Here’s what I think grades mean; what do you think?

I’m preparing syllabi for the fall term (we don’t start until after Labor Day, happily), and I’m mulling over including the section after the break, “What do grades mean?” This isn’t coming from any specific exigence– not even my less than great course evaluations– so much as it is coming from what I guess I feel like an increasing need on my part to be as transparent as possible to my students about various things.

Most of this text is based on stuff I have sometimes included on syllabi for first year writing, the place where I’ve seen the greatest discrepancy between what does and doesn’t constitute a certain grade. I think a lot of this text is plagiarised borrowed from several other places. And I should point out that I’m not convinced that including this language will make a whole lot of difference in terms of students complaining (or not) about their grades. But it’s a try.

Below is what I’m thinking of including:


I have been teaching for a long time– I started as a graduate assistant in 1988!– and I’ve learned over the years that there is sometimes a disconnection and confusion between me and my students about what exactly grades mean. So in an effort to head that off a bit, I thought I’d conclude this syllabus with a few thoughts on the matter.

Let me start with four broad assumptions I make about grades and grading:

  • I think grades are earned and they are “student-centered” rather than “teacher-centered.” As a professor, I don’t see myself as someone who “gives” grades as if they were gifts so much as someone who does the best job I can to assess the work that students do.
  • Grades don’t really matter to me– they certainly don’t matter to me the same way that they matter to you. I want everyone to do the best work they can do and earn the grades that they expect, but I don’t see my successes (or failures) as a teacher linked to your grades. Extending the opportunity for students to learn is what’s important to me, and students who earn “Cs” often learn more than student who earn “As.”
  • I never know what a particular grade means to a particular student. Sometimes, one student will have earned a “B” on a project and that student will say “oh no, I got a B!” while another student who also earned a “B” will say “YES! I got a B!” So again, it’s really up to you.
  • Frankly, I’d just as soon skip the grading process entirely and just concentrate on creating the opportunity for you to learn something. And by the way, I don’t know and have never known any teacher or professor who particularly looks forward to grading student work; no one finds grading all that interesting or rewarding. But my employer expects me to give students grades and you expect to receive them, so here we are.

Okay, with that in mind, let me try to spell out in very general terms what I think particular letter grades mean:

“A” writing projects demonstrates a superior command of the subject matter and they present that information so effectively that the reader finds the writing interesting and informative. “A” writing demonstrates a clear pattern of organization which captivates an audience and keeps them involved throughout. “A” writing projects are “fully developed,” meaning they make excellent use of both quotes and paraphrases in order to support a clearly defined “point.” “A” writing projects reveal a sophistication in style and voice, are comprised of complete sentences appropriate in size, and involve transitions and connections between different parts of the essays, both within and between paragraphs. “A” writing projects demonstrate selectivity in terms of word choice and contain no noticeable grammatical or mechanical errors. Appropriate adjectives for the “A” writing project include “excellent,” “superior,” “wonderful,” and “very good.”

“B” writing projects demonstrate a good command of subject matter and present information effectively enough so that readers are not bored and are still informed. “B” writing is organized enough so that audiences can follow the writing, but it isn’t as engaging as “A” writing. “B” writing projects are “adequately developed,” meaning they make good use of both quotes and paraphrases in order to support a fairly clear “point.” “B” writing project are stylistically sound in that they demonstrate a good awareness of voice, they are made up of complete sentences, and they make  connections between different parts within and between paragraphs, though “B” writing doesn’t do this as well as “A” writing. “B” writing projects demonstrate good word choices and contain few if any noticeable grammatical or mechanical errors. Appropriate adjectives to describe the “B” writing project include “good” and “above average.”

“C” writing projects are generally competent, but they often demonstrate a less than complete understanding of the complexities of the subject matter. “C” writing is frequently not as clearly organized as it should be, and it tends to be significantly less engaging for its audience. “C” writing projects are frequently “under-developed,” meaning they don’t use enough quotes and paraphrases in order to support a point, and that point is not as clear as it should be. “C” writing projects have some awareness of issues of voice, sentence construction, connections between paragraphs, word choice, and the like, but there are also noticeable places where these things are problems. “C” writing projects often have mistakes and errors in grammar and mechanics that interrupt the reading process. Appropriate adjectives to describe the “C” writing project include “average,” adequate,” and “passing.”

“Below C” writing projects are those that don’t meet even the standards described of “C” writing projects. They are not competent, they don’t demonstrate an adequate understanding of their subject matter, they are unorganized, and they are not engaging. “Below C” writing projects are always “not developed,” making almost no use of evidence and having no clear point. “Below C” writing projects have numerous problems with voice, sentence construction, transitions, word choice, and the like. “Below C” writing projects usually have significant grammatical and mechanical problems. Appropriate adjectives to describe the “below C” writing project include “poor,” “not passing,” and “unacceptable.”

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