Academic journal article College Student Journal

Student and Faculty Perceptions of Plus/minus Grading and Its Effect on Course Grade Point Averages

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Student and Faculty Perceptions of Plus/minus Grading and Its Effect on Course Grade Point Averages

Article excerpt

In fall 2005, the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas authorized the optional use of a plus/minus grading system. Since 2005, approximately one-half of courses have been graded using plus/minus and one-half using the straight letter grade system. This study examined student (n = 338) and faculty (n = 82) perceptions of the plus/minus grading system and evaluated its effect on course GPAs by analyzing 12 years of grade data. Student perceptions of the plus/minus system were negative; a majority of students felt plus/minus grading was unfair, resulted in lower student GPAs, and preferred straight letter grades. The faculty was more divided; a slight majority felt plus/minus grading was fair to students while pluralities felt it helped average and low achieving students, resulted in lower student GPAs, and preferred straight letter grades. Students were significantly more negative about plus/minus grading than were faculty. Analyses of same-course same-instructor grade data indicated no significant change in post-2005 GPAs for courses where instructors continued to use straight letter grades; however, a significant decrease (-0.12) occurred in courses where instructors switched to plus/minus grading. In plus/minus graded courses, more minus than plus grades were assigned, primarily because no A+ grade was available.

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Study Background

A common view of the purpose of grading college courses is that grades measure mastery of a subject. But grades are clearly more than that and their meaning varies between the assigning instructor and the receiving student. Most instructors think of grades as measures of mastery and motivational instruments. Students may consider these factors, but they also view grades as a key to future jobs and/or admission to graduate or professional school, maintaining scholarships, and indicators of self-worth and self-esteem. Because of these conflicting views instructors and students are not likely to view grading systems in the same way or to rate them similarly.

In fall 2005, the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences (Bumpers College) changed its grading policy to allow instructors to assign plus and minus grades should they so choose. The present study used data generated by student and faculty surveys and actual grade distributions from 2000-2012, to assess the impacts of switching grading systems both in terms of perceptions as well course grade point averages (CGPA).

Introduction

In the U.S., grades are typically assigned as either straight letter grades, plus/minus, or pass/fail (Barnes & Buring, 2012), with 97% of higher education institutions using some form of letter grading system (Hassel & Lourey, 2005). The straight letter system, used for over 100 years in American higher education, has become the basis for the 4.0 GPA (Rojstaczer & Healy, 2012). Grades are generally viewed as an indication of a student's performance during an academic course. The cumulative GPA of all courses condenses academic performance into a single statistic (Beatty, 2004) and is used to evaluate applicants for employment and post graduate training (Barnes & Buring, 2012). GPA was found to be the most important admission criterion for graduate school, above faculty recommendation letters and GRE scores (Beatty, 2004; Sanders & Landrum, 2012). Thus, the system used to assign grades is important.

In recent years, more universities have dropped the traditional straight letter system and adopted a plus (+) and minus (-) grading system. A primary justification for this change was that the plus/minus system is fairer and 1 or more precise because it permits greater differentiation among levels of student performance by narrowing grade intervals (Morgan, Tallman, & Williams, 2007).

The plus/minus grading system is largely driven by: (a) grade inflation (Cherry & Ellis, 2005; Edwards, 2000; Eiszler, 2002; Lackey & Lackey, 2006; Rojstaczer, & Healy, 2012; Rosovsky & Hartley, 2002; Singleton & Smith, 1978); (b) grades as motivators (Bressette, 2002; Dixon, 2004; Docan, 2006; Holmes & Smith, 2003; McClure & Spector, 2005; and (c) expectation of student effort on grading practices (Adams, 2005; Lippmann, Bulanda, & Wagenaar, 2009; McDougall & Granby, 1997; Trout, 1997; Twenge, 2006); and (d) student and faculty acceptance of grading practices (Malone, Nelson, & Nelson, 2000; Morgan et al. …

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