Up 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