Any assessment system can have many purposes and it is rare to find an assessment system that meets all purposes for all people. Some purposes have already been mentioned, such as the need to flush out students who learn only when they are extrinsically driven, and the need to present clear standards to our students and the public. Others include the desire to increase collaboration, to decrease competition and to increase well-being. Many of these desired outcomes of pass/fail grading have a very thin evidence base. For example, when our medical school changed from using a percentage grade-based, predominantly norm-referenced system to standards-based assessment reported as pass/fail/distinction, we did not find the expected decrease in competition; what we found was that competitiveness declined through the course under either system. We did not find any decrease in achievement standards; these remained much the same. We did not find any change in time spent studying; this also remained similar. What we did find, however, was an improvement in intrinsic motivation and a greater sense of professional identity amongst our students. These changes have encouraged us to continue with this system. For some, however, the purpose of assessment is to help others in their selection processes and a change to pass/fail grading most certainly won’t do that. So should we consider changing our system back to resolve that problem? Well, we haven’t. We believe that the development of students who are intrinsically motivated, hardworking and professional remains an important goal. Do we want to graduate doctors who will only learn if someone pats them on the back and rewards them?
Tim Wilkinson (2011) Pass/fail grading: not everything that counts can be counted. Medical Education 45(9) 860-862