# Plus-Minus Grading-If Given a Choice by gegeshandong

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```									                    PLUS/MINUS GRADING: IF GIVEN A CHOICE
By Chip Dixon, Professor, Department of Computing Science, Humboldt State
University
College Student Journal; June 2004, Vol. 38 Issue 2, p280

After implementation of plus/minus grading, in a series of classes, students
were given a choice as to which grading system they individually wanted.
Students overwhelmingly chose the straight letter option by a two-to-one
ratio. The difference in actual grades earned was minimal, but the preference
was clear.

Several years ago our university, like many others, switched from straight
initially reluctant about making the change. Our class sizes were relatively
small, about 30 students each. With such classes many didn't feel that one
could easily go from five possible grades to eleven grade distinctions. In
several courses straight letter grading continued to be used.

questioning the students' overall desires some classes decided to make the
choice optional. Students were asked to decide, before any midterms were
given, if they wanted a straight letter grade or if they wanted to use a
choice, so students in the same class would be able to select which system
they individually preferred.

As one is aware, a plus or minus adds or subtracts three tenths of a grade
point. So, for example, while a grade of B is 3.0, a B+ is 3.3 and a B&#8722;
is 2.7. While grading approaches can vary tremendously, in the course
selected for this study, grading was based on a percentage. To be consistent
with adding or subtracting three tenths of a grade point, the course broke up
the categories using a similar ratio. Thus, in the plus/minus option, the
lower three percentages represented a minus while the upper three percentages
were a plus. Using the B grade as an example, in the straight letter option a
B ranges from 80 to 89 percent. By contrast, in the plus/minus option the
percentages 80 to 82 were a B&#8722;, 83 through 86 represented a B, and 87
to 89 resulted in a B+. Table 1 shows the comparative grading options.

For six classes, student choices were recorded as were resulting grades. It
seems appropriate now to take a closer look at those choices. That is, if
given a choice, what do students prefer and how do they perform?

The field is Computing Science. While computing majors may not make the same
grading selection as other majors, the course chosen for study was a course
mostly populated by those majoring in many fields. The course was
"Introduction to Programming". One appreciates that many students avoid
computing altogether; one has no control over that. But, a large number of
students recognize the importance of being able to indicate a working
knowledge of computing. Thus, while "Introduction to Programming" is required
of both our majors and minors, the class has significantly more minors than
majors. A typical class of thirty students will have about five majors and
twenty-five others (minors, those whose major requires this class, and those
simply wanting exposure to programming). Introduction to Programming was the
most diverse course available for this study.

Starting in 1998 and working forward, six consecutive sections of
"Introduction to Programming" were selected for study. Table 2 shows the
combined grades of the six classes, broken down by option. Excluded from the
results are those who dropped. While drops might show an interesting
statistic in their own right, one could not be sure which option those who
dropped had chosen. So as not to skew one side or the other, they were
removed from the calculations.

Several interesting characteristics can be seen in the results. First is that
the plus/minus students had better overall results, with an overall GPA of
2.52 versus 2.29 for the straight letter students. When one looked at the
plus/minus students as if they had chosen a straight letter grade the numbers
grades their overall GPA would have been 2.49 (Table 3). While the change is
minimal, it shows that those who chose the plus/minus option were slightly
helped by the choice. That is, more students received a plus than a minus.

A second observation was that slightly more of the plus/minus students failed
the class. In the plus/minus group 10 out of 70 failed, representing 14.3%.
In the straight letter group 19 out of 154 failed representing 12.3%. The
difference between these two is very small; it represents only one additional
plus/minus failure. It should be noted that the overall number of
participants is less than optimal for more significance in comparisons.

Between the two groups, the big differences were in the number of Bs and Ds
earned within each group. In the straight letter group, 43 out of 154 earned
a B (27.9%), while 24 out of 154 earned a D (15.6%). With the plus/minus
students 28 out of 70 earned a B (40.0%), while only 4 out of 70 earned a D
(5.7%). These differences accounted for most of the difference in overall GPA
between the two groups. It is pure speculation as to the reasons for these
differences. One might argue that those choosing the plus/minus option were
indeed more concerned with their grades and thus performed better as a whole;
it is surely a possibility.

However, the most striking distinction between the two groups was the sheer
difference in numbers between those who chose each group. There was no
compelling reason why one option should have been chosen over another.
Indeed, the grading system tried, as closely as possible, to make the grade
breakdown match the gain or loss in grade point. Yet, over twice as many
chose the straight letter option (154) compared to the plus/minus option
(70).

One might surmise that students were noticeably more worded about the
disadvantage of receiving a minus than the advantage of receiving a plus.
Especially since earning a C&#8722; (a 1.7 grade point) is often considered
unacceptable. Or, one might suggest that the better students chose the
plus/minus option. However, the difference in the grade of A was not
noticeable. 20.8% of the straight letter students earned an A, while 21.4% of
the plus/minus students earned an A or A&#8722;. This represents a difference
of only one student. Yet the major variation was in the middle. Certainly
those who chose the plus/minus did indeed earn more pluses than minuses. We
do not know how the straight letter students would have fared with the
plus/minus option, but possibly lack of confidence made them shy away from
that option.

It could also be that most students thought that making eleven distinctions
rather that five was cutting the pie too thinly. Many other possible
explanations exist. The only definite conclusion that can be drawn is: when
given a choice, students overwhelmingly opt for a straight letter grade.
This study was limited because it dealt with a relatively small number of
students and only one course. Other studies dealing with perceptions, while
few, also indicate that plus/minus grading may not provide a positive
sentiment for those most closely affected. A study conducted within the
Management Department at the University of North Florida (Baker & Bates,
1999) also found negative perceptions among both students and professors with
regard to plus/minus grades. At Ball State University, a survey of graduate
faculty found that the faculty simply didn't know how students felt about
their newly imposed plus/minus grading system (Malone, Nelson & Nelson 2000).
However, in 1995, the student representative on Ball State University's
committee looking into plus/minus grading voiced concern. She went on to say
that other students she had spoken with voiced opposition to the plus/minus
plan. Given these examples, one might want to reconsider the benefits versus
the losses involved in using plus/minus grades. At a minimum, a further more
extensive study is warranted.

A                     90-100
B                      80-89
C                      70-79
D                      60-69
F                        <60

A                      93-100
A-                     90-92
B+                     87-89
B                      83-86
B-                     80-82
C+                     77-79
C                      73-76
C-                     70-72
D+                     67-69
D                      60-66
F                        <60

Note: Our institution does not allow an A+ or D-; For six classes, student
choices were recorded as were resulting grades. It seems appropriate now to
take a closer look at those choices. That is, if given a choice, what do
students prefer and how do they perform?

Table 2: Tabulation of Grades Assigned

A                            32
B                            43
C                            36
D                            24
F                            19
Total                        154
overall GPA                  2.29
A                            12
A-                            3
B+                           10
B                            10
B-                            8
C+                            9
C                             3
C-                            1
D+                            1
D                             3
F                             10
Total                         70
overall GPA                  2.52

Table 3: Straight Grade for Plus/Minus Students

A             15
B             28
C             13
D              4
F             10
Total         70
overall GPA   2.49

References

Baker, H. E. & Bates, H. L. (1999). Student and Faculty Perceptions of the
Impact of Plus/Minus Grading: A Management Department Perspective. Journal on
Excellence in College Teaching, 10 (1),23-33.

Malone, B. G., Nelson J. S. & Nelson, C. V. (2000). A Study of the Effect of
Grades. A paper Presentation to the Midwestern Educational Research
Association (Report No. ED 446 143)

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