Pros and Cons of Using a Plus-Minus Grading System

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Student and Faculty Views of Plus-Minus Grading Systems
Working Paper Series—07-11 | December 2007

Jim Morgan
(928) 523-7385

Gary Tallman Robert Williams

All professors at:

Northern Arizona University The W. A. Franke College of Business PO Box 15066 Flagstaff, AZ 86011.5066

Student and Faculty Views of Plus-Minus Grading Systems
Introduction Many colleges and universities have adopted or are considering adopting a grading system that provides a larger number of marking choices than the A through F whole-letter system. This usually takes the form of a plus-minus (+/-) grading system in one version or another. While a variety of reasons have been put forth for the move to +/- grades, a key motivation is the belief that a +/- grading system can either reverse the progression of grade inflation or counter its effects by establishing more grade choices so that performance can be more effectively differentiated. This paper first reviews studies of the prevalence in American colleges and universities of +/- grading systems and, perhaps more importantly, the prevalence of schools not using +/- systems who could potentially benefit from a shift to use of this form of grading system. Because of limitations found in available data, a targeted analysis of grading systems of a selected set of universities has been conducted. The results of this secondary research are briefly reported in the second section below. Results of the first two sections indicate that there remains a substantial set of schools that do not currently utilize +/- grading and might be considering a shift to this form of grading system. Next the paper reviews literature dealing with faculty and student perceptions of +/- grading systems and the effects of these systems on the level and distribution of grades and on student effort. Substantial differences in the perceptions of the two groups are found. The major focus of this paper is the analysis of how faculty and student perceptions of the benefits of a +/- grading system differ and what the motivations for these differences might be. The technique used to explore these questions is a survey of both faculty and student reactions to a hypothesized change to a +/- grading system at a mid-size public university in the Southwest. The results indicate that the faculty is much more supportive of a change than are students. Insights as to why each group views the effects of the hypothesized change differently are explored in the paper with possible explanations for the differences found in expectancy theory, a popular theory of human motivation that suggests students and faculty will each react to the change in a way that is likely to produce positive benefits for them, and in resistance to change theory which seeks to identify the factors causing resistance among groups affected by a change. Our study shows that each group perceives the effects of the change differently and that some students and faculty members have very strong commitments to their views. Examination of the Extent of Use of +/- Grades A study by the American Association of College Registrar and Admissions Offices reported that 36% of institutions (both 2 and 4 year) in 1992 used pluses or minuses in grading whereas 56% of such institutions did so in 2002 [Brumfield, 2005]. Thirty-two institutions moved to a +/- system over the ten year period. Private schools were much more likely to use a +/- system than public schools. This continues the trend noted in the prior ten year period when a 12% increase in institutions using a +/system was noted [Riley, Checca, Singer, & Worthington, 1994]. In order to further evaluate the use of +/- and other extended category grading systems, on-line catalogs of a representative sample of one fourth of all AACSB accredited business schools were reviewed to determine each school’s undergraduate grading policy. A total of 99 schools were surveyed, 71 of them public and 28 private....
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