Examining The Points-Based Grading System

Recently, I came across this article on point-based grading systems. The ideas in the article were nothing new, and I’m sure you’ve heard most (if not all) before. This includes things like:

  • students expect and are used to points
  • points are not entirely objective
  • points are an extrinsic form of motivation; the goal is to get more points

My take away from this article is that while points-based grading systems have their place, they emphasize the earning of points and de-emphasize learning. Recently, I shared a post where one of my former students wrote about their experiences with my own point-based system. While the author of the points-based post refers to a previous article on how to get students to think more about learning, and less about grades, the ideas fell flat with me.

The truth is, grades matter and they particularly matter at the undergraduate level where students are often thinking ahead to advanced degrees. Students don’t just expect points anymore. They have grown up in a system where they are sort and ranked and tested to death. They have grown up in a high stakes system that emphasizes grades over learning.

Even at the Masters level, I have found that students’ rationale for why they are there is first and foremost a pay increase (totally understandable). At least, that’s what the majority of them have said on the first day of class when asked to share what motivated them to come back to school. Yes, some people put learning first. Most put salary first, and most don’t mention learning.

How Might We Change This?

I think getting students to be more interested in learning and less interested in grades is difficult – especially in higher education. Doing so requires a cultural shift both in how we do things and how students perceive the course and engage with it and each other. Grades are high stakes. And, even if they are not, students are so used to seeing them as such that it’s a common mindset to hold.

If we want students to put learning first, then we have to accept that learning comes with risks. We learn, in part, through trial and error. We learn by taking chances. We learn by struggling. We learn by failing. And none of that is commonly valued in traditional grading systems. The norm is you have one chance to show what you understand. If you take a risk, and you bomb out, you will pay the price.

That’s not what I want.

The Place for Competency Based Education

This is where I think competency based education (CBE) has a chance to play an important role – at least at the graduate level. However, it requires doing some things differently. I could run a CBE course and tell students that an A is earned by acquiring so many competencies, but I don’t think that’s what we want to do. Instead, what I would envision is this:

  • students enter a program and are given a road map for completion.
  • the road map takes stand alone courses and breaks them down into competencies
  • students need to acquire the knowledge relevant to each competency and then demonstrate a particular level of mastery to get it checked off as being met
  • students leave not with a grade (although we could assign them if need be) but a list of competencies they have obtained and the mastery level they obtained each with

Something like this would work well in an online program where teaching and learning could be more fluid if traditional face-to-face meeting times were scrapped. Instructors create content, share readings, and set up ways for students to interact and share work. This could be done through an LMS, a facebook group, twitter chats, and so on.

Getting Started

Doing this kind of work requires a program to let go of traditional semester systems. It means that we have to let go of traditional views on teaching loads in higher education. It does not mean that we overload instructors with students and work to accomplish this idea.

For the last 12 years, I have taught a 2/2 load. While numbers of students within a class vary, it’s reasonable to assume an average of 25. That’s 50 students a semester or 100 a year give or take. If I worked only in the type of program I am laying out here, then let’s say I could be responsible for up to 100 students at a time.

Initially this would be a lot of work. I would have to get everything set up. However, once I did then the work load would decrease to something reasonable. My focus would shift to making sure content was updated and relevant, interacting with students, and providing assistance (and scoring) competencies.

So, in the end, what I’m saying is I don’t think we even need points-based grading systems. Certainly not for everyone. If we want students to focus on learning then we have to make their experiences about learning. In a couple of weeks I will lay out my thoughts on how we can set up a structure to do just that.

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