Gary Conroy
Gary is a visionary entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Learn to Start

How to Create Effective Pass/Fail Learning Environments

It is only more recently that I have begun to realize the true challenge high school leaders face in order to bring about real change to their schools as they seek to build more effective learning environments. In a recent phone interview I was conducting with a potential candidate for an entrepreneurial studies instructor position that is pass/fail in nature I was asked this question by that candidate: “but do your students really take the class serious?”

After almost five years of developing solutions and building disruptive environments for school partners, it was in this one question that it became crystal clear to me that part of the solution to changing education must be to introduce new development programs for teachers that can ensure they gain the skills to become the force that drives the change education so desperately needs. I do not mean more investment in professional development as we know it today but something very new entirely. I think most teachers would agree that what is being offered today is not really working.

If the criticism towards current education is that it is not progressing in line with the modern age we live in or that students are not getting access to the skills they need in a 21st century economy then for many of us it would seem simple enough to adjust and pivot the system to suit those needs. In this case that adjustment would likely involve moving away from a more heavily graded-centric system and offer far more options to students by using elective courses that are more pass/fail in nature and that encourage students to find their passions and interests by giving them far greater access to real world experiences that brings about real skill building.

At The Startup Studio we build programs and workshops where instructors guide students through a more mentorship style of instruction so as to direct students towards becoming self-learners and always allowing failure to be present. In fact, in these environments, the instructor is critical to guidance and is trained to approach the classroom with some of the skills more reflective of an executive manager, business owner or even CEO while the student is placed more in the role of an employee or apprentice.

Problem solving, effective communication, creativity and collaboration are the constants of our everyday classroom. The instructor or mentor, who is always positioned towards the back of the room, is there to ensure each individual student is encouraged and allowed time to develop and all at different rates knowing every child is different in how they learn. To date these environments are experiencing very strong results and we are seeing students develop into highly effective learners, independent self-thinkers and confident young adults.

So why are school classrooms not making these type of shifts at more exponential rates?

There are 3 main leading contributors to consider when answering this question and while this article is actually going to closely look at a fourth; let’s take a quick look at them.

  1. Colleges and Universities are still requiring the same metrics from students wanting to gain entrance into their institutions. Those metrics can only be attained from heavily graded course work (GPA) and standardized tests (SAT/ACT). 
  2. Parents still belong to a culture that believe the measure of their children’s success in school comes from the grades they acquire and all under the belief that their child must go to college.
  3. The entire education system, whether private or public, has been built on an accreditation system that is heavily scaled, massive in size and rooted in grades.

When you combine these three factors together it becomes obvious why change is almost impossible for most schools. For public schools it is immeasurably difficult because the entire system is simply too big, too formulated, and steeped in the bureaucracy of a massive governmental management system. For independent schools it actually becomes more about appeasing the customer who right now remains the parent and therefore, with that customer in mind, it is the college acceptance rates and test scores that is currently the measure by which private schools are being assessed on and not the students overall fulfillment.

So for now, if these schools are to remain sustainable, profitable and effective those acceptance rates and test scores must remain high. In short, these schools have become a feeder system for colleges and universities more than being a platform for providing exceptional education to develop highly successful and fulfilled students. I look forward to discussing these three contributors in more depth in future articles but there is a fourth, more micro cause for this lack of ability to change in education and that is where I want to offer some solution here.

Even if we assume a school pushing for real change by introducing a lot of the ideas that The Startup Studio is finding success with and even if such a school seeks to launch more elective type classes with a lean towards pass/fail as opposed to graded environments the problem now becomes more complex and can be examined from a three pronged perspective.

  1. Pass/Fail type environments are unfamiliar to most teachers.
  2. Pass/Fail environments require a high degree of trust to be established between instructor and student.
  3. Pass/Fail environments require instructors with high skill levels in mentorship and leadership in order to ensure learning is effective and that students are serious about that learning.

I have stated to so many people over the years when we discuss change in education that if the student was regarded as the customer of the overall global school system it would indeed be fast approaching a bankrupt state of affairs. Part of our mission at The Startup Studio is to help school leaders by providing training platforms that can develop their teachers so that the teachers can themselves build environments that begin to bring solutions to their own classrooms but created by them and not forced on them from the top down. The type of positive change we are encouraging is one that can bring about the kind of learning that is tangible and applicable to the real world.

While these training sessions are in-depth and involve two or three day workshops my goal here is to share four essential ideas that The Startup Studio believe must exist in order to operate pass/fail environments effectively. However, before we begin let us first better define what we mean by a pass/fail environment.

Almost all teachers use a syllabus to organize their lesson plans for their classrooms. The syllabus is essentially everything the teacher must cover with the student over a given school year. At frequent intervals along the way, most often at the end of syllabus sections, the teacher must test the student on the level of understanding or competency each student has on that particular section covered by the teacher. Within each part of the syllabus teachers use a rubric that is a guide to the student on what they are required to know in order to receive a good grade on the tests been given. The rubric is, therefore, the framework used by the student to know exactly what is expected of them. Now this might seem obvious to everyone reading it and almost all of us have experienced this in our own education but perhaps read the paragraph again asking yourself this important question as you do.




Let’s face it. In a world where we are given rubrics neither one of those two traits is required or worse yet can actually exist.

In an effective pass/fail, or better defined, non-graded class we take the shift away from the grade to allow learning to happen in a more purposeful way and based on the student taking ownership of their own learning. This non-graded environment mirrors that of the real world where success or failure (Pass or Fail) are the only two outcomes and where there is little to no information on what the framework is. Better said, there is no rubric. However, the ability to build effective pass/fail classrooms that experience highly positive outcomes for students and one that those students take very seriously is a far more complicated endeavor than it might seem.

It was the question from the candidate, “but do your students really take this class seriously?” that made me realize this fact more than ever before and while we have built highly effective training programs to assist teachers in this endeavor I want to share four ideas I believe teachers must embrace so as to begin their journey of building effective non-graded environments should they be given the opportunity to do so.

1. There must be high stakes built into the work students are doing.

Students in graded classes are cultured to be mostly motivated only by either the attaining of the coveted “A” grade or the threat of receiving the dreaded “F” (which these days seems to be any grade not an “A”). Grades have eliminated the students “want to learn” and replaced it with a “have to learn” culture that is based in fast study and, unfortunately, more and more cases of cheating, increased anxiety, increased use of drugs and medication and all to suit the stress of the learning environments we have created.

While we can begin to eliminate a lot of that in the non-graded classroom we must understand that students still require motivation to ensure they are moving forward and learning. These are still teenagers and have many distractions in their lives.

Therefore, in order to be successful in operating effective classrooms without the grade as the motivator or threat you now must introduce effective substitutes. That means ensuring the students within these classes have to illustrate their learning and competency throughout the year but in a way that gives them access to real world stakes. For example, in Entrepreneurial Studies all students must attend an annual network event where they will meet entrepreneurs and members of the community in a public forum in which they are required to network and share their startup companies.

In this type of experience the student automatically tends to work hard so as to ensure they are prepared because they quickly realize it is their own personal brand and reputation that is at stake. They also realize there is real opportunity for them to meet important people that could potentially become a pivotal relationship capable of advancing their own dreams and desires or at a minimum advancing the start up company they are currently working on. So make sure you find unique high stakes experiences for your students as you begin to create your class activities.

2. There must be absolute transparency into the student’s personal brand and overall integrity both as an individual and as a team member.

This is where your skill of mentorship and instructor rather than “teacher” becomes tested. In these environments the student can no longer be treated as one of twenty other students all measured and tested using one system. Instead you now must create an open environment where constant conversation and discussion is at the forefront of the day to day activity and where that discussion is driven by the students. You must encourage constant live feedback on every student’s performance in a way that is trusted by all as a result of your leadership but that is highly effective in constantly outing the students that are falling short. By doing this students will learn the real world of what it means to own their reputations and work to build those reputations over time as they get full transparency into their constant shortfalls and failures.

In ES for example, students are constantly having to present their ideas and startups to the rest of the class and oftentimes real world, local entrepreneurs. Everyone is encouraged to offer opinion and feedback as well as offer criticism and advise. Students on the same team will often begin to blame one another publicly right there in the middle of feedback rounds out of the frustration they are encountering as a team.

All of this brings full transparency to everyone’s performance and in almost all of the time, assuming the instructor is running a highly effective environment, everyone will continue to rise up and improve themselves. For those that do not they can and will be fired which brings you back to point 1 above. The stakes must always be high.

3. Instructors must portray a high degree of emotional intelligence along with strong leadership skills. 

Think what CEOs must become in order to run their companies effectively. She must be strong. She must be an incredible leader. She must inspire greatness. She must inspire risk, and the willingness of her team to fail in order to accomplish great things and to a certain degree she must be feared in order to be respected. The list goes on. You too must become those things if you truly expect to own a highly effective non-graded class where learning is optimal and highly effective.

The rubric is gone. The syllabus is gone (hidden), the tests and grades are gone. All this should mean that you are becoming something very different than you had to be in that graded environment. You now have the opportunity to build a very strong and meaningful relationship with every one of the students in the class in a way you likely never did before. However, that does not mean becoming their friend and sometimes in an environment where trust and relationship building are essential parts of your success that can be a difficult line not to cross.

In my experience I have found that students do not want friends as teachers. They need guidance from serious adults. Without a high degree of respect in place your non-graded class could easily become a place where your students do not take what you are doing very serious. That could be a disaster. You must, therefore, look at your skill sets and ask yourself this question…

what do I need to learn to ensure I am the leader that this class needs to ensure the outcome I want?

You cannot put it on students if they do not take you seriously enough. That is just not fair. You must be passionate about the class you are running and bring real management skills to it because that is what your students are going to need.

4. There must be a completely flipped classroom where the students are self-learners and have real ownership. 

Graded classrooms can be difficult environments in which to build a fully flipped classroom. You are burdened by the need to complete a syllabus in a very linear and structured way and you have a lot of testing to get to throughout the year which means it is hard to give up control of your class to the students as you simply want to be as efficient as possible, remain on task, and ensure you do not get behind and I can certainly appreciate that.

I do believe we can train teachers of graded classes the art of building flipped environments by exposing them to workshops that really guide them to having entrepreneurial mindsets where they can bring control and innovation into their classrooms. However, it is imperative that the pass/fail environment is completely flipped all of the time and all of the way. Literally speaking you should never step foot in the front of the classroom again. Why?

A pass/fail environment should place the subject you are teaching secondary to the skills you are developing in each student. For example, in my programs entrepreneurship is simply the vehicle we use to develop students that can ultimately become highly confident and effective communicators, highly efficient collaborators, constant challengers and users of their creativity and all in a way where critical thinking and problem solving are prioritized. All of this is combined to ensure real solutions are being found. More important, we stress that students are looking closer at problem identification meaning they are seeking to find problems that are actually worth solving. In the end, we want to build students that know themselves, are self empowered, and that are prepared to graduate into a world in which they have real control.

To properly achieve all of this we must hand over the classroom to the student from day one and as early as possible in their high school careers. This is the safe place in which they can fail day in and day out. It should be an environment in which you are challenging them to learn real leadership.

Finally, it must be the place you should ensure they gain full transparency of their failures and in such a way that they become highly motivated self-learners, capable of coming to their own conclusion that in order to find real success you must first learn to define what success actually means to you on an independent and individual level. This will only happen if the “teacher” transforms to the “mentor” and steps out of the control role and into one of guidance.


With these four ideas at play new school environments can become robust environments filled with self-learners. There will no longer be any sign of a standard rubric but instead students will become the teachers of themselves as you the “teacher” move on up to the new rank of “mentor” where you are developing incredible human beings capable of actually changing the world using real and effective solutions that improve the lives of both the present population and future generations to come.

The classroom is actually where it all begins. Has the current system caused us to forget the power that the classroom possesses? Data clearly shows we are seeing less and less young people seeking to enter the vocation of education and that is something that must be addressed but surely solving this can only happen if the vocation becomes redefined and modernized.

We do not need new innovative schools. What we need are real solutions and partnerships within the current system that allows teachers to become the best version of themselves no different than the students we seek to develop.

The amazing educators I meet are some of the most passionate people I know. It is the system they are bound to that often is what prohibits them from having the kind of effect on the students they love and care for. That said, I also observe that what teachers sometimes fail to realize is that their leaders want them to become empowered.

School leaders want change but they also realize that top down methods to bring about change is limited, ineffective and, quite frankly, proving to be a poor investment and so school leaders are looking to their teachers to become an active participant in finding new solutions.

At The Startup Studio we believe that real change must come from the leaders of the actual classrooms and that means the teachers because in a world where teachers become the CEOs of their own domains that is when we will see education truly begin to take the turn towards measurable and effective change.

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Gary Conroy

Gary is a visionary entrepreneur and the founder and CEO of Learn to Start

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