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TEDxNormal Speaker: Time To Remove Points From Grading

Jay Percell
Breanna Grow
Jay Percell, assistant professor at Illinois State University in the School of Teaching and Learning.

What’s the point of points-based grading?

Jay Percell found himself asking that question a lot during his decade as a high school teacher.

“I remember distinctly one student asking me, ‘How many points is this worth?” in the classroom when I’d rolled out an assignment towards the end of the semester, and I just thought to myself, ‘Why are we even doing this? Is it for points? Or are we trying to engender actual learning here?’” he said. 

Today Percell is an assistant professor at Illinois State University in the School of Teaching and Learning. 

Percell will share his experience with points-based grading and his ideas for alternatives in his talk, “Make Grading Pointless: Eliminating Points to Foster Student Motivation” at TEDxNormal Nov. 16 at the Illinois State University Center for Performing Arts.

Percell said research he and others have conducted shows points-based grading can actually demotivate students to learn. 

"One might think that students would be motivated by external points, trying to gain as many as you can, but to a certain extent, especially on a points-based system, at some point a student could be mathematically eliminated from a certain grade, at which point in time their motivation just completely falls to zero,” he said. 

Percell said he regularly hears from teachers who see firsthand the unintended consequences of the points-based system.

“They walk through commons areas in the morning and they see just feverish copying of homework going on,” he said. “Rather than focusing on the knowledge and focusing on whatever the content may be or skills being presented, they’re just rushing to try to generate some sort of written homework with really nothing behind it, just to achieve points and stay in the game.”

Another criticism of the points-based system: it doesn’t provide students or their instructors useful feedback about how they’re doing in class.

“If we have a grading system that is so specific that it can tell us students’ strengths and weaknesses on very specific skills, we can use that even more to refine our instruction, to hone it specifically toward where we need to, to build up our students’ weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths,” he said.

So what system does he suggest schools use instead?

“The one I’m particularly fond of the one that I created with Dr. Huffman,” he said, referring to his former colleague Lance Huffman. 

Percell outlined the system in his 2014 dissertation. Dubbed simply the No Points Grading System, the approach still generates a letter grade, but those grades are determined by students’ level of performance in specific tiers of achievement. 

With no points to obsess over, students’ focus shifts to simply doing the best they can. 

“Because ultimately that’s what’s going to get me the best grade,” Percell said. “I think that if we began approaching our schoolwork or any of the activities that we’re engaged in and say, ‘Hey, I want to make this the highest quality that it can possibly be,’ that stands to benefit us in all walks of life.”

There are other alternative grading systems out there, like contract grading, where student and teacher work together to lay out goals for the student to meet in order to earn a grade. There’s also minimum grading, the system that sets 50% as the lowest possible score.

Percell said minimum grading has received a lot of attention lately, particularly from critics who see the system as automatically giving students 50% of their grade. But the goal is simply to make grading more equitable, Percell said. 

“Usually when I try and explain it to students or others I’ll draw it as a pie chart,” he explained. “And if you have the traditional 100 points system, 60% of the pie is failure. Whereas in minimum grading, where it’s only out of 50, you have just as much chance to get any of the other grades.”

You may have also heard of standards-based grading. It’s a system designed to compliment standards-based education models, which align classroom curriculum with state standards like Common Core.

“So then standards-based grading will assess a students’ proficiency or mastery of those standards, standard by standard,” Percell explained. “Standards-based grading will break the content down skill by skill, and show you whether the student is proficient in the skill, whether they’ve mastered the skill, or whether they’re still progressing towards proficiency.”

Percell said as more K-12 schools adopt standards-based curriculum, more colleges and universities are following suit.

Because standards-based grading breaks down students’ performance skill by skill, “You can see where you could supplement some instruction or build in some support for those students as they’re moving into college or even grade by grade, into senior year, into junior year,” Percell said. “So that’s some real important information, whereas 76% of the whole doesn’t really tell us about individual skills.”

Alternative grading systems don’t just stand to benefit students; teachers who ditch points-based grading can focus more of their energy on fostering learning, Percell said.

“Most teachers that I know, and most teacher candidates that I know, don’t go into the profession because they want to hand out a bunch of grades,” he said. “They go into their profession because they love their content, and because they connect with their content, and they want to inspire a similar love for that content in their students.”

Tickets for TedxNormal 2019 are $20 or $10 with student ID and are available online or in person at the CPA box office.

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TedxNormal on Grading - Full Story

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.