I just got the grade for a problem sheet that we had to hand in. The grading of the TA seems really ... odd, to put it nicely (for example, 1 exercise consisted of 3 basic computations - I got the correct values on 2 of them, but on the third even though I plugged the good numbers in I just typed a wrong number for the final result for some reason and this "mistake" got me only half the marks for that entire exercise).

However, the following thing really baffled me, I have never encountered anything like this in my education so far: one of the problems had a maximum grade of 0 points (which I got). Furthermore, for making a mistake you would have ended up with negative marks. To me, this seems very unfair (basically taking points away from other questions which were solved correctly) and highly not pedagogical as I don't believe that students should be punished for making mistakes.

I was planning on bringing this up to the professor tomorrow, but I thought it would be good to get some opinions on this matter. Is this kind of behavior common? The field is Astronomy/Physics and the country is Netherlands.

  • The one problem with max 0 points seems weird and unusual to me. Surely, the best tactic would be not to answer it all, or does that also result in negative points?
    – Anyon
    May 24, 2018 at 19:44
  • 1
    It could simply be a typo. Or it could be that this problem is effectively scored on a scale of, say, -10 to 0, where leaving it blank also results in some negative score (not necessarily -10). That would be a little odd but mathematically equivalent to a scale of 0 to 10. I wonder if perhaps this resulted in the total points possible coming out to a nice round number (100 vs 110 say). May 24, 2018 at 20:05
  • I forgot to mention that I already spoke to the TA about this and he was the one who told me about the negative marks for mistakes. He "justified" this by saying that the problems are easy and that he compensates this by being "strict". I don't see how being strict implies taking points away from correct answers. The total number of points for the problems was 100, and in order to achieve this score you had to get "0" on that problem. Skipping it/making mistakes would result in a maximum score of 90/95 (I forgot the exact number).
    – physicss
    May 24, 2018 at 20:23
  • 3
    Grading from -10 to 0 is perfectly mathematically equivalent to grading from 0 to 10. I’m reminded of that prof whose complaints vanished when he started grading every test out of 117...
    – knzhou
    May 25, 2018 at 8:59
  • I agree with the equivalence but the TA did this only half-way. Grading from - 10 to 0 is like grading from 0 to 10, so a grade of 0=10. That makes the total number of marks=110. However, our grades are always converted on a 0-10 scale in the end. My grade was 7.2 (out of a total of 10), but we just agreed that what the TA did is equivalent to a 8.2 on a 0-11 scale. Which translates to a 7.45 on a 0-10 scale.
    – physicss
    May 25, 2018 at 9:44

2 Answers 2


I've seen such grading used for true-false and multiple-choice questions in an exam, where a right answer gained you points and a wrong answer cost you points, but I've never heard of a problem worth "nothing" that cost you points if you got it wrong.

Personally, I dislike such systems—I'd rather give credit than subtract for mistakes—but instructors often have broad latitude in the design and scoring of exams. Some schools do have rules with regards to specific situations (if I remember, there were some weird regulations regarding all multiple-choice exams at my old institution), but in the absence of those, professors are free to set grading criteria as they choose, so long as they are applied consistently.


Having done a bachelor, master and PhD in the Netherlands, I have never come across a scoring tactic like this. It is definitely odd and I understand your annoyance.

However, as one of the comments correctly points out, the negative points are mathematically equivalent to only giving credit as of a certain amount correct (which I have seen more often, and done myself in the past).

Graph showing points to grade

So although that is arguably a harsh way of grading (depending very much on how "basic" the knowledge is that does not count towards a score yet), what seems to get to you is mainly the negative point value. That is a matter of reference point (see Prospect Theory, especially on loss aversion) and thus very subjective.

That said, your TA's scoring does sound a bit harsh. If you genuinely feel unjustly treated I would certainly advise you to discuss it with the professor as you plan.

  • You should see one of my comments above. I understand the equivalence of this grading but the TA didn't account for it when computing the final grade
    – physicss
    May 25, 2018 at 10:59
  • Then we agree. What I tried to show with the graph was that it does have an impact on the grade, same as saying "0-1 out of 3 correct ==> no points, 2/3 => half-points, 3/3 => full points" on a given question. I was merely assuming this was intentional on the TA's part. In my opinion that's harsh, but not intrinsically unfair. May 25, 2018 at 11:32

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