Pass/Fail: Midterm Comments Become Focal Point of Midterm Grades

In all courses except the Sciences, midterm grades were released as pass/fail on PAnet this past week. Since 2013, both the Math and Science departments have given numerical grades on the 0-6 scale, with humanities courses grading pass/fail. With hybrid schooling last year, students received all pass/fail grades on their midterm reports. The science department was the only department to keep number grades this year during midterms.


Keith Robinson, Chair of the Science Division, Biology Department head, and Instructor in Biology and Chemistry, explained the significance of releasing numerical grades to students. Robinson stated that students get a better understanding of their teachers’ grading when grades are given as a combination of numerical grading and personal commentary.


“The majority of the faculty felt that there was value in giving a number grade and letting students and advisors know exactly where they stand overall at that point in time… the more important part of the midterm is understanding and having the conversation with your teachers about what you’re doing well, or what you could improve on,” said Robinson.


On the other hand, Heidi Wall, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, explained that the Math Department’s shift to pass/fail grades put a larger attention on instructor comments. She felt that the comments were more of a priority for students to hear than number grades at the midterm. 


“Our decision to move away from a number grade at the midterm was an effort to put more emphasis on the instructor’s comment and the feedback provided to the student in the comment. The midterm is a great time for students to reflect on their own progress and growth as learners. Sometimes a number grade can get in the way of a student really thinking about what they need to work on. Our hope was that focusing more on the feedback and less on the grade itself would help students to continue to grow as learners in their math classes,” wrote Wall in an email to The Phillipian


Such sentiments on comments were reflected by Andrew Chinn ’24. Chinn acknowledged that pass/fail grades should not make much of a difference at the midterm level. He said that students should be focused mostly on their comments and not on the grade accompanying them. 


Chinn said, “I think every student has a pretty good idea about what grade they have in general, so students prioritize more either how they can sustain the grade or how they can improve a certain grade. [When it comes to] receiving a numerical grade instead of pass/fail [grade], there isn’t really a big difference between the two simply because students should be more focused on the comments rather than the actual grade [itself].”


Although Mato Seth, Fellow in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science, gave students pass/fail grades and comments through the grading portal, he also gave his students their approximated numerical grades via email. However, he similarly placed an emphasis on teacher comments as the most important aspect of a student’s grades.


“I don’t think it had much of an impact. I think even if the number of the letter next to your grade is vague, the comments are supposed to be the meat of the feedback you’re getting. So, my recommendation for students would be to focus on the comments themselves rather than on the number. That can be more telling,” said Seth. 


Wall explained that the Math department’s decision to become pass/fail for midterm grades represented forthcoming efforts by the  math department to better understand and adapt to student needs. These changes have been guided by the effects of the pandemic, as the department wanted to help students adjust after a year of hybrid schooling. Wall appreciated this change and elaborated on her preference to focus on comments, and not grades, with her students.


Wall wrote in an email to The Phillipian, “The math department has started to think differently about the ways that we assess and the ways that we offer feedback to students. In addition, coming off of a year which forced us to re-evaluate things due to the hybrid nature of teaching, this decision felt more in line with being responsive to our students… As a teacher, I want my students to focus on what they know and what they need to work on, not on what their grade in the class is. To me, that can be a distraction from their learning.”


Robinson voiced the initial worries of the science department being the only numerically graded department at midterms. He discussed how the science instructors wanted to prevent students from  stressing over numerical grades, and reinforced the different purposes for the grading system. Robinson emphasized that midterm grades are an assessment of student progress and an indicator for both areas of success and needed improvement.


Robinson said, “I think that one of the concerns was that we were going to be the only department or division that was giving number grades at midterm. As such, the major concern on our part is that students might place more emphasis or more stress on that, when really what we are trying to do is what everyone is doing at midterm: to get people to focus on how you can improve as a student, what you’re doing well, and what you can do better.”