Students can feel pressured or motivated by changing the weight of their grades with a plus/minus system. Graphic by Madeline Woods

Point/counterpoint: Pluses and minuses would fail students

Students would lose more than just their high GPAs if TU were to switch from its current system of GPAs to a plus/minus system.

Universities have increasingly adopted a GPA system that counts pluses and minuses. As of 2002, around 56 percent of two- and four-year higher education institutions used the plus/minus system. For example, the system would count an A+ as a 4.0, while an A- might be a 3.7. A number of institutions feel that this system more accurately reflects students’ abilities and increases their motivation.

It might seem like a compelling way to count grades. After all, if I haven’t mastered 100 percent of the content from the class, why get the credit for it? It seems like a disservice to my fellow classmates, if my grade gets rounded up from a 79 percent to a B, and someone else has been at a solid 87 percent all semester. We clearly were at two different levels of work or comprehension. Moreover, maybe students would be more motivated to do better in their classes if it meant that they’d get more concrete results.

That argument assumes a lot of things. It assumes that you’re really at different levels in the course. Sometimes you bomb the first test with a new professor because you weren’t sure how their tests are structured. Sometimes you have an emergency, or you work three jobs, and you’ve done the bare level that you can to get that grade for a good reason. Sometimes the class just isn’t your cup of tea, and you put in effort, sure, but not enough to get a B+ or an A+.

Grading systems aren’t meant to take into account these sorts of variables. Nor should they be. A grade is a way to say that a person knows roughly a lot of the course, or about as much as they could or a decent amount. It’s not an exacting tool to describe a person’s competency in a subject since competency itself is subjective in most areas. No two people will grade an essay exactly the same, and no two people know exactly the same things in this life. Grades are just a way to generally gauge that knowledge.

A lack of specificity isn’t the only reason that schools should avoid a too-rigid grading system. Grades are stressful. They make students feel that they have something to prove, and that their worth and knowledge are tied to a number.

Researchers have found that college students’ stressors are wrapped up into a tightly-wound bundle of time management, finances, academic pressure and everything else that’s likely intuitive to students and graduates alike.

One study found that self-imposed stress and pressure outweigh stress from conflict and other frustrations in college. That stress, in turn, manifests itself in headaches and memory problems, among other symptoms, when left unchecked or when it turns overwhelming. Simply put, school is stressful.

For grades, this means that students are more likely to feel more pressure and believe that they should do better when the standards for their GPA are more exacting. And we should all strive to do better and work harder. But the costs add up. It can feel overwhelming when you have six deadlines in a week and three jobs and you haven’t called home in months. A hit to your GPA just because you weren’t outstanding in a class but still got an A feels like insult to injury. The stress creates more problems, like headaches and memory problems, which hurts class performance, which begets more stress since your GPA is at stake and now noticeably suffering.

I’ll be honest: I’m a good student, I make good grades and I am deeply intimidated by the idea of a plus and minus system. If we adopted it at TU, my professors wouldn’t make exceptions for me just because I’m busy and didn’t have time to write an essay that was worth a 95 percent instead of a 93 percent, nor should they. But I also shouldn’t be punished for the fact that I have less time to do homework and projects than someone whose tuition is completely paid for.

If it’s important that grades differentiate knowledge, then have professors grade accordingly. Allow them to be stricter in their grading, or less. But don’t add extra stress and a sense of increased competition to grading systems.

Post Author: Raven Fawcett