The Poison of Points

Some recent turmoil in the Twitterverse about points and cheating…

Exhibit A: Clickers and Points

Exhibit B: Cramster and Homework Points

Exhibit C: Khan Academy Cheats

See also:

Exhibit D: Khan Academy and Points

I think all of this cheating and gaming is great. Why? Because it forces us to improve our practice. (Or would you rather wear yourself out playing “To Catch a Cheater?”)

If students do homework and go to class solely because if points, there is a larger systemic issue that needs to be addressed.

To which you say, “But if I don’t give points, they won’t do it.”

So where does it stop? Why do we let ourselves become willing participants in this game for points? We need a culture shift.

9 responses to “The Poison of Points

  1. Pingback: [Grades]: More recent experiences | Lost In Recursion

  2. Participation points are a way for teachers to cover up poor instruction. If students can ace your course without attending regularly, you shouldn’t force them to be there and should probably consider changing your instruction. Participation points are just a pet peeve of mine.

    Points themselves are a larger poison. Points provide only a single metric for success. Even if you use a rubric for grading, I’m willing to bet the entry in the gradebook is a single letter or number. Every time you assign points, you’re losing information about student performance.

    Giving out points just to get your students to do something strikes me as very pavlovian.

  3. I love this post. I imagine Alfie Kohn might have something to say about the points system. I am of two minds. I agree that external stimulus can rob a student of their extant internal drive to learn. However, not all kids are at the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy yet. If it takes points to get my chronic non-attenders to show up for school, game on.

  4. From my observations as a student it seems that non participation is a problem of: a) students being too shy or b) the social taboo of being overly-excited about class. A point system would fix both a and b but based on the tweets above a point system does not fix the problem but patches the leak. Are there any tweets or evidence (academic or anecdotal) that shows other ways of encouraging participation?

    I was thinking that short, interesting videos such as those on the Veritasium blog could encourage students because it would show them how baffling science is to most people (they are not alone in being confused). For the “problem b” kids, can interesting and short videos spark a students wonder enough for him/her to overcome classroom/social taboos? Also, am I correct in my assumption that lack of participation is a problem of only a and b?

    • Hi John,

      Those are all very good questions for which I don’t have an answer. I think we want to try to create a classroom climate where risk taking and questioning are encouraged, but as soon as you offer points, it becomes meaningless. Perhaps talking with students individually? Sometimes small group work is good — students feel comfortable talking with peers — which can then build confidence for sharing with the whole class.

      We want students to see the value of participating because that’s really the best way to wrestle with, seek help, and finally internalize new ideas. But it’s like the chicken and the egg thing: Do students who participate become successful or are the successful students the ones who participate?

      Videos have been great for hooking interest. Even the most jaded student is wowed by Vertitasium’s slinky drop videos. But I don’t see that model as sustainable for everyday, especially when working on the nuts and bolts of the content.


  5. I feel like I need to say, without divulging personal information, the student who used Cramster in that class that I tweeted about turned out to have some tumultuous life experiences going on at the time, and I think s/he turned to Cramster to take some pressure off. They’ve since just dropped the class. The vast majority of my students are not into point-grubbing and do actually work very hard and diligently at their homework.

    But still-
    (1) The fact that stressed-out students turn to Cramster at all seems to be a form of indictment against points; the points cause the stress and cheating gives students some selective control over their stressors. And,

    (2) It begs the question, if students work hard at homework, why? Is it for the learning? Or is it for the points?

    I guess (2) is the $64K question. 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.

    • My experiences are similar– students have many demands on their time, and it’s hard for them to prioritize something that doesn’t have points (and, more importantly in my experience, a deadline). I’ve discovered that if I give them a completion grade for attempting at least half the problems I assign, most students will be put in significant effort to get all the problems complete and correct. If I don’t give a deadline for it, most students will intend to do it … later. Because right now there’s the English paper and the Biology test and on and on. But then they’re facing ten homework assignments right before the test, and there’s no way they’re passing that test.

      Most students want to be successful. They just have a hard time getting started. I think that’s the key to understanding your mystery.

  6. Pingback: The Point of Points « mathdancing

  7. Pingback: Day 11: Testing | The Inclined Plane

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s