October 19th, 2011

Grading Practices: Liabilities of the Points System


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.

  • c snyder

    Anecdotal support–just the other day I was assigning small groups to do some informal presentations on readings in American lit. One student was very concerned to know what I'd be grading the presentations on. I leveled with him: "I don't actually grade the presentations." There was a pause, and I added, "The queston is, How much do you want to bore your classmates?" He replied, "Ooh, you're putting the responsibility on us." So far, the presentations have been as good as, or better than ones I'vew seen in the past when grades were being expected. (Yes, I still grade a bunch of other assignments.)

  • David Anderson

    I never use a points system. I assign final grades based on letter grades of papers and tests. Points systems give only the illusion of objectivity. When you write a report for the boss, he doesn't assign a point value to it; he accepts it or kicks it back for revisions. Arguing over points is tiresome (and occurs only when a grade is at stake). I receive virtually no complaints on grades for assignments, tests, or final grades. Like, the boss, I have known expectations and do not deny subjectivity. (No, I do not give away grades.) Further, predetermined percentages for letter grades are ridiculous as well–unless all questions on a test are significantly normed.

    • Joe Burdo

      So how do you determine what constitutes an A versus, B, C, etc? It seems that this type of system using less initial resolution (~5 categories of letter grades versus 50 or 100 or whatever for a points system, that later gets translated into a 12 category system for letter grades at most institutions) would have a similar final effect.


  • Linda Lappin

    I found another problem with a point system (which I still use–until I can figure out a better way–still hopeful. The problem is that I plan the points before I see what the students do–and I find that the points add up to skewed (too high or too low) grades–based on the total product. For instance: I give 1/3 credit for the research/drafts/peer reviews/annotations, etc that students do in preparation for an essay (Freshman Composition class)–and there are times when not much annotation or peer review was done there–but the paper was one of the best (subjective)…so do I (well, ahem) adjust the points? In the end–I suspect the best thing I can do is spell out what was good or needed improvement on each paper–giving them the feedback they need for the next effort. I see no way around that…

  • Rebecca Pennington

    Grades, points, rubric levels and all quantitative scales could be subject to the charge of appearing to be objective when they aren't. True…I believe that the value of the scales is that they make the criteria that will be used to judge (subjectively) transparent to students and professors alike. Also, they have pedagogical value in that they explain (not perfectly, I admit) what high-quality looks like. Professor comments and feedback, good relationships, peer evaluation, and multiple drafts are all instructional practices that can help students do high-quality work.
    With respect to motivation, I have used a variety of methods to grade in both K-12 and on the college level, and when there is NO external score/grade/etc., students don't prioritize that piece of work. Unless the entire system is going to give up all grades, then students have a vested interest in doing what will earn them the grades because many consequences are tied to them. Even if there were no consequences, we don't live in an ideal world where we are mostly motivated by internally valuing something. I wish it were so.

  • Yolanda Williams

    I think the issue is that the points system is supporting by other ways of evaluating student work like rubrics, appropriate comments and draft projects (which allow students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes). Points are less "foggy" than letter grades and seem to my students to have less of a "heart in the throat" reaction. Percentages, which is what I used for the first 19 years of teaching assume there are some activities that are more important than others, but aren't always as clear as giving less points for activities that are less important and more points for those that are.

  • Omar Husein

    I found the point system in VET education to work best . Trainees were motivated to excel not only in knowledge base tests (KBT), but in every other learning activity, because every activity was weighed against a point system that finally accumulated to give final score from 4 points. The final score point was then used to calculate the basic salary of the trainee. Also the trainee who scored less than 2.5 was terminated from the training program. The points included:
    Attendance, Punctuality, activity in class, activity in practicval sessions, asking questions, team work, activity in groups, score in KBT, doing extra work. For example, in that company a trainee who scored 2.5 points would get a starting salary of Saudi Riyals SR.3125+ 2655 in allowances compared to another trainee who scored 4.0 points who gets SR.5000 +4250 in allowances.
    The connection of learning to benefits has made trainees very motivated.

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  • I agree, we do need extrinsic motivation in order to improve performance, and I think the points score can work when implemented properly. You must make sure that you know the basis upon which to work, meaning that you don't give a student 10 points, and then another student say 15 points, for 2 pieces of work of similar quality.

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