As David, a second-year medical student, made his way into the lecture hall, he was surprised to see how packed the room was. A group of 25 third-year students, or one-fifth of the class, had recently petitioned to switch from a traditional letter-grade system to one that was pass/fail at their school, and the medical student government organized a townhall meeting for students to discuss the matter. Unable to find a place to sit, David stood against the wall alongside his good friend Beth, a fellow second-year. In the room he saw students of all levels, from first-years to fourth-years, engaged in excited chatter.
The third-year class president, Sam, stood up. “Okay everyone, quiet down so that we can begin the discussion. We had not expected a turnout of this magnitude; it’s clear that this is an issue many of you feel quite passionately about. The administration has informed us that adopting a pass/fail system will require a majority vote from the student body.”
The volume level in the room suddenly increased.
He continued, “So, we hope that this meeting will serve as a lively debate where students on either side of this issue can share their arguments with the voting body.”
“Pass/fail is such a great idea,” David whispered to Beth.
To his surprise, she disagreed. “I don’t think so,” Beth replied. “I personally work harder and perform better when I am graded.”
One of the third-year petitioners stood up to argue, “Our medical school is known for being one of the most intensely competitive programs in the country. We are already so stressed out—becoming pass/fail would remove an atmosphere of hypercompetition, and that will be a good change for our mental, emotional, and physical well-being.” His words were met with applause from some students in the hall.
Another third-year petitioner presented a counterargument. “The majority of our graduating students match with residency programs each year, and most of those match at one of the programs they ranked in their top three. We’ve done very well with grades—would the same be true if we became pass/fail? Also, those of us interested in matching into very competitive specialties, such as dermatology, ophthalmology, and surgical specialties are put at a disadvantage since class rank and academic performance are highly regarded by residency directors in these specialties.”
David, who himself had a particular interest in going into surgery, looked around the hall and saw a number of students nodding their heads in agreement. Beth nudged him playfully and whispered, “See what I mean?”
As medical educators, our responsibility to society is to ensure that all physicians are competent to practice medicine. Ideally, both faculty and students should enthusiastically engage in an evaluation system that facilitates our fulfilling this responsibility. I am a strong believer in a grading system that is ultimately pass/fail—but is at the same time rich in confidential, formative feedback that helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses. To be meaningful, the “pass” thresholds must be competency- and criterion-based, not arbitrary or norm-referenced, i.e., predetermined percentages of students pass and fail.
Competitive residency programs choose residents based on whatever evidence of their abilities exists. Residencies are looking for students who are a good fit for their program, well prepared, and capable of handling the work. The absence of letter grades on the formal transcript, without evidence of a rigorous, reliable assessment process is problematic for two reasons. First, it places enormous, undeserved pressure on students to do well on National Board Exams. Second, this approach overemphasizes the reputation of the medical school and its admissions policies.
The debate presented in the case scenario focuses on the wrong outcomes. For example, students often defend pass/fail systems as more conducive to a relaxed learning environment because there is less interpersonal competition. I am not certain that this reflects reality. All medical students are highly achievement-oriented and many are competitive by nature. To be successful and competent physicians they must learn to manage the negative impact of these otherwise valuable personal traits in complex and competitive environments. On the other side of the argument, pass/fail systems disadvantage students who are consistently struggling because it allows them to squeak by without being identified for special attention early. In addition, even in schools like mine, NYU Medical Center, that operate with a pass/fail preclinical system, numeric grades are generated and followed for certain purposes (e.g., AOA determination), and students are well aware of this contradictory policy.
In saying that the grades debate often focuses on the wrong outcome, I also mean that scores on exams are only useful if the exams themselves are reliable and valid measures of what they are meant to measure. Ideally, competency exams would provide students with detailed information to help determine whether they had the minimum competency to serve as physicians. We would overcome current weaknesses in measuring the remarkable capacities some students have in areas such as interdisciplinary teamwork and complex critical thinking. Once we have decided on fair, criterion-based measures that assess critical competencies, there is no way we could ethically, morally, or professionally argue against using such measures. Since most of our exams or grading systems do not reach this level of evidence, however, we use them as blunt instruments rather than sources of meaningful information.
In sum, I don’t care as much as many students do about whether we use pass/fail or other systems. I care that we measure what is important and act on those measures to ensure excellence in our graduates.