Discussion at FPN about pass/fail assessment

01-02-2021

MAASTRICHT. Not marking student exams with a grade, but just giving a pass or a fail: what are the advantages and disadvantages? This was discussed in the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience’s latest faculty council meeting.

The FPN board decided in spring not to give students grades for some exams because of COVID-19. Instead, they only hear whether they have passed or not; the so-called pass/fail assessment.

The idea is that students are less stressed if they don’t feel the pressure of achieving a high grade in order to maintain their Grade Point Average (GPA). “They already had to get used to a different way of testing,” said Petra Hurks, vice dean of education, during the meeting. The students received, for example, an online exam or open questions instead of multiple-choice questions.

The faculty already started with an experiment of pass/fail assessment in 2019, in the second-year block Man and Machine. “We notice that students mainly focus on the subject matter that is important for the exam during the group discussions,” said block co-ordinator and initiator of the experiment Herco Fonteijn at the time in Observant. “They are afraid of scoring one-tenth of a point lower because they have spent too much time on something that they like, but may not come up in the exam.”

The plan was to run the pilot project for three years. If the results were positive – both in terms of student well-being and satisfaction, as well as the quality of the discussions and exam results –the faculty would introduce pass/fail in more blocks. This has all accelerated because of COVID-19.

A little too fast for the council’s liking. “Fifty per cent of the first-year subjects now have a pass/fail assessment,” council member on behalf of academic staff Anna Sagana remarked. “I think that is a lot, certainly if we were to continue along that line after the crisis. I don’t mind discussing the traditional grade assessment, but then we also have to look at other alternatives. I especially fear that this may mask student stress. You still have to pass an exam.”

Student member Ana Reinartz Groba wondered how that would work for students who wanted to do a master’s, where people require a certain GPA. Hurks said that the faculty could attach a letter to the list of marks, in which they explain that the GPA is based on fewer subjects. In a letter that Fonteijn wrote to the council, he says that it will make very little difference. “In 2018/2019 the average grade was 7.57. If you drop the seven blocks that now have a pass/fail assessment because of COVID-19, you end up with 7.46.”

This wasn’t sufficient to eliminate the council members’ doubts. “Students are less motivated to work hard for a pass/fail,” said student member Nokhez Usama. “You also can’t see your progress throughout the year. Moreover, what do we do with the selection of student tutors? The condition at the moment is that candidates have gained a good result for the subject concerned.” Member on behalf of academic staff Michael Capalbo remarked that the same problem arises when selecting students for the honours programme.

The discussion was closed with the promise to pick it up again at a later stage, not just within the council, but also within the rest of the faculty. Dean Harald Merckelbach asked the council to think about which percentage of pass/fail assessments per year they would find acceptable. Council chairman Capalbo already stated that he would certainly want it to be less than the current 50 per cent.