I’m Awarding 10 points for Learning

“I went to Columbia University because I knew I wanted to go to a school that was academically rigorous. I prided myself on getting good grades, but I also hated it.”
Ezra Koenig

When you’re a student, it can seem that your life revolves around points. Your points determine whether you pass a class which determines what else you can take and whether you graduate.  It’s no surprise that one of the most come questions students ask is “Will this be on the test?”

Regardless of the school points affect your life.  In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books the phrase “… points for Gryffindor” occurs at least 21 times.  This phrase has had such an impact it made its way in the most import of all art forms the meme (Note Heavy Sarcasm)

Memes based on awarding points to Gryffindor in the Harry Potter Books.
Memes based on awarding points to Gryffindor in the Harry Potter Books.

In the Harry Potter books, the points are used to give the hero’s a reword at the end of a book or just as comic relief.  In real life, students find points stressful or focus on points (grades) to the exclusion of learning.

Some discussions suggest grades, at least as we are using them, might be harming student learning. It is stated in the article Teach more by Grading Less (or Differently)

“Grades can dampen existing intrinsic motivation, give rise to extrinsic motivation, enhance fear of failure, reduce interest, decrease enjoyment in class work, increase anxiety, hamper performance on follow-up tasks, stimulate avoidance of challenging tasks, and heighten competitiveness.”

So why do we use points, as educators our role is to provide the best learning experience possible.  If there is any chance that something could be hindering learning shouldn’t we be exploring other alternatives?

When it comes to the idea of eliminating points, I remember a talk I attended in the early days of student response systems (Clickers).  A physic instructor was using clickers to poll students in real-time and then using pear-pear instruction to enhance learning.  At first, many students were not responding. The effectiveness of the clickers in education is dependent on students responding. However, he did not want the students to feel that clickers were an exam. 

The instructor chooses to assigned points to the clicker questions. However, these points only counted as 1% of the course total.  This low amount of points was enough to get most of the students to engage.  The instructor then used learning gains to show how learning in his class had improved with this increased participation.  In this case, points undoubtedly helped motivate students to learn.

So, points can motivate students and promote learning.  Well yes, however, the critical thing to remember the physics instructor assigned the points for a specific pedagogical reason.  We did not choose many of the parts of the standard grading system for pedagogical purposes.

Have you ever thought about the grading scale A, B, C, D, and F what happened to the E?  It turns out the first record we can find for a modern grading scale comes from Mount Holyoke College in 1887 their scale was A (excellent, 95-100%), B (good, 85-94%), C (fair, 76-84%), D (barely passed, 75%), and E (failed, below 75%) there’s that missing E.

Over the years the standardization of the grading scale lost the E.  In the case of the current grading scale standardized is an important word.  As society changed and grew, more and more students transferred between schools or continued their education at an institution of higher learning.  To mediate student movement school needed a way of communicating student abilities and success.  Therefore, one of the most significant driving forces of the modern grading system was the need to communicate quickly and precisely between schools.

However, you will also note that the percentages for the Holyoke scale are different than many today. Today the difference from one letter grade to the next is usually 10%, and failing is 60% and bellow. Additionally, there was a push in the early to mid-parts of the 20th century to standardize grade distributions to the Normal Distribution/Bell Curve with the C set to the mid or average position.

The Bell Curve modified form Standard Deviation diagram.svg,, Auther M.W. Toews from Own work, based (in concept) on figure by Jeremy Kemp, on 2005-02-09. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.
The Bell Curve modified form Standard Deviation diagram.svg,, Auther M.W. Toews from Own work, based (in concept) on figure by Jeremy Kemp, on 2005-02-09. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

The bell curve added a component of sorting to a system that was supposed to represent mastery.  There is also the question of whether a system (the bell curve/normal distribution) that describes the distribution of physical characteristics (height, weight, strength, etc.) is appropriate to measure learning?

While there is a lot to be said for other grading and assessment methods, the standard grading system is not going to go away anytime soon.  We can’t replace the A – F system quickly because it has many advantages, especially in a mobile society.  As educators, we need to remember that our job is to motivate and encourage learning, the grades will come from knowledge.

When we design our courses, the assignment of points should be for pedagogical reasons.  Just like the clicker in the physics class, we should use points to encourage learning activities.  Points should be assigned based on the activity’s importance to learning, not the need to fill a spreadsheet. Lastly, enough points should be used to allow for a complete and accurate assessment and feedback.

Do you consider the pedagogical impact of your point assignment? Do you think about the effects of grades on your students learning and motivation?  Lastly, why don’t we spend more time discussing something as important as the effects of points and their associated grades on student learning?

Thanks for Listing to My Musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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