Why do we report failing grades in college? Common responses will include the traditionally cited (but perhaps not thoroughly articulated) concepts of academic rigor and standards. People may ask, “How can we uphold our standards if we do not report failing grades? Won’t students be getting away with bad grades? Can’t they game the system this way?”
But I would challenge these questions with some of my own. What exactly would students be “getting away with”? How would they be “gaming the system”? And perhaps most importantly, how does not reporting failing grades “lower standards”?
Choosing not to report failing grades does not mean that students are getting credit for something they failed to learn. It simply means that students are not required to advertise their failures! It is critical to understand that there is a difference between giving failing grades where appropriate and what we decide to do with these grades later. To be clear, I am not arguing that instructors should refrain from giving students Fs—this is a natural and sometimes necessary part of the university education system. I am simply questioning the value of communicating failing grades to the next stage of our students’ lives.
It is interesting to note that college is one of the last times we care about which things you failed instead of only focusing on the things you managed to do well. Once you are out of college, no one requires you to put a list of skills you do not have or jobs you failed to get on your resume. You list the skills you do have and the jobs you did have. Even as faculty, we are never required to report all the books, papers, and proposals we failed to get published or funded. We report our successes, not our failures. (I recognize that there are some “failures” that we are required to report. But my point is that this is not the norm, and it is reserved for what I would characterize as “extreme” failures that are more significant than failing a course in college. Deciding which “failures” need to be reported is a whole separate conversation.)
It feels like a law of nature that we identify and call out students for the courses they failed. And yet, the purpose for this is unclear. Students know when they failed a class, and that is enough. Instead of forcing students to publicize their failed courses, it seems sensible that failed courses simply should not appear on their transcripts—the same way we do not keep track of our failures as part of a job application.
How would our university system change if we did not report failing grades? Our purpose is to educate students and let the world know what they’ve learned. If we consider the individual student, their goals are to discover what they are good at and to demonstrate that they are able to master a set of requirements. With both these things considered, students would still need to fulfill general university requirements and receive passing grades in a set of courses to demonstrate that they have mastered a subject (their major). If a student did fail a required course, then they would have to retake it until they earned a passing grade. So, when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, not much would change if we adopted a system that did not report failing grades. The only significant shift would be the impact on a student’s GPA.
Interestingly, in a system that does not report failing grades, a student’s GPA may be more meaningful. Consider the UCI quarter system and a student taking four courses a quarter, each worth four units. Imagine that due to exploration and not having the right major, the student fails six courses during their first year. But, after finding the right major, they earn a total of 15 As and 27 Bs by the end of their four years. Another student steadily earns all Bs. Under our current system, the first student would have a 2.94 GPA while the second would have a 3.0 GPA.
In this example, the first student clearly outperformed the second student once they found their area of interest. And, if you ignore the Fs from their first year, the student’s GPA would be 3.35. Unfortunately, in a competitive job market where there is a significant number of applicants for a single position, it is unlikely that an employer will recognize this point.
I go back to the fundamental question I find myself asking this year: Are we somehow gatekeepers and enforcers that need to constantly remind students of their failings and short-comings, or are we educators whose goal is to help them find what they are good at and be the best they can be within their chosen discipline? Isn’t our joint goal to show the world what students can do and how well they can do it? If so, then it seems like a system focused on tracking student failures distracts from our real work.
Imagine how the conversation would change if failing a course did not go on a student’s permanent record or lower their GPA but simply acknowledged that they did not learn course material well enough to pass this time around. This would open a conversation about why they failed and create a space for discovery. Was there something else going on in their life? Did they discover they didn’t like the material enough to put in the time to learn it? Did they underestimate how much time it takes to learn the material, and having learned this lesson, want to tackle it a second time?
In principle, these conversations are technically possible in a world where an F lives on a transcript and becomes part of a GPA, but they are much harder. The F is a major distraction and barrier and simply not having the course recorded removes this barrier in positive ways.
On the surface, I recognize this appears to be a radical proposal. However, when you look at the numbers, this change would only impact a few courses for any given student (and no courses for most students) because graduation already requires an average GPA of 2.0 or greater! No longer reporting failing grades would also save some students time and money. Too many students are forced to take additional courses to raise their GPA despite having clearly achieved enough in their chosen major to graduate.
From my perspective of reflecting on what our fundamental purpose and goals as a university are, this seems the obvious way to think about grades and courses—give students credit for the courses they demonstrate sufficient learning in and provide some indication of how much was mastered with a few levels of passing grades. Ultimately, reporting and punishing students for failed courses (that they might have failed for any number of legitimate reasons) doesn’t play an integral role in these goals, and we should seriously consider eliminating this practice.