Punishing with grades – Are you ready to rethink your grading system?

test by Arvind Balaraman


I have recently read two posts about grading that touch upon a topic that has long been boggling my mind – the use of grades as punishment and the overall fairness of grading systems. I would like to invite you to check out Monte Syrie’s explanation of why he doesn’t give zeros anymore, or grades below 50% for that matter, and why. Likewise, Andrew Miller explains how grades can harm student learning and how he has refrained from giving zeroes, taking points off for late work, grading practice exercises or homework, and allowing grading to become more important than teaching. Both authors contend that when we give students a zero or take points off for late work, their grade ends up not reflecting how much they have truly learned. An outsider who looks at a student’s grade might be misled into thinking that the student hasn’t mastered the content, when in fact what might have happened is simply that the student got a zero that was averaged out with the other grades, resulting in an unrealistically low average.

I have to admit that what these two educators argue makes a lot of sense to me. After all, don’t we give students grades so we can demonstrate their level of attainment of the learning outcomes? If this is the case, then the grade should reflect this achievement and nothing else. Let’s exemplify this with a concrete situation. Suppose students were asked to write a letter to the city council about a problem in their community and what needs to be done to fix it. Student A wrote a relatively good letter, was assessed based on well-defined scoring rubrics, and got a 90, hopefully after having had the chance to receive feedback from peers and the teacher and then rewrite the letter. Student B wrote a flawless letter but turned in the assignment late, losing 10 points for that. Both student A and student B will receive the same grade, but student B’s letter demonstrated superior attainment of the learning objectives in terms of cohesion, cohesion, and language use.  Is this coherent with the principle that students’ grades should reflect their level of achievement?

At this point you are probably thinking, “But how do we get students to turn in their work on time if there are no consequences for not doing so?”  Miller says he uses the problem of late homework as a teachable moment in his class and tries to address the causes for the behavior. Students might need guidance on how to make better use of their time so they can cope with all the tasks.  I think sometimes it is also an opportunity for the teacher to realize that the deadlines might perhaps be too short or that the tasks are not being scaffolded enough in class, leading students to feel insecure and take longer than necessary to complete an assignment.  But then you might also be thinking, “Yeah, right. But what if nothing of this works and they keep turning in late work?”  After all, it’s not practical for teachers to keep receiving late work day after day, and students do need to learn to be responsible and hand in their work on time. That’s true, and I don’t think either author suggests such a laissez-faire environment.  Maybe then what we need to think about is alternative types of consequences for turning in late work other than losing points. Or even better, let’s focus on the positive behavior and think of positive consequences for turning in work on time – as long as the consequence is not getting extra points of course!

The same rationale works for zeros. There are teachers who are proud to be strict. They set a deadline for turning in work and if the student doesn’t meet the deadline, it’s a zero. The problem with this zero is that, depending on the number of other grades it will be averaged out with, it can practically fail the student. Also, the average will again not represent what this student knows, so it will be misleading.  In my administrative position, I have often come across situations of failing students who would have passed the course hadn’t it been for a zero.  In this case, should these students take the whole semester again because they didn’t do page 40 of the workbook? Would you like to have in your class a student who has mastered the content of the level but failed because of a zero? Will you be able to truly motivate this student?

An even thornier issue discussed by Monte Syrie is that he does not give students a failing grade below 50% in a marking system that goes from A to F and in which F means any grade below 59%. His rationale is that the grading system stops at F, not G, H, or I. Why give a 10 or a 33 when a 50 is a failing grade all the same, showing that the student has not mastered the content, but it is still a grade that the student can make up for more easily than a very low one? In his mind, there isn’t such a thing as a bigger or a lesser fail. This was music to my ears, especially when it comes to scoring rubrics.  In the institution where I work, we have customized rubrics for every oral or written assessment. The writing rubrics, for example, are usually divided into domains, such as content, organization, language use, vocabulary, and mechanics, and there are ranges of performance that usually stop at 4 at in a 10-point scale, not less than that. A teacher once came to me and suggested that the range for “doesn’t meet the standard” should go all the way to 0 and not just stop at 4. Now I’m relieved to know that my explanation was in keeping with Syrie’s rationale: 1) why give students such low a grade that will put them in a hole they won’t be able to crawl out of? 2) If the student is in a group that represents a certain level of proficiency, how can this student have a zero percent performance, for instance, in language use in an oral test, or in mechanics in a composition? The students would obviously be misplaced! Also, isn’t a 40% already a “good enough” failing grade?

Grading has existed for centuries in our traditional education systems around the world and it is very hard for us to let go of long-held beliefs about grading. However, as we embrace 21st– Century teaching and learning, perhaps it is also time to change our mindsets about grades and what they should or should not represent. Taking the punishment element out of our grading system is a great start!


Image by Arvind Balaraman courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

1 Comment
  • Maria Tereza Gomes
    Posted at 22:48h, 08 março Responder

    Food for thought. How can we follow a schedule and not “punish”? Lots to rethink and redesign.

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