Grading Philosophy

Student-friendly classroom policies and assignments need not be the antithesis of academic rigor. Despite the fact that I don’t give participation grades and allow my students to revise individual assignment multiple times, my classroom is not some stereotype of a hippy-dippy New Age, feel-good utopia in which everyone gets a trophy and no one ever has to feel the pain of failure.  In fact, I think of myself as something of a hardass.  By giving students so many opportunities to redeem themselves, I feel free to set the bar high.  Just fulfilling the terms of the assignment gets you a C.

Below is the handout that I distribute at the beginning of each semester describing what each grade means and what each grade usually signals about revision.  This is a holistic system, and there are no perfect 100’s.

F—The best way to fail a paper is to ignore in whole or in part the requirements set forth on the assignment prompt.  A failing paper might contain an extremely weak, irrelevant, or inappropriate thesis (if it contains one at all).  It may fall egregiously short of the length requirement (500 or more words), have an incoherent organizational scheme, or contain enough mechanical errors to make it unreadable.  Papers that show no effort to properly cite sources will also receive failing grades (see policy statement).

D papers usually show a modest effort to meet the terms of the assignment but may fall short in a number of ways.  They may be up to 300 words below the length requirement or show poor attention to outside sources.  They usually have a relevant thesis, though that thesis may be weakly stated, insufficiently supported, and logically problematic.

D+ papers contain the same deficiencies as a D paper but may be relatively easy to salvage for a C.  For example, the idea may be somewhat interesting but the argument is stated weakly or ambiguously, or there may be so many mechanical errors that the sense of the paper suffers.  Major overhaul at the thesis and paragraph level can boost this to a B-.

C- papers are dangerously close to missing the point of the assignment but manage to get all the components necessary for a passing grade.  The argument is usually weak or ambiguous or merely rehashing ideas discussed in class.  A C- paper may also contain a “dead-end” idea (due to an unoriginal or unprovable thesis) that is unlikely to see improvement with mere surface revision.  Massive overhaul will probably be needed to move up a letter grade.

C papers meet the minimum requirements of the assignment but go no further.  They contain a relevant and plausible thesis, though that thesis is usually weakly supported and unoriginal.  They demonstrate a cursory effort to use outside sources but do not necessarily deal with them insightfully.  The prose is readable but may feel labored, choppy, or pedantic.  C papers have a coherent organizational scheme for the overall paper but may be somewhat awkward in the way that individual paragraphs are constructed.  Revisions at the thesis level are usually needed to see much of a change in grade.

C+ papers only meet the minimum requirements but show promise.  Usually, the idea behind the paper is interesting but the execution at the organizational or stylistic level is mediocre.  Revisions at the paragraph level along with attention to mechanics will often boost this to a B-.

B- papers go just beyond the minimum and come to a stop.  The argument may be clear, and the evidence may be solid, but the essay lacks nuance, voice, and originality.  B- papers are competently written but make the reader think “this has been said before and said better.”  Revisions to these papers usually need to include attention to the level of analysis and insight as well as a sensitivity to language that will make those insights stand out.

B papers move beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain an insightful, plausible, and substantially supported argument.  They place their arguments in conversation with arguments from outside sources (where called for in the assignment) and deal with those sources ethically.  The writing is error-free and well organized on the paragraph level, making appropriate use of transitions and topic sentences to guide the reader from one idea to the next.  The tone of the essay demonstrates a competent effort at tailoring the argument for a specific audience.  As such, the writing demonstrates a developing sophistication, though it may not quite achieve the effortless quality of the A paper.   As with B- papers, B papers often seem a little bit obvious and may leave the reader with the sense that they’ve heard this argument made in this particular way before.

B+ papers are the most frustrating to receive back from an instructor.  They go beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment but stop just short of true greatness.  Often, a B+ grade reflects some deficiency in execution, not in big ideas or micro-level analysis.   A slightly confusing structure, a missing logical step, or some mechanical problems may need to be corrected before this can become an A.

A- papers go far beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment.  They contain a truly original, sophisticated, probative argument, approaching a problem or question in a way that sheds new light on it.  The organization is tight and consistent, such that the reader can follow the argument without sensing gaps in its logic.  Outside sources are dealt with in meaningful ways and do not seem “tacked on.”  Commentary goes well beyond the obvious and reflects truly original thinking.  The prose accurately reflects the student’s own voice and clearly engages the paper’s audience, whether the tone is formal, satirical, conversational, etc.  The “-“ in the A- doesn’t usually reflect any major deficiency, just that this essay isn’t quite in that “top 1%” category that distinguishes “A’s”.

A papers are impeccable and rare.  First drafts hardly ever receive them, and hard work is usually required to achieve this grade upon revision.  A papers contain spectacular ideas and no mechanical errors, absolutely none.

Final Grades:

Each letter grade assignment will be given a numeric value and according to the rubric on the left.  Those grades will be weighted and averaged according to the rubric on the right.

Assignments                                                                      Final Grade

A             95                                                                           94 – 100               A

A-           92                                                                           90-93.999           A-

B+           88                                                                           87-89.999            B+

B             85                                                                           84-86.999            B

B-            82                                                                           80-83.999            B-

C+          78                                                                           77-79.999            C+

C             75                                                                           74-76.999            C

C-           72                                                                           70-73.999            C-

D+          68                                                                           67-69.999            D+

D            65                                                                           60-66.999            D

F             55                                                                           0-59.999              F

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5 thoughts on “Grading Philosophy

  1. I must say, the more I read about your way of teaching, the more I would like to be in one of your classes! Just one question: how do you deal with non-native speakers? Do you use the same criteria for them?

    1. That is a fantastic question that I plan to address in a series of posts this summer. In short, I find out who my non-native speakers are at the beginning of the semester. I know–in a general sense–what sort of usage issues to expect based on their primary language, and while I will consistently note them in my comments and point them towards resources that will help them practice (including one-on-one meetings with me), I do not assess a paper based purely on those issues. The beauty of a holistic grading system is that I am not committed to the sort of draconian “1 point off for every grammar mistake” rubric that some instructors use, so I can assess the quality of the paper as a whole entity.

  2. Is the class that you grade this way a freshman writing class or is it a higher level? I ask this because of the requirement for an original thesis. It has been my observation that students frequently get more comfortable with the requirement for original theses as they grow older, but since I’m an academic librarian rather than an instructor, I may not be seeing the full picture. Or maybe you could discuss a little more what you mean by original.

    Sitting at the reference desk is somewhat like being at the writing center as it gives you a view across the university, but I don’t work with their text and only with their theses enough to help them find supporting research.

    1. The class I’m referring to actually is a higher level class. I mostly get juniors and seniors, since the class fills up quickly. That said, in the freshman composition class that I taught a few years ago, all students were researching one topic (immigration in that case) that was selected by the first year curriculum committee. With everyone more or less reading the same stuff and talking about a focused topic for a long period of time, you actually could expect some very original approaches.

  3. Thanks, and if you note the time of my comment and the time of this one, you’ll see how long I’ve been reading your blog this morning.

    I’m tenure-track at my university and everything you’ve written is going to help me get some work done in this next year. I just turned in a dossier for promotion (we’ve got a two-step process) and in two or three years I have to do it for tenure. I had a very strong case for promotion and it’s resulted in the bar being set higher than usual for tenure. I was encouraged to write some papers alone instead of with co-authors as is very common in the two disciplines I inhabit. Ever since I received the letter from the P & T committee I’ve been vacillating between total confidence: “Of course I can pick a topic and knock something out, it’s not like I haven’t done it before, I just need to take a break first.” And abject panic, asking my mentor, “What’s the easiest way to appear to comply with this? Think I can re-visit an early single-author paper even though I have zip interest in going there again?”

    Reading your thoughts on the process has made me easier in my mind about taking the break, and actually made me a little interested in getting back into the fray. Note I said a little interested. I am still very, very tired.

    Thank you, thank you for your insight. And since it’s a beautiful Sunday, I’m going to try to get off the computer.

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