Could it be as simple as adding rather than subtracting?

I prefer to think of myself as their coach.  “I coach kids to learn algebra” says that I am dedicated to my kids.  “I teach 8th grade algebra” indicates that my dedication may be to the content.  Being their coach does not make me less of an evaluator.  Their athletic coaches evaluate them all the time.  The coach decides which kids make the team and which kids are cut.  The coach decides who starts and who rides the bench.  The coach decides how much playing time, if any, each player has.

There are some things I just have to do as their teacher.  Yes, I mean grading.  (Remember, our grade books are sparse; we have very few grades.  We assess quite often; we grade little.)  We’ve just finished our semester exams.  My team grades together in the same room using the same scoring guide.  Prior to our exam day, we agreed on the questions as well as the solutions, predicted student errors, and completed the exercise of negotiating partial credit.  Some say that is good enough; there is no reason to grade in the same room when everyone understands the scoring guide.  Really?  Would we say that there is no reason to play on the same court or field since everyone knows and agrees upon the plays?  Don’t we expect the other team to have a plan of their own? 

Are our learners the opponents in the exam process? 
Are we trying to keep them from scoring? 
Do they feel that we are? 

Are we still considered their coach? 
Are we trying to help them compete?
Do they feel that we are?

How are we thinking about scoring items on the summative assessment?  Do our scoring guides assign points for good work or do they document how we will subtract points for errors?  Are we grading in team?  Do we take our issues to our teammates or our table-leader when we have a question about work that is out of the norm or unexpected?  (Or, is the amount of partial credit awarded based on how nice, sweet, cooperative, participative -or not – a child is? YIKES!)

Could we alter everyone’s mindset about this stressful event by changing our approach and attitude about how we mark, score, and grade each item?  What if we add points for what is done well instead of subtracting points when an error occurs?  Could our scoring guides be more about assigning credit and less about docking points?  What if we chose to add points for bright spots in the work instead of appearing to play “gotcha” by subtracting points?  Would our grades be closer to representing a true score of what has been learned?

How would a learner respond if we handed them a paper that was filled with +4, +2, +3 and so on rather than -2, -4, -3?

Let’s try adding up the good things we find
rather than playing “gotcha”
by subtracting when an error is found.

Could the self-reflection prompts during the exam analysis process, similar to the post-game film analysis, ask the learner to identify why they earned the points that were scored?  Could we get them to write about what they did well?  Could they work in team to identify what others did well that they wish they had done too?  Could they work in team to identify what others did that they find different or unusual and explain why it worked?  Would this process motivate them to improve their understanding and help each other learn? 

Would this help us all learn to blend the 4C’s (critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation) with the 3R’s?

Can we use this type of process to add to our learning?  Could it be as simple as adding rather than subtracting?  Are we willing to experiment?


So, there is one more thing to think about….Can we frame this in terms of teacher evaluation too? 

Can we model a strength-based peer observation process? Let’s try adding up the good things we find.  What if we chose to document bright spots in each other’s work?  Could we write about what is done well?  Could we work in team to identify what others do well that we wish we would do too? 

If any of this is interesting to you, then I dare you to give it a try.  Experiment.  Learn by doing.  Form a team of friends, critically important friends, to learn together.  Let’s add to our toolkit by sharing our practices and asking each other questions.


  1. About 17 years ago, I switched from taking away points to adding points when I graded a student paper. At the time, I was teaching high school students algebra and geometry. I made the change mid year after reading a book over Christmas break. The results were profound in terms of student affect and relationship to me. As January began, I started the whole transition by teasing the students that they should have been handing their papers in blank – take the 100 before they made any mistakes. I told them I had realized my mistake. They started each paper with a blank slate and they had to earn points. So they would now start to see +s instead of -s. My role with them was coach – practices had been about helping them so that they could earn as many points as possible during “the game.” In my opinion it made all the difference in the world.

    About two weeks ago, I retold this story in a team meeting, but I incorrectly said that I had made the change more recently while I had been teaching students economics. Then, from reading this blog post, I remembered that the first change was with my ninth and tenth graders. So I have always used the additive scoring with middle school students, and I think they appreciate this method. Makes sense to them, and I still think it’s adds to relationship, too, rather than subtracting from relationship.


    • I, too, have been using the + points method for marking papers for about the same amount of time. But after sitting with two different teams to mark exam papers, I have to question what I’ve been thinking as I’ve marked papers. I have been putting +3, +2, etc., but have I been thinking -1, -2 and translating back to +3, +2???

      Monday Team 1:
      Great conversation about partial credit and the value of showing work, communicating ideas on paper, and reaching a common understanding. All of the point distribution conversation was about how many points to count off. Let me say that it was sweet and a very caring conversation. “This poor chld thinks…” and “No, (s)he really knows …” were said often.

      Tuesday – Team 2 – my team: The scoring rubric was about earning point. We would give credit for these things. I would say that over half of the time the argument was for assigning points for what they know. Occasionally, we would lapse into the “taking points off” mentality.

      Reading Dr. Marzano’s Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work has helped me think about their true score, the observed score, and the error score (Chapter Three: A Scale that Measures Learning over Time). I have been using the plus-points method to help my students see that they know “how to do the algebra”. The true-score concept helped us ask questions about the amount of partial credit being assigned. If a child drops a negative, does that mean that s(he) only knows 75% of whatever the problem is asking/measuring? With Team 2, we would ask each other to decide how much the child knows about ___ and assign points crediting their work rather than subtracting a point for each error. It’s about acknowledging strengths. It’s about the proportions of demonstrated understanding to errors.

      I absolutely agree with your statement “Makes sense to them, and I still think it’s adds to relationship, too, rather than subtracting from relationship.” I just need to make sure that my thinking is the same as my marking. I want know that my half of the relationhip is growing too. I need to make sure that I am paying attention to what they are learning rather than being frustrated by what they are not. I want to document and celebrate strengths, not focus on errors.


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