Russ Hunt
Thom Parkhill

Escaping the Weir

 Teaching Perspectives (St. Thomas University) 11 (Winter 2009): 7-8.

Herring are creatures of social habit. In a weir, they follow the barrier around and around, never noticing that if they just made a solitary U-turn at the end of the barrier, they'd be free. Perhaps they never realize that they're trapped; everyone else is swimming along, so things must be okay. At least till the seiner arrives.

We believe that, by and large, university faculty are swimming around in a weir called marks. Not many, it appears, feel trapped. We, however, do, and, fellow herring, we're going to argue that a change would be good for us. We'd like to make that U-turn -- or at least open up the possibility, for some faculty and some students, of swimming back out into the open sea.

St. Thomas, like most North American universtities, holds in tension attention to learning on one hand and certification on the other. While most of us profess that we are about the former and give over the latter to the Registrar's Office, the fact is that we spend an inordinate amount of time certifying our students because we spend an inordinate amount of time sorting B+s from A-s and C-s from Ds, keeping records that will allow us to defend our decisions, measuring what really can't be measured, and counting what can be counted, although it's of only dubious relationship to the judgements of "quality" that we find ourselves making. The relationship of marking to learning is a whole other matter.

There is, for those who look, a tidal wave of evidence that marks are destructive of learning. Major figures in learning research like E. L. Deci, Mark Lepper and Alfie Kohn have shown -- at least to our satisfaction -- that rewarding behavior with external rewards undermines intrinsic interest in the task being rewarded. While the controversy over this work continues, we find that our experience with the differences, for instance, between students writing to convince others in the absence of marks, and students writing to impress an evaluator (in the phrase of James Britton, writing for "the teacher-as-examiner"), has led us toward more confidence in the wider work of those questioning the effectiveness of external rewards as motivators for learning, at least for the many students who have not developed the ability to comply with external pressures and still engage with the task.

There are other problems with our dependence on marks, of course: it is often the case that students choose courses not on the basis of what's interesting to them, or even what they think will be valuable, but what they think will help -- or not hurt -- their GPA. Again, of course, this is not a universal phenomenon; we've all known students who took challenging courses for the challenge. But it is clear that the framework of marks, and everyone's commitment to GPA as a way of evaluating merit, works against such choices, and towards limiting them to the courageous or the naive.

Further, there can be little doubt that what marks measure -- among other things, dutiful compliance and docility -- entails a devaluing of some of the things we would most like to reward; creativity, initiative, critical thinking. Again, this is not always the case, but in our own experience it is a common pressure, on us as markers and on our students as thinkers, writers, and experimenters.

We are not, however, arguing for the abolition of marks. Yes, there are institutions which have done this (Alverno College and Evergreen State come to mind), but there is simply too much dependence on the structure of marks -- for transfer students, for admission to graduate programs, for showing merit to employers -- for a university to abandon the structure casually.

However, we would argue that by imposing the necessity of producing a mark for everybody we're imposing a certain set of educational practices on everybody and on all courses. It is clear that there are at least some cases -- methods courses, service learning, practica and internships, and others, where institutions regularly allow a student in a particular course to be marked simply as Pass (awarded credit for the course, but the course is not figured in the GPA), or Fail (no credit for the course is given, and the course is or is not figured in the GPA depending on the policy). St. Thomas already does this, although in rare cases. There is an impressively large number of universities where such an option exists, under different constraints and restrictions. We are arguing here that although the option already exists at Saint Thomas, the circumstances under which it can be used need to be made clearer and more public.

Working out what those circumstance might be is the purview of the Academic Senate, but we have some suggestions that might serve to form a basis for its deliberations. A professor might opt to offer her course Pass/Fail if she were wanting to eschew the coverage model of teaching for a more exploratory pedagogy in which the learning goals were more process- than content-driven. Another scenario might have a professor teaching a course that involves a group of honours students in a workshop style course that requires them to take chances in order to learn, and in which she wanted to make it very clear that there would be no penalty for taking those chances and not being able to follow through. Students might have their own reasons for preferring a Pass/Fail option in one or two of their courses. The biggest might be to take a chance on an unknown discpline or course the marks from which might negatively affect one's GPA if the risk did not pan out.For both professor and student the benefits are obvious: to be able to give or receive a P which would work like a transfer credit but not affect the GPA would encourage us all to focus more on learning than marks.

It is worth considering, as well, how widespread this practice is at other universities. A 1970 ERIC document found this pattern: "In an attempt to isolate new trends and options in grading, 150 four-year colleges and universities were surveyed. Of these, 102 offered pass/fail or a similar grading option, 30 had no grading option, 6 indicated that a system was under serious consideration and 12 failed to respond. The two major reasons for having a pass/fail system were: (1) to encourage students to explore subjects outside their major without fear of jeopardizing their grade point average, and (2) to minimize the fear of failing. The great majority of schools used A, B, C, and D as equivalent to "pass." The most common practice was to allow students to enroll in one course per term under pass/fail, though 10 institutions indicated no limit. Most institutions indicated some form of limitation on those wishing to enroll under the option. The methods of registering for the various options varied, with some institutions allowing the students to declare the option up to the "normal deadline for adds and drops" and others requiring that it be declared at registration. In most instances, consent was required for enrollment in a grading option. Twenty-two of the respondents indicated that the instructors were denied knowledge of pass/fail enrollments, and thus reported standard grades that were converted by the Registrar, while in 80 cases, the instructors were aware of those enrolled under the option." (Quann, 1970)

Later studies have been difficult to find, but an online report of a 2003 survey at the University of Colorado identified the following prestigious institutions as having deadlines by which students need to opt for pass-fail options: Brandeis, Buffalo, Catholic, Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Duke, Emory, Florida, Harvard, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, MIT, Ohio, Oregon, Penn, Penn, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Rice, Rochester, Rutgers, Stanford, Syracuse, Texas, U California, U Colorado, UCLA, UNC, UNL, USC, Vanderbilt, Washington. There are many others, and many in Canada; the relevant committee of the Academic Senate would want to identify them as part of its research into this matter.

Rather than provide a mark for every student in every course we teach, we contend that our time and energy are better spent in the service of learning, and that moving to broaden and define a Pass/Fail option for some courses and for some students would allow us to occasionally break the weir and swim for the ocean.


Deci, E. L. (1971). Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 18, 105-115.

Kohn, Alfie. (1993). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lepper, Mark R., & Greene, David, eds. (1978). The Hidden Costs of Reward: New Perspectives on the Psychology of Human Motivation. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Quann, Charles J. Pass-Fail Grading: What Are the Trends? Paper presented at the 56th annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, April 23, 1970.