Caswell Bloomquist

College Writing 2
Professor McNamara

"Scholarly Article Project Final Draft"


Objective- Identify a grading system which allows students to take academic risks, receive earned recognition for their achievements and clearly identify career ready graduates.

Methods- The use of articles and sources, as well as interviews and surveys of students at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, were considered in the evaluation of the data.

Evaluations- Three different types of grading systems were evaluated, with the benefits and drawbacks of each thoroughly examined.

Results- After reviewing the data from the articles, sources, and in-person interviews and surveys, the results indicate that transitioning to a pass or fail grading system in higher education is detrimental to students who have earned and deserve higher grades and recognition.

Conclusions- A transition from a grading scale using letter grades to a pass or fail system would unfairly group students and create a lack of differentiation for potential employers.

Keywords- Grade Point Average (GPA), Pass or Fail Grading System, grading, letter-based grading system, percent-based grading scale


Throughout the 2022 spring semester at colleges across the country, the current academic grading system has been under scrutiny and new collegiate grading methods are being researched and discussed. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted and altered the education landscape beginning March of 2020 and, since that time, colleges and universities have been contemplating the use of a pass or fail grading scale to allow more flexibility for students with hardships. While the pandemic is waning, the pass or fail grading system, as well as other options for grading students, continues to be at the forefront of college discussions and could dramatically change the landscape of higher education.

A thorough examination of the three grading methods will reveal that the traditional percent and letter-based grading system is most beneficial for college students. The percent and letter-based grading system motivates students to work harder, provides faculty the ability to precisely grade comprehension and effort, and allows potential employers to differentiate between applicants’ college achievements. While the other two grading systems may provide some positive accommodations for students, the percent and letter-based system ultimately develops more competitive and engaged employees.


To evaluate the question and make a sound recommendation regarding which grading system should be used in higher education, sources from longform and scholarly articles, as well as in-person and email interviews of test subjects, were employed. Members of the Lewis University men’s golf team were interviewed to receive input from collegiate student-athletes who are tasked with managing both athletics and academics. In addition, this focus group was targeted as these student-athletes are expected to maintain a required GPA to receive full academic and athletic scholarships, as well as eligibility in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The Lewis University men’s golf team was also chosen as subjects because many team members are also aviation students. The FAA utilizes a combination of the pass or fail system and standards-based grading in the flight evaluation process so students with aviation backgrounds have experienced multiple grading systems throughout their college curriculum.


With the three different grading systems, there are multiple benefits and drawbacks that can be associated with each. The percentage and letter-based grading scale is the most commonly used system in higher education. This scale places students in the most specific categories and most accurately evaluates the information a student has retained. The percentage and letter-based grading system offers 12 defining levels for evaluation of the student’s comprehension and specifically assigns students a grade letter associated with that achievement. An example of the grading scale used with the percentage-based system according to College Board is:

Percent Grade
Letter Grade
GPA on the 4.0 Scale

However, one downside of this grading system is that students know what is needed to receive a certain grade and may be tempted to use outside and unethical resources to receive the grade they desire. In addition, students who are reliant on GPA-based scholarships may choose to take easier classes and take less risks to achieve a higher GPA rather than learning the material needed for success after college.

The pass or fail grading system is a system which offers just two possible outcomes for students. One of the positive aspects of this grading scale for students is that a “D” letter grade is considered to be the same result as an “A” letter grade. This allows students to take more risks with class work and may inspire them to be more motivated to learn the material rather than just rapidly memorizing the material for a test or exam with the hopes of receiving a better grade. Also, this grading system encourages students to go outside of their comfort zone and try different classes or majors without the fear of negatively impacting their GPA with a lower than anticipated letter grade.

The downside of the pass or fail grading system is similar to a positive aspect, but from the opposite perspective. Students may exert less effort than they would to achieve a higher letter grade and simply be satisfied with investing the time and effort to achieve just a passing grade. In her article, “The Pass/ Fail System Could Severely Affect Your GPA,” Hannah Dilanchyan predicts, “Without the pressure of a traditional grading system, the likelihood of achieving high quality work is at risk.” This excerpt reinforces the fear that lack of motivation would be a significant downfall in support of the pass or fail system and could create an education system that doesn’t value hard work.

The final grading system to be evaluated is the standards-based grading system. The positive aspect of this system is that the student must demonstrate they have mastered a topic or skill before advancing to the next lesson or grade. This will create an educational environment where students prioritize learning and they can only advance when all standards are met. This grading method could be considered a combination of the two systems outlined earlier as, realistically, a student would need a 100 percent to achieve the pass grade and be able to master all the material required of them. However, one of the negative aspects of this system is that students may not be able to progress quickly enough and could fall so far behind it is impossible to catch up with their peers. At the college level, this system may prove unrealistic as students learn at different rates and, given the variety and volume of information students learn in four years, mastering all this material is unrealistic for most.


To begin evaluating the results of this examination of grading systems, the following table outlines the feedback received from in-person interviews of members of the Lewis University men’s golf team regarding utilization of the pass or fail grading system in college.

Does the pass or fail grading system promote learning? Does the pass or fail system encourage you to take more academic risks? Would you consider a switch in majors with the pass or fail system being implemented? Would you prefer the pass or fail grading system or the percent and letter-based system?

In summary, the golf team members felt the pass or fail system would promote learning and encourage them to take more academic risks. However, for most, the use of this system would not impact their choice of major. And, the team members were split equally on their preference of a pass or fail system versus a percent and letter-based system.

Next, a more detailed and specific in-person interview was conducted with a Lewis University men’s golf team freshman, Dylan Smith. Dylan was chosen to be interviewed as he is a student athlete with an undecided major. Dylan’s interview focused on the pass or fail grading system and he shared valuable feedback as a student who is still deciding which route he would like to take his career. According to Dylan, the GPA system does not impact his choice of major and he is more focused on determining what he wants to do post-graduation. When asked if he would be more likely to choose a more difficult class if the pass or fail system was implemented, Dylan responded with this statement: “No, there would still be more work involved that would be a detrimental factor for me.” He added, “I don’t feel I would learn as much and not be career ready with a pass or fail system. Yes, you can get through the harder classes with a better chance of passing, but these students might not be career ready and grades are able to separate students who are career ready versus non-career ready.”

Dylan’s response exposed another perspective regarding the pass or fail system considering the post-graduation impacts. He believes the pass or fail grading system would be less impressive to a potential employer than the percentage-based system and suggested the GPA section on a resume would be disregarded if the employer knew the class was pass or fail.

sIn a similar interview with another Lewis University men’s golf team member, Jack Tyler, Dylan’s perspective was reinforced that potential employers would not be impressed with pass or fail grades. In addition, when asked if the pass or fail grading system would be a consideration in choice of major, Jack shared, “Students should be deciding their future major based on what they would like to do with the rest of their lives, not the GPA they will receive in college.” Jack further elaborated that students should be driven by a passion for their area of study. Both interviews stressed that college grading systems should ultimately support career preparation.

Furthermore, an interview was conducted with a student who was enrolled at Lewis University during the spike of the pandemic to receive feedback from a student who had firsthand experience with the pandemic and resulting pass or fail grading system. Ian Allen was given the option to take the pass or fail grade and instead chose to take the percentage-based letter grade he earned. Even though he is in the aviation department with more difficult FAA grading criteria, he felt a letter grade would better represent his true GPA better than a pass grade. “I believe the pass or fail system would have only helped students who didn’t do as well because it wouldn’t lower their overall GPA and group them in the same category as students like me who still worked through the tough circumstances to excel.” This excerpt from the interview provides evidence that students who were faced with the decision to take either a pass or fail grade versus a percentage-based letter grade preferred the percentage-based letter grade as it demonstrated they were able to persevere during the difficult educational experience. Unfortunately, students like Allen who worked to achieve higher grades were ultimately grouped in the same GPA category with students who may have received a D due to the lack of distinction provided by the pass or fail system.

To receive an employer’s perspective regarding collegiate grading systems, an interview was conducted with John Wright, who manages his own law firm in Helena, Montana. When asked how he would evaluate two resumes for a potential employee, with one detailing a pass or fail grading system and one stating a percentage letter-based grading system, Mr. Wright indicated he would place more value on the percentage letter-based grading system. “I think having intermediate grade levels allows assessing performance more precisely than “lumping” into a broader category of performance.” Wright also commented, “The pass or fail system would unfairly penalize those who work harder. It rewards “just getting by” as opposed to working harder to get rewarded by a higher grade, say an A as opposed to a B or C+.” Supporting the college student interview feedback, Mr. Wright reinforced the theory that an employer would value a pass or fail student less than a percentage letter-based graded student. Wright’s concerns were echoed in a University of Chicago study titled “Career Considerations for Pass/Fail Grading.” The report states, “In general, most employers and graduate schools prefer to see quality grades over pass/fail grades, especially for opportunities with strict GPA and transcript requirements.” The ultimate goal of college is to create career ready graduates, however, the pass or fail system lacks the necessary standards for employers to distinguish between potential candidates in regard to their level of career readiness.

Finally, the standards-based grading system seems to fall short in the same regard as the pass or fail system as the monochromatic grade may not accurately represent student achievement. In an interview with Lewis University golf team member, Kelly Thompson, he shared, “It is easier to implement pass/fail or standards-based grades in flight since maneuvers are easily graded as complete or incomplete, however, other subject matter is much different.” The standards-based system could also pose too many barriers for students to reach the standard to pass and keep them at a specific point for a prolonged time. In flight, there are no set deadlines so students can complete their rating when they are prepared, while in other classes, this system could immensely delay class progress.

In addition to the potential delay of progress, the standards-based grading system also lacks the multiple grade differentiation similar to the pass or fail system. In the article, “Taking on a New Grading System,” author Megan Knight states, “One student characteristic, however, was frequently mentioned as unchanging in some students: the desire to get a good grade. Most participants acknowledged that even though students talked about standards and became more comfortable with mistakes and risks, some students were still motivated by the grade.” This excerpt reinforces the notion that hard working students want to be appropriately rewarded for their effort and the standards-based grading system lacks that distinction.

With the pass or fail and standard-based grading systems demonstrating more flaws than the traditional percentage and letter-based grading system, more research was conducted to support the latter including further examining the use of pluses and minuses with grade letters. Traditionally, educators use grades such as a “B+” or “B- “to grade students in further detail. The difference between a plus grade and a minus grade can create a significant difference in GPA and students can lose GPA points by just a few percentages.

The graph below illustrates the results of a study conducted by the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education regarding the preference of the various grading options by teachers and students.

In this study, there is a definite line separating students’ and faculty members’ opinions regarding grading systems. Faculty members feel there is a need for the plus and minus option to differentiate student performance in more detail, while students feel there is no proven difference between a plus or minus grade. In the article, “No Satisfaction on Student Ratings of Instruction,” author Colleen Flaherty states, Students who receive better grades tend to report a subjectively more positive experience in their courses, regardless of the underlying reasons that led to their high performance.” This point suggests that students are more satisfied with a higher and definitive grade than the specific breakdown between a plus and minus grade.

In the previously mentioned interview with Lewis University student, Jack, this plus and minus grading option was mentioned and he agreed with the study’s results. “While it depends on the class, having a GPA difference between a plus or minus grade may be extreme as that student is already in the scope of the grade and the plus or minus is unnecessary.” This statement is consistent with the study data as students typically preferred not to have any plus or minuses associated with the grade they receive. 

Based upon this research and interviews, higher education should resist the post-COVID 19 pandemic push to permanently employ a pass or fail grading system or consider a standards-based system. While the pass or fail grading system may encourage uninhibited learning and more risk taking in class selection, it does not appropriately reward student effort and achievement. The pass or fail system is also not an impact on students’ choice of major. Furthermore, it does not provide potential employers with the ability to differentiate between potential employee candidates. Likewise, the standards-based system does not provide an adequate distinction between student effort or achievement and would be difficult to implement in many classes due to time restraints. The percentage and letter-based grading system motivates students to work harder, gives faculty the ability to evaluate performance and offers potential employers the option to differentiate career readiness more effectively.


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Dilanchyan, Hannah. “The Pass/Fail Grading System Could Severely Affect Your GPA.” TheChimes, 1 Apr. 2020,

Flaherty, Colleen. “No Satisfaction on Student Ratings of Instruction.” Inside Higher Ed,

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Mould, Tom. “Moving beyond GPA: Alternative Measures of Success ... - Ed.” Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council - -Online Archive, University of Nebraska- Lincoln,

University of Chicago. (n.d.). ”Career Considerations for pass/fail grading.” CareerAdv. May 4, 2022,

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