Do Grades Enhance learning? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in a Liberal Arts College

Posted: 2 Jul 2021

See all articles by Guillem Riambau

Guillem Riambau

Universitat de Barcelona; University of Barcelona - Barcelona Institute of Economics (IEB)

Scott Lee Chua

Yale-NUS College; National University of Singapore

Timothy Wertz


Date Written: June 21, 2021


This paper examines how grades affect students' learning using data from a liberal arts college in Singapore. We examine a natural experiment where, in 2017, the grading policy for an introductory statistics module was exogenously changed from letter grade to pass/fail, but the content, format, difficulty, and modes of assessment remained exactly the same. Our dataset includes all results from individual twice-weekly quizzes and two exams for five cohorts | three under letter-grade and two under pass/fail. Our results show that pass/fail students initially work as hard as letter-graded students, but tend to lower their effort as the course goes on | with a sharp decrease right after the first exam. This suggests that, as soon as students realize they have secured a \pass", they choose to allocate their time and effort to other subjects or activities. We find that intending to major closely related to the subject does not explain relatively better performance under a pass/fail scheme. This suggests that students who exert consistent effort regardless of the grading scheme are either those who are naturally gifted or those who are driven by personal ambition (whether to learn, score well, or outperform their peers). Our results suggest that pass/fail policies could safely be implemented more extensively: the loss in acquired knowledge is marginal and could easily be compensated in terms of personal time and mental health.

Keywords: Education; Grades; Effort; Learning

Suggested Citation

Riambau, Guillem and Chua, Scott Lee and Wertz, Timothy, Do Grades Enhance learning? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in a Liberal Arts College (June 21, 2021). Available at SSRN:

Guillem Riambau (Contact Author)

Universitat de Barcelona ( email )

Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 585
Barcelona, 08007

University of Barcelona - Barcelona Institute of Economics (IEB) ( email )

c/ John M. Keynes, 1-11
Barcelona, 08034

Scott Lee Chua

Yale-NUS College ( email )

16 College Avenue West
Singapore, 138527

National University of Singapore ( email )


Timothy Wertz

Independent ( email )

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