Differences in Medical Students’ Academic Performance between a Pass/Fail and Tiered Grading System

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Abstract

Objectives

Medical school implementation of a pass/fail grading system offers the opportunity for a reduction in student stress and anxiety and the creation of a less competitive environment, leading to an improvement in overall well-being. Some critics of a pass/fail system have raised concerns of a decrement in academic performance. The purpose of this research project was to determine whether medical students at the Medical College of Georgia experienced a significant change in academic performance when graded using a pass/fail grading system rather than a tiered grading system in the year 1 curriculum.

Methods

This retrospective cohort study included a convenience sample of two cohorts of students: the first had tiered grading in the first year of medical school (classes of 2015 and 2016; n = 389) and the second cohort had pass/fail grading in the first year of medical school (classes of 2017 and 2018; n=385). Students’ undergraduate grade point average and Medical College Admission Test scores in the two cohorts were compared. The first- and second-year averages and comprehensive finals, and the US Medical Licensing Examination step 1 scores were compared. Mann-Whitney U tests were calculated to compare the cohorts’ grades.

Results

Overall, both cohorts performed similarly in the first and second year of medical school and on US Medical Licensing Examination step 1; however, there were a few unimportant but statistically significant differences of 1 to 2 points on a 100-point scale. In a few instances, the pass/fail cohort performed slightly better and in others, slightly worse.

Conclusions

Overall academic performance was similar. The potential for an enhanced learning environment associated with pass/fail grading does not create an important decrement in academic performance.

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