After the Exam: Grading Systems

After the students submit their exams and they have been marked by you, it is time to determine the grades. This can actually be very controversial as there are different grading systems. In this discussion, we will look at two of the most common grading systems and examine their advantages and disadvantages. The grading systems discussed in this blog are comparison with other students and comparison with a standard.

Comparison with Students

Comparison with students is the process of comparing the results of one student with the results of another student. Another term for this is “grading on the curve.” For example, if a test is worth 100 points and the highest score is 85, the total points possible would be reduce to 85. The removal of 15 points raises the grade of all of the students significantly because the standard is the 85 of the highest performing student rather than the absolute value of 100.

Students, particularly the average and low performing ones, love this approach. The reason for this is that they get a boost in their grade without having to demonstrate any further evidence of proficiency in meeting the objectives. Teachers often appreciate this method as well, as it helps students and reduces the pressure of having to fail individuals or give students low grades.

A drawback to this approach is the pressure it places on high-performing students. The good students face pressure to not study as much in order to have a lower grade that benefits the group. Students also have a way of finding out who got the highest score and this can lead to social problems for stronger students.

One way to avoid the pressure on the top student is specify a percentage of students who will receive a certain grade. For example, the top 10% of students will receive an “A” the next 10% of students will receive a “B” and so on. This makes the top performers a group of students rather than an  individual. However, student performance becomes categorical rather than continuous, which some may claim is not accurate.

A question to ask yourself when determining the appropriateness of “grading on a curve” is the context of the subject. It may be okay for someone with an 85 to get an “A” in philosophy. However, do you want a heart doctor operating on you who earned an “A” by earning an 85 or a heart doctor who earned an “A” by scoring a 100? Sometimes this difference is significant.

Comparison with a Standard

Comparison with a standard is comparing students to a specific criteria such as the ABCDF system. Each letter is assigned a percentage out of a hundred and the grade is determined from this. For example, using a traditional grading scale, a student with a “94” would receive an A.

The advantage of this system is the objectivity of the grading system (marking is highly subjective, especially for essay items). Either student received an 94 or they did not. There is no subjective curve. Those who received a high grade truly earned it while those who received a low grade deserved it.

One problem is that different places can use different scales. For example, an “A” in many US Universities is normally 90% and above. However, an “A” in Thailand universities is set at only 80%. Both are seen as “excellent” students. This makes comparisons of students difficult. Using the doctor analogy, who do you want to perform heart surgery on you the 80% “A” doctor or the 90% “A” doctor?


In the next post, we will look at lesser known grading systems that will provide alternatives for teachers searching for ways to help their students. If you have any suggestion or ways of dealing with grading, please share this information in the comments.

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