Total Points vs. Weighted Grades

After a lengthy discussion with my husband last night in which he advocated for total points as the ideal higher education grading system while I posited that weighted categories are easier to manage, it became clear that we were both clarifying some misconceptions.  It occurred to me that there are probably many instructors who could use some clarification. I am admittedly biased toward weighted categories, but I’ll do my best to present both options so that others can make an informed decision.

Total Points
In a course that is graded using total points, each assignment has a point value that is a predetermined part of a whole point value.  The weight of the assignment on the final grade is therefore tied to the number of points available in the assignment.  Example: Johnny is taking a course where he can potentially earn 450 points over the semester.  Five discussion boards are worth 10 points each, 50 points total.  Johnny knows that he has 400 other points to earn from other assignments. A major project is worth 100 points, twice as much as all of the discussion boards combined, therefore Johnny can see that the project is weighted more heavily than the discussion boards.  

The difficulty with total points (from my perspective) is that it impedes flexibility.  What if Johnny’s instructor normally has students participate in an ungraded in-class assignment, but is unable to attend class on a specific date.  The instructor wants to assign the activity as an out of class assignment and needs to attach a grade to the activity.  Where do those points come from?  I can add in another assignment, making the course total 475 points now instead of 450, and this is probably fine, but what if my syllabus stated that discussion was to be X% of the total grade (as many do)?  Now the percentages are thrown off.  Over time, as courses get reused from one semester to the next and passed on from one faculty member to the next, assignments get added and subtracted until the proportions are no longer reflecting the most important aspects of the course. 

Weighted Grades
By establishing categories (participation, in-class work, quizzes, final project, journals) and assigning percentages to those categories, the instructor can predetermine how much of the student’s final grade will come from each category.  This is done with total points as well, but with weighted categories, the instructor has the flexibility to add or remove assignments as needed because it will not effect the overall point structure for the course.

Example:  Johnny earns 9/10 on his first discussion board post.  Discussion are worth 15% of the final grade.  Johnny has earned 13.5 of his 15 points, so he has a 90% so far.  On a quiz, weighted at 25% of the total grade, he earns a 90%, or 22.5 out of 25.  His current grade is a 96% even though he has earned 2 grades, both at 90%.  The quiz is weighted more heavily than the discussions so it was worth more of his overall grade.

The difficulty with weighted grades (some may argue) is that the student may have trouble determining what assignments are really more important if they are accustomed to more points= more value.  With weighted categories, it doesn’t really matter if Discussions=500 points and a final exam=100, the weighted categories determine the impact on the final grade, not the points.  There is also a concern that the flexibility offered by weighted categories leads to poor planning. It is also perceived as complicated for the instructor in grading.  Who wants to do all of that math on every assignment?

I tend to disagree.  Using our current grading tools in Blackboard, it is fairly simple (1 hr +/-) to set up weighted categories in the Grade Center that can be used throughout a course, every time it is taught. Hopefully this provides some clarity.  What are your thoughts?  Do you use total points or weights and why?




9 thoughts on “Total Points vs. Weighted Grades

  1. Coming to the party almost two years after it started! (I’m sure there’s some kind of statute of limitations on blog comments, but here we are.) Just found this entry doing a Google search for weighted v point-based grading systems, as I’m rethinking how I’m doing it.

    First, a nit-pick – The score in the weighted example is still 90% of the available points – not 96%. Adding it up, they have 36 of the 40% of the weight that is determined so far – which is 90%.

    Now, in response to the question at the end: I’ve used both. Here are my observations:

    The Point-based system is clearer when students are thinking about the course grade.
    The weighted system is clearer when students are thinking about the grade on the assignment.

    When I used a point-based system, I’d have students asking “Is a 5 out of 6 on this paper a B?” And I’d say something like “It doesn’t make sense to ask that question. The letter grade from the course is determined by the totality of your work in the course, not this one assignment.” They’d say “Yeah, but is the grade on this assignment a B?”. I’d give a frustrated sigh because there was no way I was going to convince this student that it was a pointless question, punch 5/6 (= 83.33%) into a calculator, say “yes”, and send them on their way.

    Now I use a weighted system. Every assignment is graded out of 100, so that students can immediately see that they’re getting an A, B, etc. on any particular assignment. Now, I get questions like: “I got 800 points out of 1000 in this course, but you gave me an F. Why is an 80% failing?” And I have to say “It’s an F because the 800 points all came from completion grades that only count for 20% of the course. The 200 points you missed were on the midterm and final, which account for 80% of the course. In a weighted course, points are not created equal. Maybe you should show up to tests.” It’s still frustrating, but I can feel more self-righteous during the process.

    The reality is that with a little bit of math, you can map from one system to the other (with only the flexibility problems you point out arising), the biggest question in my mind is which the students find easier to understand. (Or, put cynically, which system will prevent as many questions as possible about grades? I love student questions about my subject – I hate student questions about grades.) On that, I went with the weighted system. If nothing else, it means that students only ask me at the end about course grades instead of about every individual assignment. To mitigate some of the potential confusion, I have Blackboard give my students a running tally of where they are – so they can see how much difference different assignments are making to their grades.

    But, like I said at the top, I’m not sure that I’m happy with this system, either. Sadly, though, I may be coming to the conclusion that there isn’t a perfect system. (Always depressing to have to admit that!)

    1. I failed a course with an 78.8% after getting 88/100 correct on my final. This course you needed an 80% to pass. I was struggling with how the questions were set up on previous test but really only bombed one. Because of the weighted system 311/400 points was not 77% but 73.4% percent because our test were 95% of our grade. Some teachers need to clarify what this means on the syllabus. When you do not understand the system because your instructors do not and are told you are calculating your grade correctly and you weren’t, was very hard to deal with.

    2. It is almost as if the points do not matter to a certain extent in the weighted system if hw is only 5% of your grade and tests are 95%. Some people do not test well but that does not mean they do not understand the information.

  2. As a student I really dislike the “weighted points” system. Not all of my instructors use it but when they do, it is often very confusing. An example is my last class. I earned 94 points out of the possible 100. I could easy see my discussions were worth 5 points, my papers worth 10, project 10, and exam 20. Despite me earning 94, I was given an 89 for the class. I did well on everything except on a couple of papers where I earned 76’s (95 on the exam). I felt cheated at the end and the whole time I thought I was doing better than I was. The weighted system seems subjective. It’s simple. If the exam is worth more, than it should be awarded more points. When the “weight” of an assignment changes, you essentially change the grade after the fact which leads to frustration by the student. I am an example.

  3. As a undergrad at a large private university, I would stab the point system to death if I could. Give me my weightiest average flexibility back :(. I lose points left and right for the absolute most ridiculous (and a lot of the times unexplainable) reasons and next thing you know I have a C, when if I had the weighted average system I generally get A’s in all classes. Hate the point system.

  4. It’s still 90% for the weighted grades. Those points are only 40% of the grade and so far she has a 90% in the class.
    Example based on weighted????
    hw is worth 25% of grade
    based on total point system.

  5. Have you ever heard of a weighted grading system where the instructor does not compute both parts of the weighted grades? Example: exams worth 60% other assignments worth 40%; however, the 40% is not computed if the student does not make a 75% or better on the exams. Even if the student makes a 100% on the exam portion, they will fail if the 40% is not done. Seems that if the 40% is required assignments, it should be included in the computation of the grade for a true weighted grade. Any thoughts.

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