Honors-Satisfactory-Fail grades replace letter grades at the College of Pharmacy

What if all pharmacy students got high grades? What if the grading system was changed so students no longer were focused on a number or a letter, but only on learning what they needed to know to be a good pharmacist? What if the professors were freed from assigning grades, and given the ability to frequently and quickly test the students on their knowledge, and then were asked to work with the students who were falling behind to help them be successful?

Sound like a good idea?

That’s exactly the transformation being phased in at the College over the next three years, starting this past August, with Associate Professor Brenda Bray leading the team.

“We believe the focus of a professional Doctor of Pharmacy program should be on the mastery of essential knowledge and skills which prepare graduates to become competent pharmacists rather than on the attainment of grades,” Bray said.

“The Honors-Satisfactory-Fail grading model we have adopted allows us to measure student competency and achievement of well-defined learning objectives,” Bray said. “The traditional grading model – sometimes known as grading on the curve – evaluates student performance relative to the performance of other students in the class. With the honors/satisfactory/fail grading, one student’s success is not dependent on the poor performance of another student.”

Bray has 12 years of experience teaching third-year pharmacy students in the College’s Applied Patient Care Lab, where they have to apply their book knowledge to caring for patients and solving problems.

She has always been interested in innovative teaching methods and started using Human Patient Simulation in the Doctor of Pharmacy curriculum back in 2007 after she learned about it from a colleague in the WSU College of Nursing. The College of Pharmacy was one of the first pharmacy schools in the nation to use simulation in teaching <!–(Read more about simulation in the College)–>.

And when most professors hear the word “assessment” they tend to run the other way, whereas Bray is a self-described “assessment nerd.”  She has directed the College’s assessment program since 2007. Part of the assessment program includes collecting and studying the information that assesses the quality of the teaching and learning occurring in the College, and then collaborating with faculty to improve the curriculum and student learning based on that knowledge.

That made her a perfect fit for leading this change in the grading system.

A series of workshops led by teaching experts broadened the faculty understanding of the fundamental philosophies surrounding competency-based education.  The workshops also helped faculty modify their teaching and testing practices.  In the honors/satisfactory/fail model, tests are given every other week on smaller amounts of material, and students receive immediate feedback.

One teaching expert put it this way, “People don’t learn something the first time they hear it. They learn over time. So in order for students to achieve the objective, they need to know how they are doing. Frequent testing is communication back and forth instead of a grade. It is telling them, ‘You are half the way there.’”

Bray credits the dean of the College, Gary M. Pollack, with getting this change underway, an idea that he brought up at a faculty retreat in May 2012. The faculty were ready for it, took the idea and debated it, and by the following February, they had accepted it and were attending the workshops.

“Traditional grading results in behaviors faculty find obnoxious – from arguing for the extra tenth of a percentage point in their grade, up through cheating,” Pollack explained.  “Those behaviors won’t be eradicated, but the incentives to engage in them will be lower, and students will be more focused on learning what they need to know.”

As one of the first – if not THE first – traditional, established schools of pharmacy to adopt this innovative curricular model Bray and Pollack and others on the WSU team led a panel discussion about it last summer at the national meeting of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in Chicago. They drew a standing-room-only crowd of about 280 for the entire 90 minutes.

A research project is now underway to understand more about student motivation and learning in a competency-based curriculum.