Category Archives: Grading

Plus/Minus Grading Systems

Have you ever thought about the pros and cons of our plus/minus grading system versus the A-B-C-D-F system employed by other universities? The plus/minus system actually has several advantages—see for example the reasons RPI adopted a plus/minus system in 2004.

Despite the advantages, under a plus/minus system I’m finding it challenging to implement something I learned from Ken Bain in 2007.

In his 3-day Best Teachers Summer Institute, Bain leads a unit on assessment. In particular he asks educators, “What does it mean for a student to be an ‘A thinker’ in your discipline? What must students be able to demonstrate or do to live up to that standard? How would it be measured if there were no such thing as numerical grades?” Bain suggests that we share with students our answers to these questions to help them understand what it takes to be a so-called A thinker.

When I did Bain’s exercise, I learned that the definitions for A vs. B vs. C thinkers are not trivial, but doable. But consider this. Our plus/minus system has 11 grade categories whereas the A-B-C-D-F system has 5. It’s been 3 years, and acceptable definitions for each of the 11 brackets still elude me. What is it exactly that a C+ thinker can do that a C thinker cannot?

If you have found good ways to define plus/minus grades in the spirit of delineating what students demonstrate they can do (rather than numerical scores), I’d like to hear from you. What works for you?


Here’s another issue with our grading system that borders on triviality, but, well, I think about these things. Suppose in a jumbo lecture an instructor gives 3 multiple-choice exams, averages the scores, and (voilà) assigns final grades according to the chart in the faculty handbook. In our plus/minus system, if we assume the course scores are uniformly distributed between 50% and 100% (which they are not, but bear with me), then 10% of the students are expected to be a half-percentage point below a cutoff, inviting natural rounding up. That is, 1 in 10 students may be arguing for the next higher grade, a grade they technically didn’t achieve. Maybe the number is not exactly 10%, but it’s close for many reasonable grade distributions.

Certainly, there are all sorts of considerations when resolving the rounding question, but that’s not the point. The issue is the sheer number of “rounding cases” that our grading system invites. I recently taught a course where 21% of the final scores were less than a half point below a cutoff.

Happy 2010 everyone.

Posted in Assessing Learning, Grading | 4 Comments

Blackboard Tips

The following blog post on may be of interest. It features links to Blackboard tips and tutorials:

Posted in Grading, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Blackboard Tips

Why Post Grades on Blackboard?

Did you see the article “Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes” by Max Roosevelt in the 18-Feb-2009 NY Times? The article asserts that students are feeling more entitled to high grades than in years past.

I made a small change about five years ago that significantly reduced the number of end-of-semester grade disputes. I wonder how many of my colleagues do the same. It’s simple: after every graded assignment—homework, quiz, project, exam, presentation, whatever—post the student grades on Blackboard (see the “Grade Center” in Blackboard 8.0’s control panel, formerly called “Gradebook” in version 7.0).

At all times during the semester, students can check their running tally. And they do. The C and B students who would otherwise fight at the end of the semester now know where they stand from day 1. Rather than holding a discussion at the end of the term, we talk about how the student can meet my standards months earlier.

I know students can keep their own running tally as we hand back every graded assignment—they don’t need Blackboard for this information. But by posting their grades, we communicate transparently our understanding of their performance, as well as any assignments that are missing. In addition to the student’s individual scores, the student also sees class statistics (mean, std. dev., high, low, etc.). It’s also a good “quality inspection” to eliminate grade book errors. (What, you never entered an 87% as a 78%?).

There are some downsides. First, it takes five or ten extra minutes per assignment to upload a grade spreadsheet into Blackboard, and entering the grades directly into the Blackboard grade book is not much better due to a gludgy interface. Second, some students obsess about their grades resulting in two issues: being hounded with emails 48 hours after an assignment was collected (where’s my grade?), and an apparent gradebook-checking obsession among some (if only they would dedicate as much energy to the readings).

Posted in Communicating and Managing Expectations, Grading, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Mendicant Preachers

At the end of the fall semester, I received this e-mail from a student in my MSC 1003 class who had recently earned a D grade:

i am on academic probation. if my G.P.A. doesnt reach 2.0 by the end of next semester, im kicked out of baruch. i mathematically cant make 2.0 if i have a D on top of a F. please, im begging u. i need to retake music or i will end up in community college.

This was just one of several e-mails from this fellow who begged for me to reward him for his D-work with an F. His agony was based on the shame of having to tell his parents that he’d be transferring to Kingsborough Community College because a mere music class beat him down. I told him that community college is no shame and reported on two close friends who started at QCC (one now a CPA who works for the AICPA and the other the chair of an art department at a Maryland college), and I sent him the Wikipedia link to former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona who started at BxCC. I spared him my usual spiel about how I’d bet music was not the only subject giving him trouble.

I find these requests more troubling than the can-you-raise-my-grade ones. Maybe it’s because the student should have had a good sense that he was running a D with 80% of the grade completed by early December, and he easily could have bailed on the last quiz, had he done the math; so this bespoke a kind of detachment from his own academic progress. Maybe because he failed the course once, in ostensibly an easier version of the course, only to stumble into my CIC version with all its extra writing-based requirements. Maybe it’s because, if he had attended only seven of the hour-long workshops that accompany the course, he would have received extra credit enough to raise his D to a C. Maybe because it is ultimately educationally sound for a D-student to re-take a course when he finally has become mature enough to pass it. Anyway you slice it, he could have either gotten his F or his C with very little effort. Yet the flurry of e-mails that his D engendered showed that he was eager work the art of the deal with me, to spend time arguing in favor of his F, and, of course, to preach to me about what it is really like to be a student.

Is it better–educationally sound–to give D students the retroactive F, if requested? Is it fair to others? Is it even legal?

Posted in Classroom Rules, Communicating and Managing Expectations, Grading | 8 Comments

Web-based Homework?

Have you noticed that textbook publishers are promoting web-based homework systems such as Prentice Hall’s Grade Assist (PHGA), McGraw-Hill’s Homework Manager and Wiley’s eGrade?

All 20 sections of Finance 3000 are using the McGraw-Hill product. Students do homework online and receive instantaneous feedback (with solutions), professors enjoy automated grading, and the coordinator appreciates bolstered grading fairness across sections. No two students get the same question due to randomized seed numbers (e.g., student 1: “solve X + 219 = 567”; student 2: “solve X + 98 = 673”). If a student doesn’t like his/her score, the entire problem set may be redone, with new seed numbers, and the professor’s grade report includes the score of every attempt.

I trialed PHGA with 80 MGT 3121 students, spring 2008. Students complained that they often reasoned correctly, but made errors inputting numeric answers in the software, and thus redid entire assignments (with new seed numbers) to get the points they felt they deserved. In some cases I had to agree with the students—the software is not perfect. My larger concern is that none of the types of questions that promote deep learning are available in the software. Rather, standard “textbook” questions—questions with a single correct answer such as “determine the reorder point and reorder quantity” or “forecast demand on day 150″—lulled students into deep comas. It’s about as exciting as the computerized SAT test.

Worried that web-based homework trades richness of student thinking for my convenience, I stopped using the software.


Posted in Grading, Teaching Large Classes, Using Technology | 4 Comments

Let Them in on What You’re Doing

Most of you are probably familiar with the old saw: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I once heard a coda: Those who can’t teach, teach pedagogy. I used to find the notion funny, but as I’ve observed new faculty beginning their careers over the years I’ve come increasingly to appreciate just how much craft goes into teaching. Good teachers may make it seem effortless, but it’s not. This perhaps explains why many folks think that teaching doesn’t call for as much a skill as other occupations. One antidote to this tendency to overlook the techniques we’re employing in the classroom is to devote a bit of time to pointing out to our students just what it is we’re doing. This can serve both to make them aware of the cues and signals we’re sending them, and to get them to understand how they can put this awareness to work in the rest of life. Here are a couple of the very simple things I point out to my students.

One is the way I use the whiteboards. I’ve never adopted PowerPoint because for me it seems to constrict spontaneity, creative flow, and opportunities to let students’ questions and arguments shape the direction of the class. I can write something on the whiteboard and then come back to it as often as I find myself needing to in the course of a lecture or discussion. Sometimes I return again and again to a key concept. At some point early in the term, I stop and point out to students that if they pay attention to what I’ve been doing, they will see that a particular term or phrase or illustration on the board has gradually acquired a halo of surrounding emphases, underlining, circling, stars, etc. “If you see a concept on the board that’s been well marked-up,” I tell them, “you should be sure to mark it up in your notes. Highlight it, draw big arrows pointing to it. I can assure you that when you’re writing your essays it’s a concept you’re going to want to include, to explain, and to emphasize.”


Posted in Grading, Student Participation, Students' Skills and Abilities, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Usefulness of Tests

When the idea for a general teaching blog was first formed, David Birdsell, Dean of the School of Public Affairs here at Baruch College, made a great suggestion – writing posts on the face-to-face faculty development events such as our Master Teacher Series. Last week, Edward L. Deci, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and founder of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), conducted a session for the Master Teacher Series entitled, “Motivation for Teaching and Learning at the College Level:Facilitating Autonomous Motivation.”

While Edward Deci’s presentation was geared towards college teaching, he stated how motivation is very broadly relevant, for example, in parenting, sports, etc. He talked about the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competency, and relatedness) and their importance in extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. For this post, I will focus a only a small portion of his thought-provoking presentation – the usefulness of tests.

I liked what he said about the usefulness of tests. He explained that tests can be useful when we focus on the “primary function… to assess whether students have learned and can perform.” Therefore, “tests can provide meaningful feedback to students, teachers, and administrators.” One key point was to “minimize rigidity” in testing, for example, having students grade their own quizzes for feedback on how well they are learning the course material. He emphasized the importance of being respectful and responsive to students and to provide a choice whenever possible.

I have discussed with students how well the class is doing as a group on the tests and even changed the format of the final exam based upon those discussions. For example, in one class, I noticed that my students performed best on short essay questions in my assessing their knowledge and understanding of the course material. We came to an agreement that the final exam would be all short essay questions – students had to choose 20 out of 30 short essay questions to answer. I felt the outcome from this change was a better measure of what students had learned.

This leads me to ask:

Are you open to renegotiating the learning contract (the syllabus if we’re focusing on the explicit part) with your students?

What other adjustments have you made in your courses based upon students’ input in order to enhance learning and assessment?

Posted in Assessing Learning, Grading, Syllabi | 3 Comments

Intellectual Challenge vs. Grade Inflation

What are your thoughts on course evaluations? I find them to be a great motivator for reflecting on course content and delivery. My latest project is to increase my ratings on the item: “The course challenged me intellectually.” I feel I have been too lenient at times, not challenging our students enough and falling victim to grade inflation.

Just yesterday, I looked at a student’s draft of a slideshow for an upcoming presentation. The students are graded on their draft but can gain half the subtracted points back if they revise their drafts and their final slideshow is effective. The student had handed in a draft that was below par and, as a result had lost quite a few points . . . and promptly e-mailed me, saying how disappointed he was. It broke my heart.

I am struggling with a balance between challenging students, motivating them, and grading them effectively. How do you strike that balance?

Posted in Course Evaluations, Grading | 8 Comments