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.