Why the major research project should be graded pass/fail
by Heleen van Leur
As Master students in the Utrecht University Graduate School of Life Sciences we all do a nine-month research internship. This is the biggest component of the Master’s degree. However, the project’s numerical grading might decrease its value. I argue the grading system should be changed to a pass/fail system.
The major research project (MRP) is worth 51 ECTS and divided into three parts: the practical work, a written report and a presentation, respectively worth 60%, 30% and 10% of your final grade. All of which are graded numerically. For some this project is when you discover or deepen your passion for research, others might realise that academia is not their preferred field. In any case, it should be a very educational experience. So, why should the practical work be graded pass/fail?
When talking to peers, the sorrows sometimes seem to overshadow the joys of their project.
Firstly, various studies show that the psychological wellbeing of students improves when using a pass/fail grading system. The MRP is often perceived as a difficult and stressful part of the Master’s programme. When talking to peers, the sorrows sometimes seem to overshadow the joys of their project. Although a research project will always be a new, challenging experience, it should not induce unhealthy stress. Having all of your actions graded numerically over a nine-month period is an extra stressor. Since more than half of Dutch students experience mental health issues it might be wise to relieve some of this stress. Changing to a different grading system could unburden students and allow them to enjoy the project more.
Secondly, a pass/fail system could increase the educational value of the MRP. Many students learn by doing, and the MRP is a great way to try out various laboratory techniques or experiment with soft skills. A fear of failed attempts reflecting badly on the final grade might prevent students from exploring certain techniques. A pass/fail system shifts the focus to the learning experience, rather than the exact outcomes. So, it would give students the freedom to explore laboratory and soft skills, finding what works best for them.
A pass/fail system shifts the focus to the learning experience, rather than the exact outcomes.
Do the benefits of the numerical system outweigh the drawbacks? A numerical system is often favoured because it supposedly externally motivate students and enables differentiation between achievements of students. However, when pursuing a Master’s degree, students should already be intrinsically motivated and it is possible to recognise excellence by many other ways. For example, if a student publishes a paper or receives a glowing recommendation letter from their supervisor. On top of this, the remainder of the Master could remain numerically graded, giving ample opportunity to override the abovementioned concerns.
Although the numerical grading system provides benefits, those are clearly outweighed by its drawbacks and the benefits of the pass/fail system. I encourage the GSLS to look into these options and potentially follow many Ivy League universities who have switched to pass/fail systems over the last two years.