October 19th, 2011

Grading Practices: Liabilities of the Points System

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The November issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter contains highlights from a speech given by Diane L. Pike at the 2010 Midwest Sociological Society meeting and subsequently published in the reference below. It’s a great speech that identifies three dead ideas in teaching and the tyranny that results from holding those beliefs.

One of these dead ideas is that grading motivates learning. Pike contends that grading motivates getting grades. She makes an interesting distinction between evaluation and grading. “Evaluation is the process of making a judgment about the quality of work using either an explicit set of criteria or an implicit one…Grading is the step of assigning a summative symbol that represents overall performance.” (p. 5)

Then she goes after a commonly used approach to grading: the points system. She argues that these “complex point matrices end up training students to focus on the wrong things.” (p. 5) I think many of us have moved to these systems because they clarify expectations and establish the relative worth of each and every course activity. And students do like this approach, probably because it adds, or appears to add, a certain objectivity to the process.

The larger issue here involves the complicated relationships between grades, learning and motivation. Pike contends that grades are not what motivates learning. “Interesting and relevant assignments, timely feedback, connection between student and teacher, connection among students, meaningful use of time—these things motivate learning.” (p. 6)

I’m not sure whether I think point systems are worse than systems that use letter grades or percentages. All these approaches bend under the heavy pressure to get grades and the values that students, parents, institutions and the professional world ascribe to them. But Pike makes one particularly salient point. We use points systems, really any grading system, without having considered how that particular system affects student behavior. Does a points systems affect students differently than a letter grade or percentage system? Are those differences positively or negatively impacting their motivation to learn?

I see two liabilities with points systems. First, they do create a kind of token economy in our classroom where you can get students to do almost anything for a point, but not do much of anything at all when no points are involved. Second, they also seem to promote a kind of point-grubbing mentality among students. Most of us have had those disappointing conversations with students where they finally talk with insight and some enthusiasm about an aspect of content but what’s motivating the exchange is the possibility of getting more points on the quiz. When the difference is between an A- and a B+, that’s two gradations, but when the difference is between 80 and 90 points, that’s 10 gradations and so if a student argues hard for more points, it’s tempting to give just them a couple more points. Maybe students learn the content better when they argue for points, but I think the more significant lesson they take from that experience is that more points are available if you object.

We aren’t going to find a perfect grading system or one that isn’t subjective to varying degrees. They all involve human judgment. I think points systems look more objective, but they still rely on teachers making judgments, whether it is how much partial credit to give for the solution to a problem or the final score for a musical performance. Of course, teachers do make those judgments based on experience and expertise. I’ve heard enough student presentations to know when I hear a good one and I can explain to a student what made that speech effective. But then I must assign that speech to a grade which suddenly becomes more important and meaningful than the reasons why the speech was good or not so good.

Do other systems work better than the points system? I don’t actually know and would love to hear what you think. What I do appreciate about Pike’s comments is that they have got me thinking about how various grading schemes affect the motivation to learn and the learning itself.

Reference: Pike. D. L. (2011). The tyranny of dead ideas in teaching and learning: Midwest Sociological Society Presidential Address 2010. The Sociological Quarterly, 52 (1), 1-12.