Considering What You Grade and Why
College grading first appeared at Yale University in 1783, primarily for ranking students (Milton, Pollio, & Eison,1986) and around the turn of the 20th century, Max Meyer’s (1908) five-letter (A through F) grading scheme began to gain widespread acceptance. Despite minor modifications such as plus/minus grading, Meyer’s system has remained intact, yielding the all-important, enigmatic 400-point scale known as the grade point average or GPA (Milton et al., 1986). Although this grading scheme has received much criticism (e.g., Milton et al., 1986), it is deeply interwoven into the fabric of higher education. Rather than exploring grading alternatives, therefore, educators’ efforts are more productively spent reflecting on what we grade and why, and particularly on the myriad of seemingly minor grading decisions we face each semester.
How Can We Use Grades to Motivate Students?
For better or worse, grading is a powerful part of the motivational structure of the college course. Instead of fighting this, educators can use it to their advantage by employing grades as “academic carrots.” Here are some examples.
Grades as Incentives
If you have students do work, grade it. Grading student assignments increases both the quantity and quality of assignment completion. I created a “textbook detective” weekly reading assignment for my lower-level classes, each worth 1-3 percent (for a total of 20 percent) of the final course grade. As evidence that even minor grade amounts are potent motivators toward assignment completion, the proportion of students who said they read before class increased from 21 percent (before the weekly assignments) to over 50 percent. In similar research, students who were told they would be tested on an assigned article were more likely to read it and scored 20 percent higher on a related quiz compared to students who were told the article would be beneficial to class discussion (Marchant, 2002).
Traditional Versus Pass-Fail Grading
Students achieve more academically when they are graded under a traditional rather than pass-fail system (Merva, 2003). To maximize student achievement, grade their assignments with percentage or letter grades. It appears to make little difference in the long run whether you use Meyer’s (1908) straight (A-F) letter grades or newer plus-minus grading schemes. Cumulative GPA does not change significantly, although students and faculty generally prefer straight letter grades to plus-minus alternatives (Baker & Bates, 1999).
Grade inflation has become a fact rather than a myth, with GPAs increasing on average by 0.6 points from 1967 to 2001, and private schools experiencing grade inflation at a rate that is about 25-30 percent higher than public schools (Rojstaczer, 2003). Despite these trends, many educational experts recommend grading within our current sociocultural context, offering the following analogy as an illustration: Since you would never pay employees in outdated currency (e.g., colonial coins), you should not grade students using past standards of achievement (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). In other words, since grade inflation has become the norm, we need to grade our students according to these new (albeit inflated) standards. Whether you choose to do so is, of course, up to you and makes for lively faculty debate.
Increase Students’ Control
Increasing perceived control helps students achieve more in school, procrastinate less, and have lower test anxiety (Carden, Bryant, & Moss, 2004). How can you do this using grades?
Provide frequent, specific grade feedback that helps students make progress. For example, I routinely allow students to “redo” certain aspects of their exams or papers. I encourage students to hand in their papers early and then allow them to make changes based on my feedback and to resubmit their papers as many times as they want up until the due date. I also inform students in my introductory classes that 10 (out of 40) questions from the midterm will appear on the final so they will get a second chance to answer those questions correctly.
Use grading arguments as a teaching opportunity. Motivation can be undermined by students arguing about their grades, but you can turn this into a “teachable moment” and bolster students’ sense of responsibility and control. A colleague who teaches in Canada allows students to choose their own grading scheme: He offers “Plan A,” wherein students’ exams count for two-thirds of their final grade with the remaining third based on broad contributions to the class (including participation, attendance, and effort); or “Plan B,” where the entire final grade is based solely on exam performance. Another colleague listens patiently to the student’s complaints before calmly outlining the student’s current choices (e.g., study hard for the final or drop the class and take it next semester).
What Can We Grade?
To enhance the effectiveness of your grading practices, consider what you want your students to learn and then select tests/assignments that assess the learning you value most (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). Here is a shopping list of gradable items.
Tests, Exams, and Quizzes
According to my survey of Project Syllabus, an online collection of more than 80 refereed syllabi in a variety of psychology courses [http://www.lemoyne.edu/OTRP/projectsyllabus.html], this component counts for about 75 percent of the final grade in introductory psychology classes. It is imperative to think carefully about what levels of knowledge and comprehension we want tests to measure, because 91 percent of college exam questions assess lower-level comprehension rather than more complex thinking skills (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998).
Although these assignments compete with other uses of class time, they assess highly valued real-world skills such as organization, preparation, and public speaking. In my upper-division classes, students give an oral presentation each semester. During the presentations, each non-presenting student completes the same grading rubric that I do (see Walvoord & Anderson, 1998, p. 69, for more on rubrics), including qualitative comments and quantitative evaluations, which are later given to the presenters as part of their feedback. While I do not “count” these student-graded rubrics as part of the presentation grade, you certainly could. When students judge other students’ presentations, they become more critical consumers — and producers — of academic work.
According to my survey, written homework generally comprises 20 percent of final course grades in lower-level psychology classes. Teachers can grade short homework assignments on readings, class questions, practical activities (e.g., students trying out a course concept outside of class and reporting on their experience), lab reports, or even term papers (see below). I regularly give brief homework assignments to entice students to process the course material outside of class. These assignments can provide teachers with valuable feedback regarding what students know and which concepts they may be strugglng with.
For term papers to be a meaningful learning experience, teachers should keep in mind two key points. First, when students see the phrase “term paper,” their eyes often glaze over, they feel overwhelmed, and they want to minimize their effort and anticipated pain. You can call the assignment something else depending on what you want students to learn: persuasive essay, literature review, thesis paper, etc. Second, since most students enter college lacking the skills to prepare a quality paper, we must teach (and grade) smaller components of these larger assignments, such as a thesis statement, outline, literature review, and/or first draft.
Recording attendance, not necessarily grading it, has been shown to increase both attendance and academic achievement in large classes (Shimoff & Catania, 2001). If teachers want to “grade” attendance, what are the alternatives?
Levels of attendance. Different levels of attendance count for “x” percent of a final grade. For instance, perfect attendance can earn a perfect score (or even extra credit, discussed below), while missing 10 percent of classes earns 90 percent of that “x” percent of the final course grade.
Deducting points. Instead of giving points for attendance as a component of the final grade, you can deduct points for missing class. For example, state in your syllabus that students missing a certain number of classes will have their final grade lowered by “x” points.
Passing requirement. In many freshman-level courses at Fort Lewis College, students must attend over 80 percent of the classes or receive a course grade of F. This strict policy encourages good study habits (i.e., regular attendance, which is positively correlated with grades) in many foundational college classes.
Other attendance-based incentives. In my Personality class, I tried an intriguing tactic: Students who missed five or fewer classes all semester would not have to take the comprehensive final exam (there was a non-cumulative in-class exam the preceeding week). Students who missed more than five classes would have to take the comprehensive final — and pass it — to pass the course. Attendance rose from 70 percent the previous semester to well over 90 percent.
Since grading attendance is a passive assessment (all students must do is “show up”), you may prefer to grade class participation instead, which encompasses attendance but is much more active and dynamic. To foster student engagement, objectively-graded participation — written, oral, and group — comprises one-fourth of a student’s grade in my classes. After each class, students hand in a sheet of paper with their name on it and on which they have done one (or more) of the following: answered a series of questions about a film clip shown that day; completed a “freewrite” (i.e., an open-ended, broad question such as the meaning of life or how others have influenced them); taken notes on a cooperative learning activity (group work); or reflected on their score on a questionnaire handed out in class. These are leniently graded Pass/Fail, so students who made a reasonable attempt receive credit for that day’s class participation. The student’s final course grade reflects how many participation points they “passed” — i.e., 24 out of 30 “participation opportunities” yields 80 percent on the participation component of the final grade. The participation point is forfeited if the student arrives late to class or leaves early for any reason. Since I have put this “lateness policy” into effect, the number of students arriving late in my large classes has decreased dramatically, from 10-20 percent to less than 3 percent per day.
Eighty-two percent of psychology teachers provide opportunities for “extra credit,” mainly in the form of research participation (Palladino, Hill, & Norcross, 1999). For ethical reasons, offering extra credit for participating in research requires that you also offer alternative assignments that students can choose to complete instead (Ethical Standard 8.06 in APA Ethics Code, 2002). Furthermore, allowing students to “make up” grade points by participating in research may send mixed messages: While conveying the importance of a scientific approach to psychology, teachers may be concomitantly undermining the perceived importance of true academic work. Think about whether your own use of “extra credit” matches what you want to communicate to students and modify your grading scheme accordingly.
How Should We Compute The Final Grade?
For a detailed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of various grading schemes such as weighted letter grades, median grading, and criterion- versus norm-referenced grading, see Zlokovich (2004) or Walvoord & Anderson (1998, pp. 93-104). I focus on several decisions relevant to computing final grades below.
The Decimal Dilemma
In some cases, students’ final grades may be decided by a decimal point. My colleague at a midwestern university believes that painting with a wide brush can circumvent the decimal dilemma and advises that exams and papers should count for large amounts of the final grade. His experience is that a teacher who designs a course with many small assignments — each counting for a small portion of the final grade — invites the decimal dilemma. My own approach to avoiding the decimal dilemma uses a “fudge” factor (see below).
“Take-the-Test” and “Do-the-Assignment” Passing Criteria
While students tend to find the “loopholes” in our grading schemes, we can plug many holes with advanced planning. To encourage my lower-level students to take their comprehensive final seriously, I state that they must pass the final exam in order to pass the course. On average, roughly 5-10 percent of my students fail the final, and, with rare exceptions, most would have failed the class anyway. Thus, my pass-the-final-or-fail-the-course policy has not significantly increased my failure rate, but it has sent the message that the final exam is important.
In some cases, students may not do assignments or take exams depending on how the final course grade is computed. For instance, students may skip the last exam because they have already earned enough points to obtain the grade they want, or they may skip assignments that count for a small proportion of the final grade. To plug these potential loopholes, you can state in the syllabus that if any exam or assignment is not done, the student will fail the course.
Grading on the Infamous “Curve”
My preference is to avoid norm-referenced (“curved”) grading systems, since it is fairer to compare students to a predefined standard (such as a rubric) than to the other students who happen to be in their class that semester (Milton et al., 1986). As an example, only the top students are given permission to register for my upper-division Counseling Skills class due to limited space and the advanced nature of the curriculum. Grading on a “curve” would force me to give many A students considerably lower grades than they deserve. In many lower-level classes, however, grading on a “curve” may not be as problematic because students may be normally distributed in abilities and effort.
Make Your Grading Scheme As Clear As Possible
State your grade breakdown explicitly in your course syllabus by using a box or table outlining the specific allotment of points. For whatever reason, many faculty fail to do this. Further, it is often confusing to present the grade breakdown to students solely by “points” that do not sum to 100. Students will have a better understanding of their grade makeup if you use percentage points rather than (or in addition to) a non-percentage-based point system.
How Can We Protect Ourselves From Grade Disagreements?
As my Canadian colleague likes to say, “You need to build self-protection into your grading scheme to avoid burnout, because you are the one who will be doing this for 30 years.”
Use “Fudge” Factors
Building a “fudge” factor into your grading scheme will help you avoid arguments regarding “border grades” (i.e., performance on the cusp of two letter grades). A departmental colleague states clearly in her syllabus: “Plus and minus grades are at the discretion of the instructor.” I routinely change final grades of 89 percent to either 90 percent or 88 percent without the students’ realization by raising or lowering their participation grade (which is 5 percent subjective) by one point, so the posted grade reads 90 percent or 88 percent. In other words, no student ever gets a “border grade” in my classes, because I can always bump them up or down based on their effort and improvement during the semester. In my experience, students are far less likely to complain that their 88 percent was only two points away from an A- grade than they are to complain that they missed the elusive cut-off by a single point.
Teach Students How to Calculate Their Grades
My wife teaches her students (in a math class) to compute their grades by themselves, using a detailed gradesheet handed out on the first day of class. Students are encouraged to use the gradesheet to record (and compute) their own grades throughout the semester. Final grades are posted by letter only, so students do not know whether they received a “border grade” unless they calculate their percentage grade themselves (interestingly, few do). This approach also has the beneficial effect of enhancing student responsibility.
Minimize Unpleasant Confrontations
To avoid unnecessary arguments, do not discuss students’ grades by email, telephone or in class. Instead, tell them you will be glad to discuss their grades in the privacy of your office (you can cite The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, FERPA). My wife has used this stragegy and finds that many argument-ready students never come to her office hours. Additionally, you can refuse to discuss college grades with a student’s parents; I cite FERPA and apologize for not being able to discuss their student’s records with them unless the student is present.
Although many educators have criticized college grading as the quintessence of uncertainty and arbitrariness, it is clear that students stand to benefit immensely from a thoughtful and well-constructed grading scheme. It is my hope that you will use this article as you make the detailed decisions that drive much of what our students do, so that you can arrive at an optimal grading system to serve “the grader good.” t
References and Recommended Readings
American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Washington, DC: Author.
Baker, H. E. III, & Bates, H. L. (1999). Student and faculty perceptions of the impact of plus-minus grading: A management department perspective. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 10(1), 23-33.
Carden, R., Bryant, C., & Moss, R. (2004). Locus of control, test anxiety, academic procrastination, and achievement among college students. Psychological Reports, 95, 581-582.
Marchant, G. J. (2002). Student reading of assigned articles: Will this be on the test? Teaching of Psychology, 29, 49-51.
McKeachie, W. J. (2002). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (11th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Merva, M. (2003). Grades as incentives: A quantitative assessment with implications for study abroad programs. Journal of Studies in International Education, 7, 149-156.
Meyer, M. (1908). The grading of students. Science, 28, 243-250.
Milton, O., Pollio, H. R., & Eison, J. A. (1986). Making sense of college grades: Why the grading system does not work and what can be done about it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Palladino, J. J., Hill. G. W., IV, & Norcross, J. C. (1999). Using extra credit. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.). Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology, Vol 1 (pp. 57-60). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.
Rojstaczer, S. (2003). Where all grades are above average. Washington Post: January 28, A21.
Shimoff, E., & Catania, A. C. (2001). Effort of recording attendance on grades in introductory psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 192-195.
Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Zlokovich, M. S. (2004). Grading for optimal student learning. In B. Perlman, L. I. McCann, & S. H. McFadden (Eds.). Lessons learned: Practical advice for the teaching of psychology, Vol 2 (pp. 255-264). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.
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