being measured against a standard. The letter grading system is arguably based on how well a student follows directions while the pass/fail system looks at innovation and motivation.

Sometimes students in self-designed learning environments over-design their learning goals. As a result, they only achieve 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 might be seen as a failure. However, in the pass/fail system, the student could be still pass while being recognized for what they did accomplish. This is a generalization, of course, and varies per institution.

A negative thing about pass/fail systems 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. This can happen in a traditional environment as well.

Standardized requirements and testing work well on subjects such as mathematics or history, while pass/fail works well with creative arts.

Next: What is a Narrative Transcript?