Grading: Letters or Numbers?

DESCRIPTIONAh, yes, it’s that time of the year when faculty at many schools are finding their days consumed by grading. (Should anyone want verification of that, I suggest a Twitter search on #grading.)

When assigning grades, I’ve moved back and forth between using letters and using numbers. Frankly, I’m still not sure which I prefer. Here’s what I’ve experienced so far with each approach:

Using Letter Grades

Some advantages:

  • I suspect students expect letter grades for the kinds of assignments and exams I give (primarily essay, in both cases).
  • Students know immediately how to interpret the grades.

Some disadvantages:

  • It’s not always easy to know how to mark an assignment that’s borderline between two grades, or how to record it. (How do you easily enter an A-/B+ into a spreadsheet, if that’s how you keep your gradebook?)
  • If you expect students to keep track of their own progress through the semester, letter grades can make that task difficult. They’ll have to do the conversion to the four-point scale, set up the calculation, etc.

Using Numbers

Some advantages:

  • Record keeping is easier (numbers work a lot better than letters in a spreadsheet formula).
  • It’s easier for students to keep track of their own grades and progress than it sometimes is with letters.
  • There’s a bit more fine-tuning possible with assigning and recording borderline grades. Not sure if a paper is a B+ or an A-? Admittedly, there’s still a difference between an 89 and a 90, but using numerical grades makes that difference smaller than the four-point scale would. For that matter, a spreadsheet will understand 89.5 just fine, so A-/B+ can be an actual grade.

Some disadvantages:

  • I sometimes feel as though I’m quantifying things that really aren’t quantifiable.
  • Students aren’t always accustomed to thinking of grades in numerical terms.
  • If students do start thinking in terms of “A 92 is an A-, but a 93 is an A,” they may be more likely to argue about the grade (instead of realizing that, over the course of the semester, there’s precious little difference between a 92 and a 93 on one assignment).

I’ve been using a numerical system this semester, but I haven’t yet decided whether to stick with it for next semester. What do you think, readers? Do you prefer letters or numbers, and why? What’s your experience with each system been like? Let’s hear from you in the comments.

[Image by Flickr user lordsutch / Creative Commons licensed]

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