Monday, February 16, 2009

David fails to understand honors (/pass/fail grading)

In the long months since Kevin's illuminating "year 2 is just year 1's uglier, more high-maintenance sister" entry, we have received countless e-mails with pressing questions and comments about the absence of irreverent med school insider-y wit filling the empty spaces in the lives of our devoted public. Here's a sampling of our fan mail:

- Julia

I miss you guys so much it hurts sometimes.
- Jess

My one goal in life is to live long enough to see just one more post.
- John (the old one, not the stalker-y one)

Well, the posting drought ends now. RIP, John. (Oh, and Kevin has promised to write several more posts in the near future, though the quality may not rival 'year 2/year 1' brilliance.)


Second year, in all of its we-survived-first-year-and-now-we’re-almost-to-third-year glory, has added a new wrinkle to our academic lives: the ‘H.’ Whereas our med school employed a strictly Pass-Fail system during year one, we now face the world-altering prospect of a 50% increase in the number of possible grades. And though popular wisdom places these grades well down the totem pole of importance in one’s residency application, most students are nonetheless interested in filling their transcripts with as many pre-clinical H’s as they can muster.

The logic behind second year grades seems pretty clear: after a transitional first year where mastery of basic concepts is most important, an H/P/F system gives students a chance to distinguish themselves as the material becomes more advanced/clinically relevant. It rewards those who make the extra effort to excel, and such sustained motivation can only have a positive influence on one’s ultimate clinical competence.

Grading systems are designed to both motivate students and, by definition, stratify them based on performance. Grades provide valuable feedback to students and also give administrators at the next step in the academic ladder an essential signal about student achievement. There’s a reason med schools don’t let pre-meds take their pre-reqs P/F; a P only indicates the student demonstrated the minimum competence required to complete the course. Student X may have excelled or almost failed, but no one can know for sure within a purely P/F system.

The major downside of the H/P system is that, though it provides more information than the P/F system, it falls short of a third choice with a full range of grades (akin to the GPA system in college or HS) for no real reason. If adding the H makes sense, why not just take the plunge to a 4.0 scale with the traditional complement of +/-‘s? The purpose of grading is to provide valuable information to all interested parties: to students about their performance, to teachers about how well the material is being learned, to residency administrators about the academic prowess of prospective applicants, etc. If information is the goal, what benefits are there to purposefully providing less information in an H/P/F-only system*? Here are a few I’ve heard, but for the most part, they don’t stack up to deeper review:

1) The H/P/F system is less stressful.

In our system, a final grade of 90% or above usually qualifies one for honors. There may be extra essays involved to reach the holy honors land, but there’s always a numerical cut-off that separates the two strata. Thus, grading is essentially an all-or-none exercise. There is really no major difference in mastery between someone who scores 90% and someone with an 89.1%, yet there’s a reasonable chasm in their ultimate grades. The person with the 90% is in rarified air. The sub-90 % kid is left with a grade that is indistinguishable from a 70% effort. Compare this to a system in which 89% is a B+ and the resultant grade-point differential of a question or two is far less consequential. Which one is more stressful?

2) The H/P/F system motivates students to excel.

Though this is true, it fails to acknowledge that a more traditional grading system incorporates the same educational incentives without dragging along a few major downsides. In a typical 4.0 system, a student who gets an 85% in every class collects a series of B’s that ends up numerically equivalent to a colleague who gets half A’s and half C’s. In the H/P/F system, the former is left with a dreaded P-fest (teehee) while the latter gets rewarded with 50% H’s. Yet who is really the better student? The person who does consistently well but never aces anything or the one who completely ignores half of his classes in order to honor the other half? There may be no clear answer, but it is intuitively obvious that the H/P/F system incentivizes just this sort of all-or-none effort. Grades can both motivate students toward better performance and lead them to utilize practical ways to game the system.

3) It doesn’t really matter; preclinical grades are of little importance and it’s what you learn that determines how you perform when it really counts (during Step 1 and on the wards).

Sure, those other things are more important predictors of matching success than the preclinical transcript, but that doesn’t mean the latter is insignificant. At our school, preclinical grades factor into the behind-closed-doors ranking system that determines whether or not we’re eligible for AOA, which almost everyone agrees is a meaningful distinction. And regardless of how much they ‘matter,’ we should still try to find the best way to dole ‘em out.

4) Stop ranting and go do something useful like studying.

OK fine, you win. But instead of studying, I’m going to figure out if there’s some sort of 15-15-1 equivalent to residency applications…

*It’s not even so much, or at all, about how high the ‘H’ threshold is – it’s actually a lot easier to honor any given class at our school relative to the stories I’ve heard from friends at other institutions – but rather about the utility of the H/P/F system itself.


Jesse said...


Elizabeth said...

OMG you're back!!! I thought the blog was dead....
And I agree, H/P/F is dysfunctional.

D said...

It remains sort of dead (I actually wrote this rant a long time ago and forgot to post it).

Consider this the IDDx equivalent of a post-mortem Tupac release.

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