May 3rd, 2017

Point-Based Grading Systems: Benefits and Liabilities


students reviewing exam results

If there’s a perfect grading system, it has yet to be discovered. This post is about point systems—not because they’re the best or the worst but because they’re widely used. It is precisely because they are so prevalent that we need to think about how they affect learning.

Teaching Professor Blog It would be nice if we had some empirical evidence to support our thinking. I’m surprised that so little research has been done on this common grading system. Does it promote more effective learning (as measured by higher exam scores or overall course grades) than letter grades or percentages? Does it motivate students to study? Does it make students more grade oriented or less so? Does it provoke more grade anxiety than other systems or less? Does make a difference whether we use a 100-point system or a 1,000-point system? We all have our preferences—and sometimes even reasons—for the systems we use, but where’s the evidence? I can’t remember reading anything empirical that explores these questions—if you have, please share the references.

To stimulate our thinking and further conversation, here are some regularly mentioned benefits of point systems and some of their unspoken liabilities.

Benefit — In a word, clarity. Allotting a designated number of points to each assignment and activity makes it completely clear to students what’s worth more in a course and what’s worth less. If we look at where we’re directing students’ energies, it should be toward those activities that achieve the most important learning objectives. Point systems make easier for us to check that connection.

Benefit — Point systems give teachers wiggle room. If a student is arguing for more points, making a reasonable but not exceptional case, and there are 10 points between an A and B, the teacher can give the student a couple of points, and the conversation ends happily. The student got something, and the teacher didn’t compromise the grade.

Benefit — They’re expected. Students are used to being graded with points. Given the level of anxiety grades generate, having students comfortable with the system means less worry about the mechanics and maybe more focus on learning (we can only hope).

Benefit — They look objective. Numbers connote accuracy and precision. Numbers mean something. Letters grades look much more subjective.

Liability — Point systems are less objective than they seem. The criteria used, the levels on the rubric, the one factually correct answer—those provide the objectivity, but there’s an element of subjective assessment because the graders are human. Graders make judgments—good judgments, if you consider how much experience most teachers have grading and how well we know the content. But still, we give partial credit for how much of the whole we think the student understands. We assign points to a performance based on what we see; but do we see everything? Points cloud the subjective elements inherent in the grading process. Regardless of our grading system, do we ever talk to students about the challenges involved in measuring learning?

Liability — Points reinforce the value of extrinsic motivation. What can you get a student to do for a point? Head into class, announce a three-point extra credit assignment, and ask who’s interested in doing it. There will be a sea of hands, many waving frantically. I sometimes follow this announcement with an offer for two points and then one point. By the time I get down to half a point, students usually figure out the message I’m trying to send. Point systems encourage students to do things for points, not because they’re interested, curious, or want to learn. They create token economies that imply if points aren’t involved, the learning activity is, well, pointless.

Liability— Points encourage grade grubbing, leading to those conversations with the instructor where the goal is to get more points. Students will explain, argue, and plead that they deserve more points due to the time and effort expended on a project. They will say nice things about the teacher and the course—all in the interest of getting a few more points. But in their litany of reasons why they deserve more points, do they ever mention what they’ve learned?

Should you start or stop using point systems? If you use them already, are there ways to overcome or diminish their liabilities? The overarching issue or challenge is one raised in a previous blog post—how do we get students to focus more on learning? If you’ve discovered a way of using point systems to accomplish that goal, all of us would love to hear about it. Please share in the comments.

  • Righteous Mind

    a replacement being attempted at my kids schools is standards based grading. But all the pitfalls from points based remain. They went with 9 levels of learning which is to say there are pluses but no minus grades. The anxiety has grown because now each level of learning is worth more in terms of GPA. I have seen some schools go to 4 levels of learning A,B,C,D and I suspect the anxiety is even worse. At a college level just look at Reed College (no grades given) and their student outcomes for some indication. Very expensive school with Steve Jobs as alum but students have very low average earnings power 10 years after graduation according to NYT study. At the high school level grades remain a barrier to entry to college. Its simply a fact. The more you play with grading the more college will have to depend on other factors to judge the relative value of the grade they do get. At my kids school the change resulted in predictable higher GPA across the board but the class SAT scores and AP test scores did not go up and actually went down slightly. So colleges may very well look at this and discount the value of education at the HS which is bad news for students.

  • Jeff Czarnec

    I have found that the scales tip towards the negative as it leads to reductionist behavior, bias, and surface learning. Thanks for an excellent piece!

  • jrs61

    My problem with point grading is that professors assign point values to assignments below 50% of the assignment’s total value, which is already an F if 90 and up = A, 80 and up = B, and so on. For example, if an assignment is worth 100 points and the professor gives the student zero points, the zero is 50 points less than an F (50 points). It is like a double F.

    • Laura Shulman

      Agree. In fact a zero is not just a “double” F, it is Fx6!
      (See my “fair F” policy in comment below)

  • Joanne Miller Keefe

    I just started giving back points on exams if the student does a brief (<5 minute) video teaching a concept they missed. I review these and post them in the course. If interested, the student contacts me and I assign a topic based on a missed question. I am trying to increase the focus on learning and decrease the point grubbing. I also believe teaching is the best way to learn. Of course I limit the total number of videos allowed. Working so far!

    • Laura Shulman

      I LOVED that idea! May just adopt it myself.

      • Joanne Miller Keefe

        Thank you Laura! Please do! I would love to know how it works for you.

    • Jennifer Fishovitz

      I love this idea as well. I’ve been allowing the students to drop an exam, but that just gives them an excuse to not prepare as much for one of the exams. This may be a good alternative!

      • Joanne Miller Keefe

        Thank you Jennifer! The feedback from students has been positive. They are identifying holes in knowledge and addressing them!

    • Tomi A. Pasanen

      Joanna, you have a point in this a bit pointless discussion. Your setting deserves larger audience, please spread it!

      • Joanne Miller Keefe

        Thank you Tomi! I am working on it! Stay tuned.

  • David Stoloff

    i use a point gathering system that includes multiple modes of assessment. There are points for attendance in class, participation/presentation in class, participation in online discussions, and completion of synthesis reports on open educational resources that earn points by word count, references, and adhering to the due date. I encourage students to propose alternative projects – reviews of alternative texts, research, films/television, participation in inspiring campus events and clubs. I find that students find the system relatively easy to understand after awhile and enjoy the freedom to define their own grade in the course. I also encourage students to develop electronic portfolio to archive their documents for end of the semester reflection. I believe in student-centered learning and find that this system allows for freedom to learn.

    Please let me know if you have any questions on this system. thanks for raising this issue and initiating the discussion.

    David Stoloff
    Professor, Education Department
    Eastern Connecticut State University
    Willimantic, CT

    • Laura Shulman

      David, years ago I had a similar approach to assignments. A PART of the students grade was based on what they chose to do related to course content. I provided a list of ideas to choose from. I found it did not work because too many students could not decide what to do, thought that these “options” were optional and just did not do any or enough of them.
      But I can see combining your idea with Joanne ‘ s to make up for missed questions/low grades on other work (basically extra credit).

      • David Stoloff

        It is always a matter of context. I teach educational foundations courses in our graduate teaching certification program with students from all our programs – elementary, secondary, early childhood education. Our students come to class with diverse interests from diverse undergraduate majors. They find it easier to gear the course to their interests.

        My undergraduate courses are in international and cross-cultural education and our capstone course for our general studies students. In the former course, I encourage the students to explore education in diverse nations, that they chose. We also try to connect via email, Facebook, or Skype or similar global connection media to undergraduate classes throughout the world. (I would welcome connecting with other faculty with similar classes – please contact me at

        The capstone students develop their own independent inquiry projects, arising from their liberal arts studies and their professional ambitious. Some are challenged to think of their own projects, but most do eventually succeed so that they can complete this graduation requirement. Learners do seem to arise to the challenges when it is necessary.

        I don’t call alternative projects extra credit. Alternative projects arise from the learners’ interests, are proposed by them, and the value – number of points and length of the projects – are negotiated with me.

        These courses provide more freedom to learn. There are no tests, quizzes, or high stakes moments. Learning is more gradual over several weeks. So the contexts may be different from other courses in K12 and undergraduate education.

        David Stoloff

        • Laura Shulman

          Ah, well, that explains it. My students are lower level undergrads. I can see this much better suited to graduate students!
          Context indeed!

  • Tom Carlson

    To my mind, although points seem transparent, they in fact actually are less transparent than percentage grades, of which some complain about the perceived lack of transparency. I have taken over courses from colleagues who used point systems with a seemingly random number of total points, and different kinds of assignments having odd point values, like 135 points or 540 points. Students were certainly less able to gauge how important the assignment was than if I told them the relative percentage value of each assignment, say 5% and 12%. When using rubrics to set a score for an assignment, adding up points was certainly no easier or more accurate than assigning a percentage of the possible score to each level of the rubric. Although some basic numeracy is required in calculating the absolute value of an assignment, it shouldn’t be beyond anyone in post-secondary education. And finally, in the end any individual grade and the overall aggregate grade are always “out of 100% possible” conceptually. In short, I see no rational reason to use points grading in higher ed.

  • Laura Shulman

    Oh wow, this is one of my favorite teaching topics to talk about! Warning, long comment ahead…
    I use a 1000 point scale with most assignments and exams worth up to either 50 or 100 points (5% or 10% of the course grade). Individual quizzes or weekly journal paragraphs, discussions, etc might be worth just 10-20 points each, but together total up to 50 or 100 points per category.
    Problem inherent in points is when a student gets less than half the points for any given assignment. in the end, final grades are submitted as a letter, being translated from points as a percentage of the total. Typically earning 90 or 900 points (90%) or more = A. Less that 60/600 (60% of the points) is an F. Since each letter grade is equivalent to 10% of the points but an F is worth 60% of the points, anything less than 50/500 (half the) points is going to result in dragging down the final grade for the course.
    Question: should a student who does half the assignments, getting an A on all of them, but then does not do the remaining work, get a C or an F for the course? Depends if we count those undone assignments as a zero or simply as an F of equal value to other letter grades.
    Should point based grading be based on the GPA standard where each letter is of equal value (F-A = 0-4) rather than on % of total points (less than 60%/points = F)?
    My solution to the problem is what I call the “fair F”. No matter how poor the assignment is, a student gets at least half credit simply for the effort of doing it. I often explain where they went wrong and invite a redo (if it was not submitted late). Work not done at all does get a zero.
    The problem with most grading rubrics is that they do not account for the “fair F”. I have seen grading rubrics that divide all the points equally: on a 20 point assignment, an A is 16-20 points, B is 11-15, C is 6-10, D is 1-5. However, at that rate, a student can do C level work on all assignments and,in the end, have only enough points total for a F in the course! (5 C+ assignments earning no more than 10 points each = 50 out of 100 points). That is NOT fair grading!
    Since many of my assignments are written work and thus subjective grading, in the end, when all points are totaled up, if the total is within 10 points/1% of the next grade level I bump it up (an unstated policy of mine to avoid students begging for a bump up for being 1.1% below next grade).
    This semester I had one of those annoying perfectionist A students arguing for a few more points on this and on that. Most times I could rationalize accomodating her (she made a good case). But for one assignment I really could not justify turning 88 points into an A. I figured, with her, in the end it would not matter but to avoid continued debate and hard feelings between us, I gave her her “bump up” on this asdignment,  telling myself that I would not give another bump up at the end total (if it came to that – it didn’t).

    Source: Educator Bill Page has a lot to say about grading. He inspired me to develop my “fair F” grading policy. (“Zeros are always unfair.”)

    • Daniel Scarpace

      Doesn’t it really depend on the assignments? If you are giving a multiple choice quiz, and a student gets all five questions wrong, that is a 0/5.

      If I give a homework assignment that is broken up into several questions, and the student only answers 5 out of 10 of them, and does them poorly, that might be 2.5/10 points. If a student answers all of the questions but does so poorly, that might be 5/10, which is also an F but is still significantly better than the student who did not do half of the assignment at all. Our grades should reflect that.

      If a student does not turn in an assignment, it should be counted as a zero. I don’t give out homework assignments because I enjoy grading them, I give out homework assignments because they encourage the students to reflect upon the material or prove to themselves (or me) that they have some kind of mastery over the material. A zero deprives them of this learning experience.

      I think these are all fair. What is probably unfair is that we are unwilling to give very low marks on essay-type assignments — I have never given someone who has turned in an essay anything less than 60/100 points because it’s a lot easier to try to find reasons to give them points. These kinds of assignments inflate the overall grades because we’re aren’t handing out 20/100 grades. We should be using the whole scale from 0-100, or no points system at all.

      • Laura Shulman

        Hmmm, if we graded all assignments and quizzes and exams by letter rather than by points, then the problem seems to solve itself. Using your examples:
        – “a multiple choice quiz, and a student gets all five questions wrong, that is a 0/5.” = F
        – “the student only answers 5 out of 10 of them, and does them poorly, that might be 2.5/10 points.” = F
        Translated to GPA values for the sake of calculating a final grade in the course those Fs all = zero. So too would the 55% F = zero. But a D would =1, C = 2 etc. So all is “fair”.
        What I did not understand is your closing comment: “These kinds of assignments (an essay given 60/100 points) inflate the overall grades because we’re aren’t handing out 20/100 grades.” What you see as “grade inflation” I see as “fair”. Why is it more reasonable to count an F as 60% of the points when all other grades are only worth 10% of the points (Bill Page’s argument that I agree with: it is NOT more reasonable).

        • Daniel Scarpace

          My comment is more transparent if you were to compare two courses (of the same content) wherein Course 1 all grading is done by multiple choice exams, and in Course 2, all grading is done by essays. Teachers are more reluctant to give a 20/100 grade to an essay (indeed a larger question is how to grade essays at all), but a student can get a 20/100 on a multiple choice exam just by not preparing or learning 80% of the material. Let’s assume in Course 1, there are 3 exams, and a student gets a 20/100, a 60/100 and a 90/100 (perhaps there’s a lot of improvement). Overall that is a 56% of the total points in the course and should be an F. In the other course, the same theoretical student might get a 50/100 on the first essay (It was bad, and this is what an ‘F’ grade gets input into the system as), but then a ‘D’ on the second paper (60/100) and an A on the last one (90/100? 100/100?). In this course the student ends up with 67% of the points, or a ‘D’. This is what I mean by inflation.

          “Why is it more reasonable to count an F as 60% of the points when all other grades are only worth 10% of the points?”

          Because it is considered unacceptable to attend a class for 10-16 weeks and only learn 0-60% of the material. Whether or not this is fair is a different question to be answered by university administrators and people who pay attention to GPAs after college, but this is the standard that we start with with respect to grading.

  • bioprofe

    This comment is about standards based grading:
    From personal experience, standards-based grading seems to work best in courses where student preparedness for understanding the course content may be suspect AND individual classes are small, i.e. <20 students. Why? Unprepared or under-prepared students can be given more than one chance to demonstrate mastery/proficiency of the content without overwhelming the instructor with the additional work required to assess students multiple times in multiple ways.
    Also, preparing a course to assess students using SBG requires much thought as to: A) Which are the most important concepts students should know upon finishing the course
    B) How will student understanding of that knowledge be demonstrated?
    I had a long-term math substitute assignment last fall at a middle school and every middle and elementary school in the school district had converted to the SBG system. [The high schools had not converted for the very reasons mentioned by others, namely that HS grades must generate a GPA, which is possible in a SBG system, but much more labor intensive.]
    I noted several things regarding the SBG system:
    1) Paraprofessionals were heavily used to administer and then grade the weekly assessments, without whom an individual teacher would have drowned under the paperwork.
    2) Students who did not achieve mastery, i.e. 3 or 4, were administered similar assessments repeatedly until master was reached.
    3) Students who consistently blew off in-class practice assignments and/or homework to assist them in meeting mastery were told they would have their course options severely limited at the high school level (in this case) because remedial courses would have be taken and passed before being allowed to take more advanced courses.
    4) Some students did MUCH better when the instructor and/or paraprofessional worked with them one-on-one in or out of the class. However, when left to themselves in the class, they became or were easily distracted by other students, which is why I said that SBG is best used when very small classes are possible. Of course, that is not likely to happen anytime soon in public schools and universities since more money to hire more teachers and/or paraprofessionals is required.
    Perhaps SBG could be used for online classes because instructors could assess individual students multiple times, if necessary. Nevertheless, the challenge to multiple assessments in an online environment, as I see it, would be the timely grading of those additional assessments when the instructor may have 50+ students scattered across multiple time zones!
    To be honest, I have struggled throughout my career to devise fair and equitable assessment strategies that will result in no student complaints, either face-to-face or in end-of-course evaluations. In 25+ years, I have never succeeded, but I continue to try. As the saying goes, "We may be able to please all the students some of the time, some of the students all the time; but never please all the students all the time!"

  • Laura Shulman

    Benefit of points: makes calculating a final grade easy. Grade based on total points earned (as percentage of total points possible). My first semester teaching I gave letter grades on all assignments. When it came time to assign a final grade, I had a hard time figuring out how to determine an average grade based on letters, especially when the assignments were weighted differently.
    Benefit of letter grades: not as precise, no need to nit pick over a few points. Also, since final grades are given as letters, the precision of points is lost in the end anyway. Only time it becomes an issue is with a borderline grade.

  • goodsensecynic

    Three of the four “benefits” do not pass muster.

    “They’re expected” … so we reward conformity and convention regardless of merit?
    “They give teachers wiggle room” … so we are normalizing negotiations over grades?
    “They look objective” … so appearances matter more than reality?

    Only “clarity” is defensible … though tolerance for ambiguity is not a bad idea either.

    Then, “liability” # 1 puts an end to “clarity” … objectivity is an illusion or a scam!

    And “liabilities # 2 & # 3 – relating to “extrinsic motivation” and “grade grubbing” are intuitively obvious.


    Pro-point F
    Anti-point A+

  • robert Avakian

    As far as a points system encouraging extrinsic rewards, what do you call a paycheck 🙂

    • Laura Shulman

      While intrinsic motivation is the ideal, sometimes extrinsic motivation is the only thing we can use. When students otherwise have no intrinsic motivation to do what we ask them to do, extrinsic is better than nothing..

  • Lou

    I understand the mix of types of assessments, but when the class is a composition class most of the assessment needs to be essays. I had never given less than 50 points on an essay and rarely less than 60 until this quarter when I had a student who turned in an essay that didn’t address any of the things required in the assignment. Should it get half of the points possible when it does nothing that was required?

    • Laura Shulman

      Lou, depends on your overall grading system. With my system, I would give that ATTEMPT on the assignment half credit, provide feedback, allow a redo. Certainly there is a difference between a student who does an assignment completely wrong vs a student who does not do it at all. Trying is worth something. Half credit encourages the student to continue trying vs just completely giving up.
      Think of it this way. If a student did every essay wrong and got 50% on them all, they would still fail the course (assuming your grading system does assign anything less 60% as an F). So 50% or zero results in the same F grade. But, unlike a zero, 50% will not artificially drag down the average of any higher grades.

  • Camden Seal

    The important take away from this discussion is that students should be motivated by learning rather than points. As a nurse educator, I have been passionate about facilitating the student-centered paradigm shift with my students and colleagues for more than 10 years. It empowers students to know that learning, not points, are essential to providing safe, quality patient care.

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