I am not proud of the fact that early in my career I thought giving F’s in Calculus I made me a good teacher: every zero plopped into the course average signaled the rigors of college math. Now that my role has changed to institutional research, I spend much of my time analyzing student success. The importance of grading practices and GPA is everywhere I look: graduation rates and learning, teacher qualities and learning, instructional quality and learning, selection of majors and sense of belonging in college. Given the stakes, it’s fair to ask what is our justification for the peculiar letter grade of F? Why do we skip over E just to emphasize failure and then—adding injury to insult—average a zero into the all-important GPA? What purpose does this serve to the student, the university or the world outside? I’ll offer some reasons and considerations.
1. Failure is a warning to the world. Students who have failed in the past are likely to do so again in the future, so the F is advertising a deficit in personality or academic ability that is our duty to report on transcripts.
Sure, but F’s are like Dostoevsky’s unhappy families: they’re all different. A student who stops attending to take care of a sick parent is different from a student who is working two jobs to pay for school or one who was unlucky or unwise with course selections and ended up with a too-difficult schedule. Or one who just missed the withdrawal date. And that’s different from a student who was only admitted for tuition dollars, not because they had a chance academically.
As someone who works with educational data and thinks a lot about reliability and validity of measures, I find the predictivity argument weak and in need of empirical support to be taken seriously. But let’s assume that F’s are fairly given and valid indicators of future success. This still leaves us with a philosophical burden.
Doesn’t schooling entail the possibility of making mistakes that can be forgiven? Don’t we encourage students to be curious, to take chances so they can more freely explore their intellectual horizons? How does that peacefully coexist with “but you may be forever marked as a failure”? By comparison, shoplifting convictions may be expunged to give someone a chance in life to overcome a youthful indiscretion. What if every failed job application or paper rejected from a journal incurred a mighty F on your vita? Even if it was predictive, would that be fair?
2. The student didn’t learn anything. We use transcripts to advertise the skills and knowledge gained by students. What are we to do if they didn’t demonstrate any such gains?
I didn’t take any college courses on American Poetry (my loss: I enjoyed a MOOC on the subject years later), but my transcript doesn’t indicate this deficit with an F for that course or any of the thousands of other courses I didn’t take. Transcripts don’t exist to say what we didn’t learn, but what we did learn. We could simply not list the course a student received an F in or transmute it into a W without losing any information.
3. An F sends a clear message to the student. The severe consequences of an F motivate students to work harder and therefore learn more.
An F tanks a GPA, which can put a student in peril of academic sanctions, not qualifying for a desired major, losing financial aid, having to repeat a course and so on. So the cost of failure is high. Is it high enough? Maybe an F should result in immediate expulsion. That would motivate the students even more, right? Exactly how severe should the consequences of failure be so that our standards aren’t allowed to slip due to unmotivated students?
Given the high cost of college and the high opportunity costs of being out of the labor market for years, a grade of W is already severe enough. A couple of these may mean an extra semester to finish. Do we really need to add a permanent signal of moral failure to the scales? This is measurable, if you want to test it and the stakes are high, so I think students would be justified in asking for an empirical demonstration of the motivational effects of F-giving. Note that there is good evidence that the rigor of grading matters, but rigorous grading can exist without the F.
4. Surely cheaters deserve an F. In cases of academic dishonesty, an F serves as suitable punishment as well as a permanent mark of sin.
If you want to give an F for cheating, go right ahead, but note that the course isn’t the issue. Cheating in chemistry isn’t morally different from cheating in English. So rather than a course grade, a declaration of the finding is more appropriate (“The student was found to have committed plagiarism”). If F’s signal cheating some of the time, how is the reader of a transcript to distinguish between dishonesty and the many other reasons a student could receive an F? Rather this confusion, it would be better to cleanly separate the business of rating course mastery from moral judgments by removing grades from consideration. It makes sense that a student should have to repeat a course if they cheated, but the connection to grades is unsustainable. Consider a student found to have cheated in a one-credit class, who then receives an F, and a different student in a five-credit class in the same situation. The GPA consequences are five times as much for the second student. Is the magnitude of moral failure proportional to course credits?
5. Some students just aren’t going to make it. Many students must retain full-time status to receive financial aid. If they can’t withdraw because of the credit threshold, we don’t have any other options than an F for failure.
This is unfortunately a significant reason why we give F’s, but the moral failure is ours, not the students. If we admit them to the university, are we not obligated to provide a path for them to succeed? Why then are the most vulnerable ones—the students who are already financially and academically stressed, the ones most likely to need to withdraw—why are they put in the position of having to trade GPA for cash? If we really care about equity of outcomes, we could do worse than starting with this problem.
It's probably impossible to change the grading system in the short term, with all its cultural inertia and algorithms within administrative software. However, this is an issue where individual choices can make significant differences. Give students every chance to withdraw if they are in peril; make the last date as late as possible or bend the rules. For students who can’t withdraw without losing full-time status, there are other workarounds, like a pass/fail class that can be added near the end of the term. Even better, create class schedules for at-risk students with some forgiveness built in.
If none of this convinces you, ask the institutional research office to analyze what types of students are most likely to receive F’s. See if the answer is acceptable.