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Pros and Cons of Typical Grading Practices

Courses are typically graded on a point or percentage system (absolute grading method) or a curve (relative grading method), depending on the need for grades to serve as a competitive filter. Because grades are almost always used at some point for some sort of competitive evaluation (scholarships, entrance into degree and graduate programs) even absolute grading systems are normed so that they fall generally within the standard of grading practices of the institution. Most grading practices at the UW incorporate aspects of the absolute and relative grading methods.

Absolute Grading Method Based on Content

Typical Methods

  • Content Based Grade Assignments for Exams
  • Learning Contracts
  • Portfolios

Benefits

  • Allows grade to be directly correlated to student's achievement of defined learning objectives.
  • Lowers competitiveness among students.

Drawbacks

  • Can allow all students to receive the same grade and thus not provide information needed to screen students in competitive circumstances.
  • Scale and objectives can miss actual abilities and possible achievements of students by being too high or too low.
  • Because of tendency of learning expectations to be mismatched with real learning outcomes, encourages ad hoc grade adjustments, thus contributing to meaningless grades.

Sound Strategies

  • When learning objectives and actual learning outcomes are mismatched, adjust learning objectives and re-calculate rather than adjusting final grades.
  • Adjust learning objectives over time as knowledge of students abilities becomes more familiar.
  • Weight tasks according to their importance in demonstrating course objectives.

Absolute Grading Method Based on Fixed Scales

Typical Methods

  • Fixed Percent Scale
  • Total Point Method

Benefits

  • Easy to calculate grades.
  • Easy for students to understand.
  • Consistency gives illusion of fairness.
  • Reduces competition between students.

Drawbacks

  • Can allow all students to receive the same grade and thus not provide information needed to screen students in competitive circumstances.
  • Fixed scales are arbitrary and thus meaningless.
  • Unduly constrains curriculum development by discouraging the use of very short assignments and/or by encouraging teacher to force exam or assignment to fit into point system easily calculated into scale.

Sound Strategies

  • Tie point systems explicitly with a domain of tasks, behaviors, or knowledge upon which the assessment will be based.
  • Adjust scales to fit each assignment rather than adjusting assignments to fit scales.

Relative Grading Methods (Grading on the Curve)

Typical Methods

  • Normal, Bell-Shaped Curve level
  • Distribution Gap Method
  • Standard Deviation

Benefits

  • Allows for screening students according to their performance relative to their peers.
  • Useful for competitive circumstances where students need feedback as to how they compare to their peers.

Drawbacks

  • Does not provide feedback as to actual content mastered by student.
  • Curve arbitrary (and thus meaningless) unless tied to program needs and goals, i.e. the number of students that can eventually be accepted into higher levels of the program or a norm established over multiple years.
  • Curve grade based on single class meaningless unless provided in relation to group student is being scored against.
  • Discourages collaboration, as competition becomes central.

Sound Strategies

  • Establish minimum achievement standards linked to content mastery and then calculate number of As, Bs, Cs, etc. based on curve tied to student's performance relative to his/her peers.
  • Base curve on multi-year or multi-course distribution curve rather than on single class.
  • Establish department standard curve.
  • Weight tasks according to their importance in demonstrating course objectives.

What kind of grading system is most appropriate for your course and program goals?

The following questions might help you think about which method should be most dominant in your own grading practices.

  1. Must a student's grade in this course show how they compare to their peers?
  2. YES
    Most of the time grades must show how students compare to each other in order for screening systems for awards, scholarships and entry into competitive programs to work. When this screening function is a priority for a course, such as in large entry level courses meant to narrow the field of students entering a discipline, it is important to use a relative grading system. When this screening process is not as high a priority, the comparative function can be woven into absolute grading scales.

    NO
    Sometimes students do NOT need to know how they compare to their peers, but only that they have attained a minimum level of knowledge and skills that will allow them to continue on with their studies. Thus, pre-college level courses meant to help students attain skill levels they need to succeed in college are usually never graded on a relative scale. Graduate courses that lead to paths where competition on the basis of grades is no longer necessary (in other words, courses of study that end in a professional position rather than a system of post-doc and fellowships) might also not require any relative or norm based grading.

  3. Must a student's grade in this course show the content the student mastered?
  4. YES
    Sometimes students are required to pass a course with a minimum grade in order to be able to take the next course in the series. This policy implies that each grade is associated with a concrete set of skills and that the skills represented by the minimum grade will enable them to succeed in the next course. You should look at absolute grading scales based on content if this is your priority. Almost all courses want to guarantee some mastery of content with the grades they give though, so even if you choose to use a relative scale, you should investigate how to incorporate content based grading into your grading system.

    NO
    Sometimes a course or program is meant to be adjusted to the level of the students. These courses and programs require that students be either grouped or selected according to their strengths relative to their peers, but do not require specific content mastery. Examples of this can include some elective language courses, elective physical skill development courses (music, art, sports), and elective tutorial or preparatory programs.

  5. Is feedback as to a student's behavior and potential more important in this class than the student's actual achievement?
  6. NEVER
    At the level of higher education, no student should be graded on behavior rather than their actual achievement of course objectives. If the course objectives are to improve certain aspects of behavior then those aspects to be graded should be explicitly stated and graded according to the student's ability to achieve those objectives.