At the University of Minnesota, students may take courses either on the traditional A-F scale or on the pass-fail (S-N) scale. Classes in which a student receives an “S” do not carry grade points, but the credits still count toward a student’s degree program.
While many other schools have similar pass-fail alternative grading systems, some are looking to expand the role of so-called “shadow grades.”
Take Wellesley College, which is requiring that first-year students receive all grades on a “Pass-No Pass” scale for their first-semester courses, beginning with the class of 2018.
Wellesley instituted this policy after a study of students from Wellesley and six other liberal arts schools from 2006 to 2010 showed that students who prioritized grades were less likely to value academic engagement.
Proponents of the policy hope that shadow grades will allow first-year students to broaden their definition of academic success and also allow them to take more risks by exploring foreign areas of study.
Larger schools like the University of Minnesota should consider expanding the role of shadow grades because students can and should want to take advantage of the diverse and numerous course offerings without fear of negative academic repercussions.
While A-F grades can tell us a lot about academic achievement, they can tell us very little about how or why students learn.
They don’t tell us whether one student may retain knowledge better than another or whether one will translate what they learned in class into real-world skills.
Of course, there is still a place for achievement in higher education. Higher education today is just as much about achieving postgraduation employment as it is about knowledge.
However, a stellar GPA is a temporary achievement, one that many experts say may not matter as much as society has led us to believe.
On the other hand, knowledge and skills are forever, and both are things that students too often sacrifice for the sake of achievement.