Teaching with a Pass/Fail Grading System


In recent years, a number of schools have converted to the pass/fail grading system. Some highschools and colleges will require first year students to follow the system in order to give them room to transition. Many elementary and middle-schools follow it completely. Many colleges and universities offer the option to record any elective as a pass or a fail. In any case, students and teachers have mixed feelings about whether or not the method benefits student learning and provides means for a smooth transition into the real world. Some say it disregards the more hard-working students, while others say that it calms many students, making for a more even playing field. Nevertheless, educators should consider both sides of the argument when deciding whether or not to switch to a pass/fail grading system.


With so many schools considering the switch to a pass/fail grading scheme, free informational resources exist all across the internet. Teachers can utilize these resources to better understand the different assessment systems.


Lesson Plan


  1. Standard Based Grading: Common Goal Systems inc. defines and illustrates examples Standard Based Grading (SGB). The method involves breaking lessons down into specific targets for students, rather than into percentages that lead to overall grades. The assessment system encourages students to focus more on their lessons than on percentages and fosters a more positive learning environment. The article was written for the intended use on primary education settings. However, teachers could potentially modify the practice to work for older students.
  2. Rubric Example: This resource from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberlin Center introduces the use of performance rubrics. The page lists the benefits of using rubrics and provides a means for teachers to implement them into their own classes. It provides sample rubrics for evaluating essays, projects, oral presentations, and class participation. Teachers can use these samples to introduce rubrics into their classes. However a teacher chooses to present a student’s performance, a rubric would certainly help in quantitatively assessing it.
  3.  Alternatives to the Letter-Based: In this article, TeachThought provides a list of 12 substitutes for the letter-grade format. The alternatives include live feedback, non-points based rubrics, and of course pass/fail. Each option is intended to motivate students to focus more on improving, with the removal of letter-based labels. Should teachers choose to abandon letter-grades, but desire options in their assessment alternatives, this list would certainly help in their decision.




  1. Principal Pros and Cons: This page from ConnectUs lists 19 pros and cons of utilizing the pass/fail format. It arranges a great foundational understanding of the benefits of both formats. The article presents that the pass fail evaluation system eases the stress of the students, but at the same time leaves no room for differentiation among those who succeed. Someone who “far exceeds the threshold or failure” receives the same amount of credit as someone who just barely surpasses that threshold.
  2. Pass/Fail Positives : Here, David A. Tomar of The Quad Magazine argues for the pass/fail system. Each point that the author makes leads to the conclusion that all schools would benefit from the practice. He asserts that starting a pass/fail system in college, the time when most schools offer the option, is too late in life, as students are already trained to rely on grades for validation and motivation. As a result, he claims that a pass/fail system should be implemented in early education. This resource provides educators with a very passionate argument for the renouncement of the letter-grade system.
  3. Grad Student Opinions: This study from College Quarterly reflects student attitudes towards both the pass/fail and traditional letter-based format. Based on student responses to a poll, researchers Michalis Michaelides and Ben Kirshner concluded that a letter-based system resulted in higher levels of effort, stress, and comparison between students. The study does not lean towards any one side of the debate, but instead presents all gathered information. It does an excellent job of presenting the authentic student perspective on each approach.


Informational Sites


  1. Clinical Case & Commentary: This page from Research Gate provides a downloadable pdf of an article that covers perspectives on the pass/fail and letter-based grading systems. The article starts with an example of medical student perspectives, and goes on to present commentary on the issue from Bonnie M. Miller, MD, Adina Kalet, MD, MPH, Ryan C. VanWoerkom, Nicholas Zorko, and Julia Halsey. These commentaries touch upon alternative teaching strategies, criteria-based assessment, and faculty’s role in student learning. The article provides information on both approaches, including the ins and outs, as well as student and faculty perspectives. 
  2. Intro and Advantages: Campus Explorer introduces the ins and outs of the pass/fail method. It outlines the method and how a number of colleges and universities, including the College of William and Mary, Brandeis, and UPenn, have implemented it. Along with the introduction, the article includes a paragraph addressing the advantages of the system. This page provides a great foundation for learning about the pass/fail method. Any teachers who may be confused about the practice, or who may be on the fence about adopting it can lean on this page for advice. 
  3. Criteria For Evaluating Student Work: This resource from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching discusses the practice of grading student work. It touches upon the advantages of providing students with more specific grades. The resource encourages teachers to use a variety of formats, including the occasional pass/fail style, in order to optimize the learning and grading processes.


Many medical schools follow a pass fail grade format because of the sheer intensity of the curriculum. In similar cases, ones in which exceeding the threshold of failure is just barely plausible, a pass/fail format could certainly relieve plenty of stress and leave most students fairly represented grade-wise. However, many employers, including residency programs enjoy differentiation among students. Whether the method will help or hurt the students is not necessarily clear, as students may respond differently to such routines. In the end, it is up to the teacher and the school’s administration to decide whether or not to implement this practice.

Additional Resources

  1. Example of the University of Wisconsin’s Pass/Fail Option: This page from the University of Wisconsin’s Knowledgebase outlines their guidelines for offering students the option to take a course as pass/fail. The page gives reasoning for why a student may utilize this option and acknowledges that the majority of the students’ courses will be graded in the traditional A-F format. Students can opt to grade an elective as pass/fail so as to lower stress levels and to leave room for exploring interests. This page can give educators an idea of a working pass/fail structure at a university. 
  2.  Pass/Fail and Discretionary Grading: Scientific Research Publishing’s study explores the advantages and disadvantages of both a pass/fail and traditional system. It analyzes how they have evolved over the years and considers the subjectivity of each method. It also differentiates “criterion-referenced” and “norm-referenced” rating practices, discussing the way that assessment is often based on a comparison of the students’ peers. Overall, this study gives a good overview and history of American schooling structures.
  3. TEDx De-Grading Education: In this 11-minute TEDxBeaconStreet talk, Elizabeth Wissner-Gross criticizes the traditional American education structure. She blames ranking for America’s alleged lagging behind other school systems, claiming that a fear of grade inflation forces teachers to “anti-teach.” She makes some good points regarding changes to be made in the American education and lifestyle in order to benefit today’s youth.