Marks, Grades -What's the Difference

Regardless of whether we have marks or grades, students still have to sit for the exams, The exam papers will still be corrected and marks given to them. Are we not just artificially converting marks into grades, e.g. above 90 is an A, below 40 is an F? Are we not being unfair to a student who earned more marks but there is no indication of it in grades?

Let us start by acknowledging that grading scheme is not infallible. However, even a small subtle change in the objectives or philosophy can have a dramatic impact overall. It changes the way we look at problems and the type of solutions we seek to overcome these problems.

Grading, relative grading to be precise, is philosophically different from marks. It assumes that each group of students is similar and the relative performance of the group will be statistically similar. As a Professor of mine said that about 15% of you will get an A – even if the class is full of Newtons. He hastened to add, “What is the probability that all 25 of you are Isaac Newtons?”. The distribution of grades is not rigid and precise. Rather it is a guideline. In certain circumstances, an A grade may be given to 20% students instead of 15%. But giving an “A” to one third of the class may be regarded as unreasonable.

The assignment of grades to marks is not very difficult and we can follow processes which are transparent and self-correcting. Before getting into the details of a grading scheme, it is worth demonstrating that this approach minimises some of the serious problems which we have with our existing system. We will illustrate the issues with specific examples drawn from my experiences in industry and academics. We will also switch roles as an examiner or as a member of a recruitment panel, hopefully, without causing too much confusion.

Orals and Practicals :

Whenever I have been a part of the oral exams, we have found it very easy to rank students into categories. We found it easy to assign grades from A+ to the best group, A the next group and so on. University wants marks not grades; so, these groupings needed to be converted into marks. The conversions have invariably been very generous because there is nothing concrete on which to base our judgement and generosity is the path of least resistance. In fact in one instance, the conversion spread recommended was 95% for A+ and 80% for C!

Exactly the same problem is faced when dealing with project work. While recruiting, we came across a student with first class in the final year, who, on close inspection was barely passing in theory. The reason was that his project marks were 95%! We decided after that to eliminate the project marks before calling a student to appear for our test. Very good students suffer. As one student mentioned that in retrospect, it was silly of them to put so much effort into their project because all the effort was not worth much because everyone in their class got very-very good marks in their projects.


We often hear of a hard question paper or that questions were out of the syllabus. Do we ever hear that the question paper was unfair because it was too easy? We have seen results where nearly everyone got over 60% with half of them getting distinction. Did the students suddenly show brilliance? There is nothing wrong with such question papers, except that they distort results. Without having a yardstick with which to compare e.g. the distribution of marks in a given year at a given university, judging candidates' performance based on marks becomes very difficult. 'Grade-flation' can be a serious issue with grading systems though the guidelines about the distribution of grades is used to monitor the teachers to ensure that high grades are not devalued by the 'generosity' of teachers. In 1960's, some of the US university administrations faced this dilemma of high grades because 'all our students are very good'. The reaction from the industry was swift and approximately that “since you can't tell us who are your best students, we can't either. So, we won't recruit any”. Guidelines were automatically followed – no enforcement was needed.

Part II

Examinations are a very serious business. Almost every year, many universities must be facing problems with some question paper, which contained erroneous questions, questions that were out of syllabus or the paper was too long. Soultions applied are arbitrary and if a newspaper report was correct, bizzare. For a B,Ed program, the Maths exam paper was annulled and the students were given marks in Maths based on the average marks in the other subjects, none related to Maths! What shocked me was that even the newspaper reporter felt it was fair and students should not have to go through the agony of appearing in an exam again. I do not recall why the paper was cancelled. Grading will not ensure that a paper is not cancelled. If a paper has leaked, there is little else that can be done.

Grading allows many problems with examinations to be resolved swiftly and internally without public glare or ire. This allows the university to take tough decisions on the rare occasions when there are serious problems with the exam system. I am convinced that the students would be fully supportive of the university in those instances beacuse the perception will not be that “University is always blundering”.

Consider the scenario of a tough exam paper. With grading, a hard paper will not cause any problem because we can give an “A” to a person scoring only 50 marks should the need arise. If a question is out of the syllabus, that can be ignored and the paper corrected and grades given on the balance paper. There is rarely any need for the issue to get into public debate or the university being faced with pressure about the problem with the paper. “Although that question was worth only 6 marks, we wasted so much time that we could not finish the paper and we must be given 15 marks.” Negotiations take place, bargaining goes on and a compromise value is agreed upon. The problem is solved to the satisfaction of no one and everyone is aware that the same scenario will be faced the coming semester with some subject or the other.

Net effect:

A friend of the family was waiting for a perfect wife. Never found her. In life we make choices based upon the options available. We will look at the candidates' performance and the performance of the University/College where studied. As employers, we based on our experience and the performance of our employees from an institution, develop a mental model of the quality of an institution and its students. It becomes imperative for the students studying at an institution that employers trust their institution.

Based on the candidates' results and our knowledge of the institutions, we rank the candidates in different categories. During my entire industry experience, a few percent marks difference was never considered seriously. We did, however, look at consistency.

Suppose a candidate has very high marks in one subject. What signal do we get? We will assume that the candidate knows this subject well. We will start our interview questions with the strength of the candidate. Now, suppose that the question paper that year had been very easy and the candidate is not able to answer our questions effectively. Human nature is such that we talk more about the negative experiences than the positive ones. The interviewer is likely to spread the word. “Last week, I interviewed a candidate from Goa University. He had 75% marks in object design but could not even explain ...” The credibility of the University will suffer. Had it been grading system, the candidate may have got a “B-” inspite of scoring 75% marks.

Employers are searching for answers to the following two questions:

  1. How well did a student learn a subject?

  2. How does his performance compare with that of his peers?

Both the questions can be answered with greater consistency using grading. Grading is by no means perfect – just better.