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P’s get degrees: Pass/fail grading in dental school

pass/failUp until dental school, most of us took every exam looking for that desired “A” to stay academically competitive and turn our dental dreams into reality. Currently there are a number of dental schools breaking that mold and implementing a pass-fail grading system. Anything above a set point determined by the school or professor is simply considered passing or a “P” grade. While some people question the GPA-lacking method, in 2012 the Joint Commission on National Dental Examinations (JCNDE) announced the switch to pass-fail was being adopted by the NBDE. The JCNDE’s reason for the change was that numerical grades are not always reflective of the competencies needed to be a successful professional or resident.

I attend LECOM, a dental school that opened with the pass-fail system, and have personally been able to see this philosophy firsthand. I surveyed 110 current LECOM students and 79% of respondents like the pass-fail curriculum. The attractiveness stems from all the positives that arise when the pressure on numbers and stress in rank are finally lifted. Students can take risks to explore the dental field as a whole, and not dwell on the point difference between an A and a B. The purpose of dental school is to become a competent dentist, and a big portion of successfully entering the dental profession is being confident in what you do and how you do it. Because a P is a P at the end of the day, there is no need to compete against peers or get frustrated if a hard professor places bad marks due to a small error.

Excelling in different areas of dentistry, while struggling with others is an inevitable part of the dental school experience. Naturally, some people have better skills or more experience in certain areas. Eliminating the numerical grades allows students to help future colleagues, without the worry of throwing off a class curve, or spending precious study time tutoring someone in need. My classmates and I work together to study and share our resources instead of competing with each other. From my experience at LECOM, I can attest that one of the best feelings is receiving an email stating the whole class has passed that killer 7 a.m. exam. We all helped each other, worked together, and were successful at achieving a common goal. Not to say all of this does not happen in a GPA-driven school, but the P/F environment nurtures and encourages a team-centered atmosphere.

Although a large number of students may like the pass-fail system, not all do. It clearly is not for everyone. People who wish to move on to a graduate program no longer have their high GPA to set them apart. Without grades and test scores, applicants attending these pass-fail schools can no longer depend on working hard and having a 4.0 GPA to gain admissions to post-grad programs. Instead they are forced to stand out in others ways such a leadership, research, externships and community service. For a student who thrives and wants to receive the well-earned 4.0 GPA, whether to put on a graduate application or to put a number to the hard work, the pass-fail system falls short.

With the conversion of the NBDE, the pass-fail concept related to dental school is getting more attention than ever. Two very different ways of education, but both have proven successful. For some future dentists, attending a pass-fail school is not ideal, while many others love saying bye to A-F and embrace the P/F way of life. What are your thoughts on the pass/fail curriculum? Let us know in the comments section below!

~Brantley McCarty, LECOM ’17

Brantley McCarty

Brantley is a second year dental student at LECOM School of Dental Medicine, where she is very active in both ASDA and student government. She is a Virginia Tech Hokie, but never plans on leaving her new home state, sunny Florida.​ When not in school, she enjoys traveling, going to music festivals and instagraming--which all luckily go hand-in-hand.

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  1. Sadaf Deedar says:

    Nice article!

    What other dental schools have implemented the pass-fail system?

    1. Hi Sadaf,

      I don’t know of a comprehensive list of pass/fail dental schools. If you’re applying to dental school, I recommend asking about their grading scale at your visit. You may also be able to find this information on a school’s website.

  2. Ryane Staples says:

    Wonderful article and I love how you tackled a very hot topic in dental education right now! It will be interesting to see what the next 5 years brings for changes to dental school curricula, particularly with whether more schools move to a P/F system.

  3. Brent says:

    I think it might be good to have pass/fail for the class as a whole, but what about boards? Boards could still be graded, so you can see who studied for the test, and those who went deeper and their studies and who really learned the material. There is a student in my class that excels in his studies, and REALLY knows his stuff, but on a pass fail, it doesn’t reflect his commitment. So I think we could have the best of both worlds. Pass fail for individual classes, and have the boards be graded again. That way you get the creative cooperation among classmates working up to the boards, and then the stars can really shine and differentiate themselves for grad programs. Just a thought. I like some aspects of pass fail, but don’t think it’s fair to everyone involved.

  4. Allan Jauregui says:

    A Pass/Fail system obviously has both advantages and disadvantages. One potential benefit is that it could allow for the return of a more open-response type of system. I believe that technology and class sizes have cause the education system testing as a whole to be multiple-choice for the purpose of standardization and convenience. But I believe this doesn’t necessarily reflect knowledge. Students may get A’s in multiple choice exams and still not be able to explain the material. With the P/F method, instructors may ask fewer questions, read the responses and give a P/F grade without fear of being unfair from the lack of standardization. An open response system in my opinion clearly reflects a student’s level of understanding of a subject.

  5. Alexander says:

    Great article, Brantley!
    I definitely appreciate how we support each other at LECOM. What other dental school fosters collaboration like us? With all the stresses inherent to dental school, being cut-throat with peers is not high on my to-do list.

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