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Here is some unsolicited advice for my students. My university, like many I am sure, offer students the opportunity to take a class with a Pass/Fail option (S/F in our university lexicon). The stated reason for this, like all things in education, sounds quite reasonable: to allow students to explore a wider and more challenging array of classes than they otherwise would have. As you probably realize, there is quite the chasm between what we say about the pass-fail option and what it actually ends up looking like.

From my experience teaching, advising majors and advising first year students, my sense for the pass-fail is that it is either chosen to “take it easy” in a course irrespective of whether the student is trying to extend her horizons, or more likely that it is not chosen ex ante but rather an ex post decision declared in courses only after students realize they are doing poorly. We allow students to select this pass-fail option well into the semester (after 10 weeks for most students, and even later for first-year students). The problem with doing this should be obvious, and not just to my intermediate micro students.

What is this problem? Well, there is information embedded in ANY signal you let out there – from the way you dress, to the choice of words you use, to the college you attend, the car you drive and yes right down to the pass-fail option. Think about how prospective employers and graduate schools interpret a transcript with an S on it, especially if it is in a course that seems to have a topic similar to the others you have taken (in other words, it is clear that you did not take an arcane music history course for fun all the while being preMed)? If you expected an A, and they expected you to get an A, you’d be better off showing the A instead of the pass-fail grade. Indeed, anyone with an A would end up revealing their pass-fail grade anyway. This would leave people to believe that ANY pass-fail grade can be no higher than a B. But if people know this, and they surely do, then there is an incentive for any student with a B to reveal that grade so that people don’t mistakenly think their “hidden” grade is worse than it really is. And so now all people with an A and a B reveal their grades. That means that anyone with a remaining S on their transcript is either a C or a D student. If students realize this, then they will reveal if their grade is a C (and many do, since they need the actual grade to count toward major or other distribution requirements), leaving all students with S grades being all students with D grades. I can imagine the situation where the Cs don’t reveal.

But the point is this – if you have an S on your transcript, for WHATEVER reason, people gain valuable information from it. First it tells people that you are the kind of person who, when doing poorly, takes this option instead of bearing down and seeing the full consequences. Second, it suggests that if you were surprised by the class, that you at least were not prepared enough on the way in so that you were NOT surprised by it. But third and most important, what it tells people is that if you have the S on your transcript, it is no different than having a D on your transcript. In other words, just as in the “old days” the “For Sale” sign on a car was a pretty good indication that the car was a “lemon” you putting the S sign on your car is a pretty good indicator that you are a lemon, at least in that course. 

I am pretty sure that is not a signal folks want to send to employers or graduate schools or parents. None of this post is to suggest that there are not reasons for colleges to offer the pass-fail option, or for students to take it, it is intended to demonstrate albeit simply, what the signal embedded in that choice is for students and that this information is quite clear given the many other things students and colleges try to do in order to help students scrub their transcripts a little cleaner. I have two of my own children, and should they find themselves in a situation where they wanted to pass-fail a course, I would strongly inveigh upon them to NOT choose such an option, regardless of the grade they might ultimately get, but that’s just me. Finally, given the basic lessons of the economics of information, we can have a nice discussion about what information comes out of my mouth in general as a teacher and adviser, and what of that information is to be believed or whether it is even possible to convince someone to believe it. But that’s for another day.

11 Responses to “I Heretofore Declare that I am a Lemon”

  1. blink says:

    I agree with your signaling analysis; this seems to be bad university policy. The problem is that one is not required to declare ex ante, which makes me wonder if there has been some “policy creep” since the P/S option was first floated — perhaps the deadline to declare has moved later and later over time. (In fact, I thought such decisions were required ex ante, so I would not have necessarily inferred “low grade” as a prospective employer.) Is there evidence that the policy has become more lenient?

    • wintercow20 says:

      I don’t know about MORE lenient, but it is certainly NOT required to be done ex ante. The creep HAS happened at the freshmen level, where kids can basically now decide this with a couple of weeks to go, but since i’ve started here, I think the timing for the general population has always been mid-semester.

      Where there is creep however is that we do offer an AUDIT option which I think only can be done ex ante, and would seem to be in the spirit of what an S/F would be, aside of course from the fact that you cannot get 4 credits for doing an audit but you can from a pass-fail.

      Another reason to NOT choose pass-fail is that for most courses the college permits a retake of the class. And if you retake a class, the new grade replaces the old. If you pass-fail it, you may be less likely to retake if in fact you are worried about grades, and if you have an ugly C- sitting there on the transcript you may be more inclined to try again. Note too that I don’t often recommend retakes to students unless the circumstances are unusual. Not only do you not guarantee getting a better grade, you are costing yourself a valuable class when you only get to take 32 over the course of your career – it’s simply not worth it in my mind, especially when over the course of 32 courses, your overall GPA doesn’t actually change that much from a single class.

      • blink says:

        All interesting facts. I did not know about the retake-and-replace option either. It sounds like the combined effect is just to shroud performance and add noise to the gpa/transcript signal. With each school applying slightly different rules — not to mention different grading standards — it seems that the best students are the ones harmed since they will no longer be able to separate. This is disappointing, but I imagine the policies do approximate the wishes of the median student.

  2. Gabriel Wittenberg says:

    I think that an omission here is some of the context around the grade. I didn’t interpret this post as suggesting everyone who chooses pass/fail is doing so to circumvent a bad grade, but that employers understand adverse selection and would assume S is akin to a D or F. I agree with the conjecture, mostly. But if a student is taking 20-24 credits, and one of those classes is a foreign language that has an S instead of a C or D (for anyone who’s taken a foreign language course, there is a lot of busy work), then that physics major showing interest in another topic, to the point where they are at least passing, is better then showing no interest at all. I would rather hire a good student who has stretched themselves too thin and chosen to pass/fail an extraneous class rather than dropping it or not taking it in the first place. If one is observing a random S, then it is more likely than not that the student did exactly what WC suggests. But given some context (which grad schools, and many employers get when they ask for a transcript), the pass/fail option does not indicate that the student is unmotivated/intellectually lazy/taking advantage of the system.

    P.S Did a bunch of students that are borderline failing come to ask you for a signature recently? It is about that time of the year…

    • wintercow20 says:

      I’m not allowed to know who’s pass/failing, it’s just that it’s that time of year, so I was thinking about it. Yes, you are right about 24 credit kids taking a class pass-fail for interest, but I find this in my experience to be extremely rare – indeed, I would probably bet that the data would show that kids who are inclined to take 24 credits, regardless of the mix, are less likely to take a class S/F than regular load kids.

      A caveat that is due: students also have an option to withdraw from a class at the same time they can declare the S/F. The “W” stays on the transcript unless the class is retaken. What does the selection of “pass” signify when the withdraw is also an option?

    • Scott says:

      I took a foreign language (that’s not busy work)

  3. Scott says:

    This reminds me of a post WC once wrote about laziness. I think the Pass/Fail option is ultimately giving into the aggregate demand for more leisurely lifestyle…or what I would call ‘laziness.’ Demand for easy work increases the supply of easy grades.

  4. Harry says:

    Pass-Fail was an important education innovation in the 1960’s. As Wintercow observes, it failed to get anyone to take analytic chemistry, or even chemistry. Pass-fail was a ticket to Vassar, time -wise. It was an outgrowth of the “free speech” movement born at Berkeley that led to dilution of academic standards, a capitulation of faculty and college administrators to pressure, resulting in the occupation of the office of the president of Columbia University. This was a triumph for the lazy, high generation that would be known as yuppies who rebelled against their liberal parents. These people are in charge today, the children of Nietzsche, who eschew logic and worship relativism. Do your own thing, and take a gut course pass-fail.

    During this time, I was not so saintly myself, but did teach school, and found it frustrating at times when other teachers taught implicitly that there were no values: for example, that any expression of emotion was good writing, regardless of whether it was grounded in reality. I would later run into students who thanked me for being a demanding teacher, even if I did not give them an easy grade for being spontaneous.

    One can sympathasize with the politically incorrect professor teaching in an academically unfree world.

  5. RIT_Rich says:

    If I may suggest an alternate explanation. Or rather, some contextual variables that maybe haven’t been considered.

    I personally have taken Pass/Fail grades in classes not because I thought I would get anything less than a B, but rather because I didn’t want to risk my perfect 4.00 GPA to some random class that was not related to my major (I’m assuming that P/F are only allowed for classes not in your department!).

    So, a prospective employer would see a P/F grade in Sociology, for an engineering major, with a 4.00 GPA (or something pretty high), perhaps not as a negative signal, but as a signal that the person was really only trying to keep their GPA up…which they did…but also wanted to explore different classes in unrelated subjects.

    A P/F grade in Sociology, for an engineering major with a 2.5 GPA, however, might indicate something else.

    So, the overall performance of the student would color the impression of the P/F grade, and indicate as to the reason for it, rather than the other way around.

    PS: If my assumption that P/F grades are only allowed for classes not in your major/department, is universal, then the likelihood that an employer or grad school is going to care about classes outside of your major, is probably low.

    • Greg says:

      This was kind of my case for when I took algebra S/F (the abstract kind, with groups and rings). I didn’t need it for anything except my own curiosity (I haven’t used a shred of it except for part of a topology assignment that same semester). My GPA needed all the help it could get after my freshman year, but I wanted an incentive to try and I wanted to know if I was learning anything at all. The S/F option was the right incentive mix for me, I ended up with a B, and I kept the S on my transcript. Maybe Prof Wintercow remembers when I audited his Money, Credit, & Banking class… Because, shamefully, I can’t say I do.

    • wintercow20 says:

      That explanation is indeed a good one. Of course, we DO allow the S/F option WITHIN major courses, at least nominally. The kids cannot count the course toward major credit with it, but they can retake it, or substitute another class to do so.

      As for auditing my MCB class … would it be bad of me to not remember you being there either? Of course that room in Hutch is pretty cavernous …

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