I have a theory that if standardized grading were abolished for a pass/fail system, people would be more mathematically competent.

Bear with me here. With graded homework, especially homeworks that come with diminishing returns (limited attempts that reduce points with every failing attempt) - I argue that makes an incentive to search up answers online (online calculators, Chegg, etc.). When people do this they set up themselves to fail or do poorly in their exams.

You can argue graded homework encourages people to do homework, and I agree with this but the problem is it doesn't necessarily encourage them to do their homework without aid. There's a multitude of factors that contribute to poor studying and cheating, such as universities having credit requirements too steep for young adults to endure simultaneously with responsibilities like work, bills, parenthood, etc. (which are clearly designed to maximize tuition profit). I think with consideration to reduce economic and academic stress imposed on students as well as abolishing our standardized grading system, we could really maximize success in the classroom. We wouldn't have students landing in calc 2 with a poor understanding of differentiation just because they managed to pass calc 1 with a 70%, or students that rely on homework, quizzes, curves, etc., to pass just because they consistently do poorly on their exams. I think the fact they do poorly on their exams is an indication our grading system is not doing its job.

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    $\begingroup$ How would you determine whether to pass or fail a student? $\endgroup$
    – JRN
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 4:04
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    $\begingroup$ The students who would look up answers to do their homework, are unlikely to suddenly work hard because there are no grades but Pass/Fail. $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 5:52
  • $\begingroup$ Many colleges/universities instituted mandatory Pass/Fail during the pandemic spring semester. Perhaps we could hear 1st-hand experiences. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ I've read the question several times, and I can't make out what the argument is. The first paragraph makes a claim (pass-fail would lead to greater competence). The second paragraph identifies a problem (cheating on homework). I'm not having any success understanding what is being argued in the third paragraph. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @BenCrowell In the third paragraph I argue cheating isn't really an issue of lazy or careless students, its a product of stress to get high grades. I think GPA pressures, credit pressures, financial pressures, etc., drain people and encourage them to cheat. I argue by reducing or eliminating these pressures people will naturally put in more effort. How I'd determine whether a student passes or fails is by their attendance, involvement in in-class activities, and their exams. I'm not sure how I'd structure the exam assessments but It's an idea I think is worth considering. $\endgroup$
    – Lex_i
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 23:34

2 Answers 2


Proficiency in any field requires putting some rather high number of hours of hard work (some 10,000 hours or so) into it. You have to align the incentives of would-be learners so they do put in that time. If the best way is just pass/fail or a grade system is anybody's guess, but perhaps a search will turn up rigorous studies on the matter.

Note that I don't consider asking Google, looking up the solution in Wikipedia or having Wolfram Alpha compute the hairy formula "cheating", those are tools that you have to learn to use well to be proficient in your area. Those are raw inputs, how you use it is what is important.


You don't show why, not can I see how, your change to a digital outcome from a scaled one would change the behavior that concerns you, cheating on graded homework.

In contrast, I can see how changes like eliminating graded homework and replacing it with in class orictored exams would reduce, not eliminate, but reduce, cheating. Because it is harder under those conditions.

Furthermore, even if changing to pass fail helped reduce cheating, it would be important to consider other aspects of losing a scaled measurement. Real world problems are multivariable, not x and y. You need to consider various impacts of a change.


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