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Old 05-19-2020, 09:11 AM
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What are the pros and cons of taking courses pass/fail?


When I was an undergrad in the 80s, students were offered a choice of taking courses on a pass/fail basis, and apparently any passing grade registered as a 4.0 towards your GPA. I did not do this, I thought there was probably some horrible downside to it but had no idea what. What are the pros and cons of taking college courses in this basis?
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Old 05-19-2020, 09:19 AM
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There is no universal rules about pass/no pass grading options. During this pandemic, some unis are mandating all classes be pass/no pass while others are still offering grade options. When I was at UCLA, we were told that pass/no pass wouldnt look good on grad school applications. And they would be averaged as a C (2.0).

Here is the current UCLA policy.

http://catalog.registrar.ucla.edu/uc...19-20-118.html

Undergraduate students in good standing who are enrolled in at least 12 units (14 in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science) may take certain courses on a Passed/Not Passed (P/NP) basis.

The grade P is assigned for a letter grade of C or better. Units earned this way count toward degree requirements but do not affect the GPA. Students receive neither units nor course credit for a grade of NP.

Students may enroll in one course each term on a P/NP basis (two courses if they have not elected the P/NP option in the preceding term). Their department or school may require that they take some or all courses in their major for a letter grade. Certain other courses or programs may also be exempt from the P/NP option; contact the College or school for details.

Students may make changes to or from P/NP grading through the sixth week of instruction using

Last edited by madsircool; 05-19-2020 at 09:22 AM.
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Old 05-19-2020, 09:20 AM
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When I went to college back in the 80s, if you took a course pass/fail it didn't count towards your degree.
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Old 05-19-2020, 09:32 AM
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To echo the others, at every school I've gone to or worked at, pass/no pass does not affect GPA.

Here's a downside: if a student chooses P/NP, and would have gotten an A, they've screwed themselves out of improving their GPA (unless it was already 4.0).

IME, students who choose P/NP usually would have gotten a C or less. There was one a few years ago who did great in my class, and earned an A. When I went to enter the final grades, I was surprised to find he had chosen P/NP. I sent him an email telling him he would have had an A, and he should talk to registration & records to see if he could petition to change his grading option. He did so, I signed his form, and they changed his grade to an A.
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Old 05-19-2020, 09:37 AM
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Not counting towards a degree at all sounds more like an audited course, to me. You're taking the course purely for your own edification, and your instructor isn't even obligated to give you a grade at all. They can (and usually do), if they choose, tell you how you would have done if it were official, but that's not documented anywhere.

My experience was that some courses were strictly pass-fail, and most strictly weren't. A student never got a choice on how to take a course. The closest thing I've seen to that was some grad school seminars where you could choose either to officially enroll as pass-fail, or not officially enroll and just informally show up every Thursday at 2:00 or whatever. The department preferred that there were at least three students who officially enrolled, because below that the class wasn't counted as existing at all, but beyond that, they didn't care.
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Old 05-19-2020, 09:50 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Horatio Hellpop View Post
What are the pros and cons of taking college courses in this basis?
First year students at MIT are all graded pass/fail. Here's a good description of why:
Quote:
This is a really good system, for several important reasons.
1. MIT classes are harder than high school classes, and people tend to get lower grades first term at MIT than they’ve ever gotten in their lives.
2. The system encourages first-term freshmen to have fun and explore life outside the classroom without being overly preoccupied with their grades.
3. Freshmen can learn to manage their time wisely and find an appropriate balance between work and play without damaging their academic records.
https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entr...freshman_year/

That was 2006, but I think the policy is still in place and the same reasoning still applies.
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Old 05-19-2020, 09:52 AM
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When I was at Portland State University, only a limited number of P/NP classes would count towards my bachelor's (like 3 or 4, IIRC). For my master's, P/NP wasn't allowed at all, unless specifically for some seminar type of thing, as Chronos states.
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Old 05-19-2020, 10:12 AM
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The pros are if you would have gotten a "C" it's as good as an "A". The cons are if you would have gotten an "A" it's the same as a "C".
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Old 05-19-2020, 10:25 AM
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Originally Posted by Horatio Hellpop View Post
When I was an undergrad in the 80s, students were offered a choice of taking courses on a pass/fail basis, and apparently any passing grade registered as a 4.0 towards your GPA. I did not do this, I thought there was probably some horrible downside to it but had no idea what. What are the pros and cons of taking college courses in this basis?
If that was really the rule at your school, it's really generous; I can take all my classes pass/fail, put in just enough work to barely pass and I end up with a 4.0 GPA.

Was this at Harvard? (It is or was famous for grade inflation.)
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Old 05-19-2020, 10:31 AM
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Originally Posted by engineer_comp_geek View Post
When I went to college back in the 80s, if you took a course pass/fail it didn't count towards your degree.
That's how it was when I was in college. I was a science (biochem) major. There was an upper level English course taught by Christopher Rawson. I read something he'd written and wanted to take his course in satire.

First day of class he had us each write a little bit about ourselves and the other English Department classes we were taking. He stressed that his satire course was for English majors only. I was bummed, so I did not turn in my autobiography.

When I went to drop the class, I found out it would seriously mess up my numbers for graduation, so I did not drop it. Around mid-term, Rawson asked me to stay after class. He liked what I'd written, but couldn't find me anywhere in the English Department's logs. He told me I could still switch to pass/fail but I wanted the challenge of being graded.

I got an A in the course.
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Old 05-19-2020, 10:33 AM
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To echo the others, at every school I've gone to or worked at, pass/no pass does not affect GPA.
This is how the Law School Admissions Council (which acts as a sort of clearing house for assembling transcripts and other credentials for most law schools in the US, and also develops/maintains the LSAT) treats pass/no pass or pass/fail or anything like that. The credits are noted separately as completed, but do not factor into undergrad GPA (under the subheading "Grades Excluded from Conversion"):

Quote:
Passing grades from systems of one or two passing grades (e.g., Pass/Fail, Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, Credit/No Credit, or Honors/Pass/Fail, High Pass/Pass/Fail), and those for which conversion rules cannot be formulated, including courses for which a transcript gives only narratives or descriptions. Credits for the work in these courses are totaled and reported separately as unconverted credits. The only exception to this policy is for a reported grade below C-minus from a two-passing-grade grading system (e.g., Credit/D/Fail) when the issuing institution includes this grade in their calculation of a GPA.
It seems questionable that any university system would ever treat a P as uniformly equivalent to a 4.0/A. I could certainly believe a low-end urban legend arising about that, though, a less morbid cousin to the UL that one will receive all As for a semester if one's roommate dies.

Last edited by ASL v2.0; 05-19-2020 at 10:36 AM.
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Old 05-19-2020, 10:37 AM
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Critics of pass/fail cite these things (among others).

1) It is too subjective. How much is "enough" to pass or "not enough" to fail?
2) Teachers are just being lazy. They don't want to do grades, so they invented pass/fail.
3) It's just another example of "dumbing down" education for students too obtuse or too lazy to "cut the mustard".
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Old 05-19-2020, 10:40 AM
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Assuming one does not care too much about GPA, the pro of pass/fail is that you can slack off a bit since a C-effort is as good as an A-effort, no need to bust yourself. The con is that you get really nervous when grade time comes in.
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:08 AM
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My undergraduate college, New College in Sarasota, Florida, uses pass/fail for all courses. For each college, you're given a written evaluation at the end of the course which was somewhere around a page long. Any courses not passed simply don't appear on your transcript. New College has always done very well at getting its students into graduate and professional schools and at getting fellowships like the Fulbright. The whole basis of the college is essentially independent study. Classes are small. You can set up an independent study course yourself with the permission of one professor, who evaluates you at the end of the term. You have to do a certain number of independent study courses, and there is a month-long term during the academic year when you do that. You can create your own major with the permission of two professors. You have to do a senior thesis. You pass the thesis if three professors were satisfied with it. What you use for your applications to graduate and professional schools are copies of your written evaluations (which are not part of your transcript but something you choose to send with the application yourself), recommendations from your professors, scores on your GREs, and what you write in your application. This obviously is not the place for everyone, but for those it was it worked well.
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:18 AM
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Originally Posted by Wendell Wagner View Post
My undergraduate college, New College in Sarasota, Florida, uses pass/fail for all courses. For each college, you're given a written evaluation at the end of the course which was somewhere around a page long. Any courses not passed simply don't appear on your transcript. New College has always done very well at getting its students into graduate and professional schools and at getting fellowships like the Fulbright. The whole basis of the college is essentially independent study. Classes are small. You can set up an independent study course yourself with the permission of one professor, who evaluates you at the end of the term. You have to do a certain number of independent study courses, and there is a month-long term during the academic year when you do that. You can create your own major with the permission of two professors. You have to do a senior thesis. You pass the thesis if three professors were satisfied with it. What you use for your applications to graduate and professional schools are copies of your written evaluations (which are not part of your transcript but something you choose to send with the application yourself), recommendations from your professors, scores on your GREs, and what you write in your application. This obviously is not the place for everyone, but for those it was it worked well.
UC Santa Cruz used to have a system like this until 2000. There were too many students to evaluate properly.

https://www.sfgate.com/education/art...es-2773570.php
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:20 AM
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At my undergraduate college, there were no grades. The student received an "evaluation" from the professor in all classes, and a self evaluation was also included in the "transcript." Thus, no GPA. A stack of evaluations reflecting four years of work, however, does supply a much more detailed record of how you did, and your strengths and weaknesses.

Some students worked very hard, and some less so. Personally, I worked much harder than I had to in law school, which had the traditional grading system. I'm not sure it works for everyone or everywhere, but I think separating education from a grading system is a good idea.
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:23 AM
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Granted this information is about 25 years out of date, but when I was in school (Texas A&M), pass/fail courses counted as credit hours, but not toward your GPA. In general, the only options for pass/fail courses were the required PE classes we had to take (4 semesters!) and some 1 hour survey courses for various disciplines.

Most people took PE pass/fail, because say... the skill required to make an A in Tennis was pretty high, but the skill required to pass the course was not. Same for fencing, social dance, fitness and conditioning, volleyball, basketball, etc... If you wanted an A, you had to actually be good at the activity, not just show up and apply what you learned in the course. The survey courses were pass/fail because a lot of people took the 1 hour "Introduction to Meteorology" course as a freshman as part of determining if they were interested or not. Making them pass/fail was a way to get people to go through these courses and get a better idea of what various disciplines were, without having to risk a GPA hit.
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:25 AM
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I recall reading that MIT used to use pass/fail for all students in their freshman year, to help ease their stress a bit. Don't know if still done that way.
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:28 AM
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I recall reading that MIT used to use pass/fail for all students in their freshman year, to help ease their stress a bit. Don't know if still done that way.
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:40 AM
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At my university, if you took a class as pass/fail it didn't affect your GPA, but you did get credit for taking the class. In other words if you got the equivalent of a C it wouldn't bring down your GPA, but you would get a "pass" on your transcript. But if you got a A it wouldn't boost your GPA, either. You were not allowed to take "core classes" for your major as pass/fail -- you had to take those for a grade. If you were an engineering major you had to take your engineering classes for a grade (and I think stuff like math and physics, even though they weren't technically taught by the engineering department). But you could take, for example, PE as pass/fail. So like what Bump said -- taking PE as pass/fail was a popular option.
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Old 05-19-2020, 11:42 AM
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Critics of pass/fail cite these things (among others).

1) It is too subjective. How much is "enough" to pass or "not enough" to fail?
2) Teachers are just being lazy. They don't want to do grades, so they invented pass/fail.
3) It's just another example of "dumbing down" education for students too obtuse or too lazy to "cut the mustard".
Numbers 1 and 2 are stupid arguments.

If grading is too subjective to determine Pass and Fail, then grading is too subjective, period. Even when professors are giving out all of the letter grades (A, B, C, D, F), there are still students who are failing and students who are passing. And the dividing line between Pass and Fail is also no more or less arbitrary or subjective than the dividing line between A and B, or B and C, or D and F.

As for teachers being lazy, in many universities (mine included), it's the students who get to make the choice of whether to take a course Pass/Fail. In some cases, the teacher doesn't even know what the students have selected. Professors are expected to assign a letter grade to all students, and that grade is then converted to Pass/Fail at the Registrar's Office. It doesn't change the amount of work required by the teacher at all.

And while number 3 might be true, it doesn't have to be. If you have a rigorous standard required to pass the course in the first place, it could be that all passing students can, in fact, "cut the mustard."

At my university it's not called Pass/Fail; it's called Credit/No Credit (C/NC). It's only available at certain times or for certain classes, and the choice is generally made by the student independently, with the professor still being required to assigned a regular letter grade. Some course are offered C/NC, but not many. Neither grade counts towards a student's GPA, but if you get a Credit, then it counts towards your degree progress and your required units.

This semester, with all of the disruptions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, including the fact that our whole campus switched to online instruction halfway through the semester, all students have the option to convert any or all of their grades to C/NC. Also, the university itself is going to automatically convert all non-passing grades to NC, which includes grades of F, as well as many D-, D, and D+ grades for major and minor courses. Students who get a C- letter grade can apply to have it changed to NC, if they would prefer that.

The school's policy for this semester is outlined here.
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Originally Posted by Telemark View Post
First year students at MIT are all graded pass/fail.
When I was in grad school at Johns Hopkins, they had a similar system for freshmen, although it was only for the first semester, not the whole year. And actually, looking at your link, it seems like MIT only does it for the first term also, not for the whole year.

And, if you look at the MIT Registrar's Office website, it's a bit more complicated. First semester is all Pass/No Record, and after that you can "designate up to three science core GIRs to be graded as P/NR." Note that this privilege extends beyond freshman year. That is, if you don't designate any P/NR classes in your second semester, you can still use them in your sophomore year and beyond, up to the limit of three classes.

It's worth noting, as I suggested above, that even in these P/NR classes, the professors themselves are required to enter proper letter grades, which are called "hidden grades" and are used by the university for advising purposes. So, if an undergrad goes to his or her academic adviser, the adviser can see that the student got a grade of C- for freshman chemistry and make course recommendations accordingly.
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Old 05-19-2020, 01:22 PM
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Granted this information is about 25 years out of date, but when I was in school (Texas A&M), pass/fail courses counted as credit hours, but not toward your GPA. In general, the only options for pass/fail courses were the required PE classes we had to take (4 semesters!) and some 1 hour survey courses for various disciplines.

Most people took PE pass/fail, because say... the skill required to make an A in Tennis was pretty high, but the skill required to pass the course was not. Same for fencing, social dance, fitness and conditioning, volleyball, basketball, etc... If you wanted an A, you had to actually be good at the activity, not just show up and apply what you learned in the course. The survey courses were pass/fail because a lot of people took the 1 hour "Introduction to Meteorology" course as a freshman as part of determining if they were interested or not. Making them pass/fail was a way to get people to go through these courses and get a better idea of what various disciplines were, without having to risk a GPA hit.
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Old 05-19-2020, 03:15 PM
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Old 05-19-2020, 04:21 PM
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At my university, if you took a class as pass/fail it didn't affect your GPA, but you did get credit for taking the class. In other words if you got the equivalent of a C it wouldn't bring down your GPA, but you would get a "pass" on your transcript. But if you got a A it wouldn't boost your GPA, either. You were not allowed to take "core classes" for your major as pass/fail -- you had to take those for a grade. If you were an engineering major you had to take your engineering classes for a grade (and I think stuff like math and physics, even though they weren't technically taught by the engineering department). But you could take, for example, PE as pass/fail. So like what Bump said -- taking PE as pass/fail was a popular option.
That sounds like a great policy. College is, in part, about becoming a well rounded adult. Students should be able to explore an interest like art or music without hurting their professional prospects if it turns out they aren’t very good at it.
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Old 05-19-2020, 05:49 PM
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Our son's college gave pass/fail as an option spring semester this year. They could change their minds right up to the end. He had one class where he was considering it. Before the last week of classes the professor let him know he would still pass if he didn't do the final paper. The class wasn't in his major, so he took her up on it. He needed an A for it to help his GPA (stealth brag), so we think he made the right call.
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