As far back as I can remember, I have always been graded with a plus/minus grading system.  This has nothing to do with why I favor a plus/minus grading system today.  As a student, I never would have cared or would have spent any time or energy on debating how I would be graded.  My philosophy never revolved around the grade I received, but rather what I was learning.  Not every student is like this, however.  Many focus primarily on the grade they get rather than what they learn.  Which grading system will do a better job at fostering learning, and take away from how one is graded?

A student came to visit me in my office hours recently to see where she was at in the class.  I updated my grade book to calculate her weighted average thus far, and we found that she was sitting around an 83%.  She wanted to know whether an A was still possible at this point with the third exam and the final still yet to come.  I had to tell her that, although possible, it was extremely unlikely, as she would have to essentially have perfect scores on all of her remaining work.  She became obviously distraught, fighting hard to keep her devastation contained.

Where did any motivation to learn statistics for the rest of the semester go at that point?  This student has to simply maintain their B.  As long as she stays above 80, she’ll maintain her B.  Some might argue that it would be nice to provide that student with some motivation at the end of the semester.  Here is something that I would have loved to tell my student: “You’re currently sitting on a border line between a B- and B.  With some improved work you can easily get a B, and if you really work hard, you can even get a B+ by the end of the semester.”  This is opposite of the current system, in which I was forced to say: “Yeah, you’re pretty much fucked.”  Well, not those exact words.

As assessment goes, there is no argument that the current system is a better form of assessing students.  Any Netflix users out there?  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to rate movies using 1/2 stars?  Or maybe out of 10 stars instead of 5?  Face it, the more stars you have, the better you can rate the movie.  It is analogous for the plus/minus grading system.

I’ve heard individuals say there will be more bickering from students over borderline grades.  More so than now?  Currently, the borderline grade is the difference between 3 and 4 grade points multiplied by the number of credit hours.  This is the difference between 9 and 12 grade points with a 3 credit course.  With a plus/minus, the same exact border in a 3 credit class is the difference between 10 and 11 grade points.  And you say there is going to be more bickering?  I’ve also heard a plus/minus grading system will cause MORE stress.  How is it more stressful on more smooth borders than on our current system with HUGE jumps in GPA?  Please explain.

Suppose Cindy is sitting in C world on the verge of getting a B and Bill is sitting in B world on the verge of getting an A.  Cindy and Bill are two very different students.  At the end of the semester, Cindy barely gets what she needs to move up to a B, while Bill barely falls short of obtaining his A.  They both get B’s.  This is not only boring it is NOT right.  Bill deserves to be distinguished from this other student.  Bill deserves a B+, while Cindy deserves a B-.

Students will argue this will deflate the grades of the top students.  No it won’t.  Your top students will get a 4.0.  Your students that would have normally received a 4.0 in a straight grading system that are in the 90-93rd percentile, will now be recognized as such.  They will be getting the 3.8-3.99’s at the university, as they should.  After all, if you can’t get a 4.0 at half of the universities in the country that have a plus/minus system, why should you be getting a 4.0 at Truman?  Come to Truman!!!  We give away our 4.0s like participation ribbons at races.

I don’t like the GPA or grading system in general.  I wish we could just give numerical scores at the end of the semester.  Here is why.  Suppose I’m looking over an applicant’s transcript and find they have a 4.0.  I’m going to ask whether that student ever dropped a class.  I’m going to look over their transcript for difficult classes within and outside their major.  Did this person avoid difficult classes for the purposes of this 4.0?  How about this other applicant with a 3.0 that never dropped a course, and took extremely difficult courses during their undergraduate time.  This lover of learning, who could apparently care less at what they were getting grade point wise, is the person I’m going to hire.  Forget your 4.0 bullshit, and your dance with dropping courses and avoiding difficult classes for the purpose of maintaining that 4.0.  Quit focusing on the 4.0 and how you are graded and learn something.  Leave the assessment up to the professors, which is who it is up to anyway.