A modest proposal: the case for a pass/fail first year at the LSE

The pandemic has required a number of significant changes in higher education. Over the past year, universities have moved to online teaching, often adopted a more asynchronous approach to student learning, and largely opted to be more flexible when considering different student needs. Another significant change has been the implementation of non-traditional grading methods at a number of universities. In light of the disruption, some universities have decided to adopt a pass/fail or satisfactory/incomplete grading scheme rather than assigning letter or number grades. With vaccines being rolled out, now might be a good time to reflect on these changes and whether it is desirable to keep them or revert back to the pre-covid norm.

I think that there are good reasons for universities to adopt pass/fail assessment. Indeed, most universities already have such a form of assessment at the PhD level. But despite the willingness to adopt this approach for their higher postgraduate degrees, there is still resistance to change at the undergraduate level (leading, in one notable case, to the firing of an academic who instated pass/fail grading without the permission of his department).

Here I limit myself to arguing for the merits of pass/fail grading in first-year undergraduate courses at the LSE. But it is worth saying that I think that the considerations given below also speak in favour of broader changes.

My case can be stated fairly concisely: we should allow incoming students to focus on developing the skills necessary to continue with their degrees without the worry that this development will be quantified or ranked. It is reasonable to think that at least one of the aims of first-year university courses (if not the central aim!) is to introduce students to the ways of thinking in their discipline. In philosophy and political theory–my areas–we teach students how to analyse arguments. They practice identifying premises and conclusions and learn to spot whether the latter follow from the former in a logically coherent way. Students are also introduced to philosophical questions and puzzles and get asked to start thinking about how they would approach them. The shift to a pass/fail assessment in first-year courses can help us to focus on these fundamental skills without the worry that students will be instrumentalising their learning or seeking merely to pacify their teachers. In short: I believe that a pass/fail system combined with a focus developing the qualities necessary for successful engagement with the concepts and methods of the student’s discipline would have significant positive outcomes on their education as a whole.  

By focusing on students acquiring what is necessary for engagement in their discipline, we do a number of things. First, we require that course convenors and teachers articulate what is distinctive or central to being a practicing member of their discipline. Some universities that had already moved to pass/fail assessment prior to the pandemic have teachers and students create contracts specifying learning activities and learning outcomes. This can be helpful for giving students structure and something to work towards in the absence of grades. Such a move has also been associated with students shifting from being extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated in their education.

Second, by moving to pass/fail assessment we open up the possibility for more varied forms of discipline-specific assessment that carefully track the aims of the discipline as a whole without needing to be precisely (or even roughly) quantified. It is not easy to assign a number to some of the skills necessary to practice in a discipline. Requiring that we do this can lead to arbitrariness, or to forms of evaluation not covering important areas due to those not being capable of quantifiable assessment. It also places restrictions on the activities of teachers in a way that may lead to a split between a teacher’s own pedagogical beliefs and the institutional requirements to which they must conform. In place of traditional grading, many of the universities that have adopted pass/fail assessment use a form of narrative assessment in which students receive detailed comments and more attention is paid to student progress over the span of their courses and degree. This has been met with some excellent results. To take one example, The New College of Florida reports that 86 percent of graduates who applied to PhD programmes were accepted, and 100 percent of those who applied to law school were accepted. This, combined with the increasing receptivity to alternative forms of grading due to the pandemic, seems to indicate that the worry that we will diminish the prospects of students by instituting a pass/fail assessment system is unsubstantiated.

Third, it would also allow for greater student input concerning whether they have developed/acquired the skills necessary to continue with higher modules. Again, to use the example of philosophy, we could ask students how comfortable they are reading and analysing complicated texts. In my experience, students are forthcoming about their level of comfort with these tasks, and this could be incorporated into a pass/fail system in a way that it would be hard to do under the current grading strategy. Now, someone might object here, saying that we are already able to accommodate this kind of reflection into more traditional grading schemes. This may be true. However, to my mind it is doubtful whether assigning a grade is really helpful following the completion of activities such as these. There is already a justified anxiety over objectivity in grading. The requirement that grades be assigned to student reflections strikes me as the kind of practice that would exacerbate this anxiety.

In addition to the merits of a pass/fail system, the assignment of grades also has deleterious effects on education that themselves suggest looking for something different. Students who receive both comments and grades tend just to focus on the grades and how to improve them, and not the development of their skills and understanding. The assignment of grades is also the cause of significant anxiety. This is partly a result of the fact that much university education prioritises quantitative assessment over other important functions of education such as skill development and personal development more generally. This places undue levels of pressure on students to excel in one narrow domain. (This one-sidedness also restricts the ways in which teachers are able to exercise their judgement about how to respond to students in light of this pressure). One result of this is that it leads to students shying away from intellectually risky positions or arguments. It also leads them to try to complete their assignments in a way that will cohere with the beliefs of whoever is marking them. My teaching experience confirms this pattern. My students have regularly asked me if it is best to avoid writing on the research topics of their class teachers, so that they avoid saying something that the teachers might disagree with. The assignment of grades might also be seen as supporting the traditional classroom hierarchy. This is because it places teachers in the role of objective judges and students in role of passive recipients of knowledge. In short, the assignment of grades has been linked both to the students taking a passive and instrumental attitude to their education, and to increased student anxiety.

The LSE would not have to worry about trailblazing in higher education if it moved to pass/fail assessment in its first-year undergraduate courses. As mentioned briefly above, there are a number of universities that had already moved to a pass/fail or similar system prior to the pandemic (a list of American examples can be found here, and it is perhaps notable that Brown University is amongst those moving in this direction). It would also not significantly disrupt the existing mode of calculating students’ degree classifications, since the LSE places considerably less weight on the first year when calculating those classifications. In light of this, and the arguments above, I advance my modest proposal: let’s adopt a pass/fail system of assessment in first-year courses at the LSE.

Disclaimer: The content posted on this blog is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the PGCertHE programme, the Eden Centre for Education Enhancement, or the London School of Economics.

6 thoughts on “A modest proposal: the case for a pass/fail first year at the LSE

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  1. This was a really interesting proposal Luke. Having read this right after announcing grades for 300 first-year students and seeing the reactions from a handful of them, my initial inclination was to immediately agree with you!

    First-year students are new to university and it is indeed an anxious time for them (notwithstanding the additional complications of the pandemic this year). We not only teach the technical content of the courses but also have to ease them into what grades mean (e.g., that 60% is classified as a good grade for UG degrees) and explain the differences between higher education and high school. Often, some of them overly focus on “formulating” what they need to do to get good grades rather than engaging with the content and practising wider skills such as critical analysis and academic writing. These skills are important not only for specific first-year courses but the rest of their degrees (or perhaps even lives?). So, you may be right in that having not to worry about their grades in the first year may focus some students’ mind more on their development.

    On the other hand, the students who voice such requests and overly worry about their grades seem to be a small minority in my experience so I try not to overgeneralise. As we know, the worst grades of the first-year are dropped at LSE, and overall the first-year average broadly counts for 10% of their final classification. So, in the end I thought as Julian that we may end up not necessarily motivating more students using the pass/fail system. Perhaps, we may be better off addressing any grade-related anxieties through dialogue with our students and help them focus their attention on their development rather than the “numbers” on their transcript.

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  2. Dear Luke,

    Thank you for your post. It is very thought provoking and I think you attend to a very important issue in higher education. Yet, I decided not to agree with everything and to challenge the assumptions that you build your argument on (this approach has been inspired by out ‘critical thinking’ workshop, haha =).

    In sum, I don’t agree with the statements that you take for granted in your blog post and would like to challenge them:

    1. Do we have any large scale evidence that “pass/fail” actually system helps students focus on acquiring what is necessary for engagement in their discipline better than our old, classical, system? (Especially the evidence that holds for top universities with very competitive environment). You take this assumption for granted without questioning, but I have some doubts that it holds, and holds everywhere and fore every discipline. In other words, why do you assume that the regular marking system and a deep engagement with the discipline are mutually exclusive? And why do you assume that “pass/fail system” and the deep engagement with the discipline are not mutually exclusive? I think, we need more data-based evidence to make these strong statements.

    2. On a related note, why do you assume that all the students are stressed about the marking? For sure, some students are, but how significant is this and why do you assume it without questioning? Also, it is not clear why do you assume that the students are equally stressed? Is there any evidence of that? My impression that the the ’stress perception’ varies a lot depending on a student, their culture, background, environment, etc.

    3. Finally, if you argue that stress can cause lower engagement with the discipline, I think we should not assume that marking scheme is the only possible (and not the only important) cause of stress for a first year student. For a students arriving from abroad, the language barrier, being far from home, not very comfortable housing, challenges when making friends in a foreign and culturally different environment may, at least in theory, cause way more stress than worries about getting merit instead of distinction. Again, without having evidence of other environmental factors, it is very hard to accept your argument

    best,

    Lana

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    1. Hi Lana,

      Thank you for your comments, which are very helpful to think about. One thing that might have happened when writing the post is that I have stated things too strongly. My intention wasn’t to say that deep engagement and traditional grading are mutually exclusive, or that every student is deeply anxious as a result of grades or that grading is the only cause of stress. Rather, I merely wanted to state that, at least according to the studies that I link to, the tendency is for grading to have negative consequences that other forms of assessment might avoid and so the elimination of traditional grading might open some avenues for deeper engagement that are made more difficult at the moment. But this isn’t to say that this is the only change that would need to be made, or that it is the only way of going about getting the results that I would like to see. As I mentioned in my response to Julien, I also think that we should seek to change the way in which failure is seen.

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  3. Hi Luke,
    Thanks for this thought-provoking blog! I also believe that moving away from grades would be beneficial to students. However, I would have two main worries with your proposition. Thinking about how students perceive their grades, I am not sure that a pass/fail assessment would make them more intrinsically motivated. I would actually expect students to focus on the pass/fail label in the same way than they focus on grades, rather than on the comments. I think it is a natural tendency for them to do so as this is the most salient part of their transcript, and also the main signal employers and universities will look at when deciding whether to hire/enrol students (I suspect comments would be considered only to decide between two candidates with similar profiles). Another critic regards the increase in uncertainty this would provoke. Okay, I failed this outcome, but by how much? And even if the comments might help me, the extent to which I failed/passed remains imprecise. Maybe, having a finer grading system could help, with for instance 5 different “adjectives” (perfect, very good, good enough, inappropriate, highly inappropriate) one could obtain depending on the performance on a given learning outcome. I believe this would make the comments even more complementary to the appraisal you received.
    Besides, do you know about the literature on self-efficacy and motivation? There have been a lot of experiments trying to elicit the best way to keep people motivated when performing a task. For instance, I think this article may interest you given your proposition:
    Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). Resting on laurels: The effects of discrete progress markers as subgoals on task performance and preferences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34(5), 1158.

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    1. Thanks for this Julien! Perhaps you’re right that students would focus on the pass/fail distinction in the same way that they currently focus on a number grade or degree classification. I hadn’t really thought of that. I’m not sure that a finer grade distinction would help with this though–wouldn’t that just become the new focus of attention?

      One thing that I would have liked to have added, but couldn’t due to space constraints, is that the move to pass/fail might also benefit from reevaluating the way in which we think about failure in higher ed. Brown, one of the universities that has moved away from traditional grading, also allows students to remove any failures or ‘D’ grades from their transcripts, thus reducing the impact that such results would have on student prospects following the degree. Perhaps this would go some way towards helping students to focus on the comments instead of the classification (whether that be pass/fail or something more fine grained).

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      1. That’s interesting point, Luke – about not including failing grades on the transcript. I have felt that students today don’t have the luxury of the freedom to fail, something that I greatly valued as a student (showing my age, I know :)). And it was also something encouraged by some of the profs I had. As academics and teachers, do we need to change our understanding of what constitutes failure and success?

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