The Point of Points

So last week, I commented on a post over at Frank Noschese’s blog (actually, I commented on another comment)

Robert Talbert commented:

I can say that the average university student will not do work unless it has points attached — not because they’re lazy, but because they are chronically overscheduled. An assignment’s point value is, for them, a measure of its significance. An item with no points translates as “optional”, and optional stuff might catch the interest of a student, but they’ll look at such an item only if they have time with no competing claims on it, which they don’t. That’s not a failing of the students necessarily, just a fact of the schedules of those students.

Interestingly, the one exception to what I just said is online homework. I assign 2-3 problems each class meeting that’s set up and done through WeBWorK ( The online homework is worth 5% of their grade total, and there are over a hundred such problems assigned in a semester, so the point value of each item is vanishingly small. But I’ve seen students attempt some of those problems dozens of times before getting them right. That’s a mystery to me, and I feel if I understood that mystery better, it might tell me something about the other stuff I assign.

You can read my original comment over there,  but this has been popping back into my head repeatedly this week.  For my students, I really don’t think that they necessarily judge an assignment’s importance by its point value, or sometimes even recognize the great disparity in values of assessments—I’ve had students panic about one bad homework grade, even though that homework assignment counts as just over a tenth of a percentage point of their course average.  I give homework and quiz grades out of 10 and exam grades out of 100 in an effort to encourage them to think of some as smaller than others.  I used to be afraid to emphasize exactly how much smaller they were, thinking that students wouldn’t do the work.  But more recently, I’ve started actually listening to the students (imagine that!) and they’ve really internalized the idea that doing homework is necessary in order to master the concept.  So now, when students express concern about their poor quiz grades, I remind them that I want them to think of quizzes as practice for the tests (actually I’ve always done that) and that their entire quiz average is 5% of their grade, while a single exam is 20% of their grade (bringing that part up is the new part).  And that takes some of the grade-focus off, and then we can talk about about how sometimes you don’t realize how well you know something until you’re in a quiz/test situation, so the quiz is a chance to learn something about your own skill level.

Of course, that raises the question of why grade quizzes at all.  If I think of them as a practice exercise, why should that receive a grade?  Feedback could still be given without a grade.   I wonder whether students would take quizzes seriously if they weren’t graded.  My gut feeling is that many of them would, but some of them would dismiss them.  It would be an interesting experiment.  (But I have several other ways I want to experiment on my students before I get to that.)

But I would be surprised if there were very many people out there that thought that I shouldn’t grade quizzes.  There are, however, a lot of people out there who think that I shouldn’t grade homework.

I have made the choice to collect and grade homework every class day.

But I don’t think that points for homework is what makes students do it.  Points are almost completely irrelevant.  I think what makes students do the homework is the deadline.  And I’m not sure how to go about assigning due dates without giving at least some points.  Honestly, I don’t really care to.  Five percent out of the course grade comes from homework.  I’m okay with that.