UMN Med School may adopt pass/fail grade scale

The school is considering changing the grade system for first and second-year students.

The current layout of clinics within the Phillips-Wangensteen Building is not conducive for the workflow of physicians, residents and nurses. The University of Minnesota Medical School, the University of Minnesota Physicians and Fairview will partner to fund a new site.

Marisa Wojcik

The current layout of clinics within the Phillips-Wangensteen Building is not conducive for the workflow of physicians, residents and nurses. The University of Minnesota Medical School, the University of Minnesota Physicians and Fairview will partner to fund a new site.

David Clarey

As scores of medical schools across the nation have changed grading scales, the University of Minnesota is considering following suit.

Currently, the school uses a pass-fail-honors scale, but the Medical School Student Council decided at a recent meeting to ask the school to change it to pass-fail for first and second-year students. Supporters tout it as a tool to increase the mental wellness of students.

The current system at the University assigns the top 20 percent of the first and second-year medical students as honors, and the rest as either pass or no-pass.

According to March 1 Medical School Student Council meeting minutes, a majority of students in the council supported the change. The Committee on Undergraduate Medical Education Duluth has already voted for the change at its campus. It’s now being reviewed by the University medical school committees and administration.

Medical School administrators and student council representatives declined to comment, citing the preliminary nature of the discussion. Student council members from the Duluth campus didn’t respond to interview requests.

If approved, the University would follow a wave of other medical schools changing grading scales to pass-fail for first and second-year students. According to an Association of American Medical Colleges report, in 2012-2013 there were 71 schools with a pass-fail grading scale. In 2015-2016, that number was 89.

Most schools that have made the switch keep the pass-fail-honors or letter-grade system for third-year medical students because it helps residency applications, said Stuart Slavin, associate dean for curriculum at Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine.

Supporters say the change helps relieve the notoriously stressful medical school atmosphere.

In a 2008 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine journal, about 50 percent of students across seven medical schools reported they had experienced burnout.

“There’s certain kinds of stress we want medical students to experience, like something going wrong in an operating room,” said Robert Bloodgood, a professor in the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “The kind of stress associated with [exams] is not something we want.”

In schools that have implemented changes, mental wellbeing has improved and competitiveness among students has decreased.

In 2009, Bloodgood conducted one of the first studies looking at the effects of switching grading scales. Then, only 33 schools had a two-measure grading scale like pass-fail. His study found positive results.

Bloodgood’s study at the University of Virginia found that by almost every measure the students’ mental health had improved. Students reported increased satisfaction with their education and personal life.

“Suicide [and] depression are unusually high in medical students. There was a real goal to reduce this unnecessary stress,” he said.

At the University of Virginia, some faculty worried there would be decreased attendance in classes, and students were concerned it could affect their residency placement. However, the study showed neither of those things happened.

In addition to adjusting curriculum content and time spent in courses to alleviate mental health problems, Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine changed their grading scale to pass-fail.

Slavin said changing the grading scale was critical in improving student mental health.

The change gave students more time for activities outside of school.

“I think the University of Minnesota may be an outlier,” Slavin said.