Grading Policy

After a particularly obnoxious argument over a final grade a couple of semesters ago, I decided to dramatically revamp the grading policy that I include in all my syllabi. The dispute made clear to me that certain students (by no means all students, and I’d venture not even the majority of my students, but some students, nonetheless) have a sense that, in classes like the ones I teach, everyone begins the semester with an A, and that, barring any serious gaffes, they can end the semester with that A, easy-peasy.

This has never been how I have approached grading, and I thought I might avoid a number of niggling grade disputes if I communicated my actual practice of grading as straight-forwardly as possible. I’ve only used this policy one semester so far — last fall, before I went on leave — but I had no complaints. I’m testing it out again, and thought I’d post it here for comment. And just generally to share, in the event that you’re looking for this sort of thing.


My grading policy is pretty straight-forward, and comes in two parts:

The grade of B+ is yours to lose. Here are ways that you can lose it:

  1. Miss more than three days of class. I know you all have a lot going on, but this class is your job this semester, and I want you to take it that seriously. You each have one day of vacation and two days of sick leave — that is, one day that you can miss for whatever reason, and two days that you can miss with an official medical excuse. Use them wisely. Further absences will affect your final grade in unpleasant ways.
  2. Show up late to class more than twice. It drives me absolutely bonkers when people walk into class after it’s already begun (and if I’m talking, even if just to make preliminary announcements, class has begun). It’s both rude and distracting. Get to class on time; every three late arrivals will add up to one unexcused absence.
  3. Turn your assignments in late. You each have three grace days to use as needed. For instance, if the project proposal is due on a Wednesday, but you have a big exam on Wednesday, you can use a grace day and turn that proposal in on Thursday. Please note, however: a “day” is twenty-four hours long, and ends at 5.00 pm. If you don’t turn the proposal in until Friday morning, that’s two grace days. Any lateness beyond these three grace days will count against your grade. Please note that because these grace days are freebies, I will give no extensions. Don’t even ask.
  4. Don’t take the blog or the wiki seriously. The blog and wiki assignments are key elements of the course; aside from the final project, they represent the vast majority of the writing you will do, and they count for half of your final grade. The blog is taking the place of formal, print-on-paper reading responses, and it’s also a space in which you can feel free to explore your ideas about the class material in whatever way most appeals to you. Not posting regularly or ceasing to post halfway through the semester constitutes a failure to take the blog seriously, as do posts that have obviously been slapped together in two minutes or less. Similarly, leaving all of your work on the wiki until the end of the semester is seriously frowned upon.
  5. Fail to do the reading. Much of our in-class work is built around discussion, and you cannot participate fruitfully in a discussion if you aren’t prepared. Read carefully, take notes on the reading, post your responses on your blog, and participate in class discussions. With respect to which:
  6. Fail to participate collegially in class discussions. You don’t need to speak every day. And you absolutely must not monopolize the discussion. But both never speaking and appearing to overly enjoy the sound of your own voice constitute a failure of collegiality. Our discussions are a group endeavor, meant to help each member of the class reach the greatest possible understanding of the material.
  7. Turn in a weak, ill-thought-through, unpolished, dull, pointless, or generally mediocre final project. Need I say more?
  8. Give a scattered, unpolished, unengaged, or OVERLY LONG final presentation. Again, ’nuff said, except about the length question: I’m dead serious about this. I will stop you when time is up, and if I have to stop you, your grade will suffer. Practice your presentation, and time yourself carefully.
  9. Plagiarize. Academic dishonesty in any form will result in automatic failure of this class. Period. If you have any concerns about what constitutes academic dishonesty, refer to your student handbook, or ask me.

The grades of A- and A must be earned. Here are ways to earn them:

  1. Produce an excellent final project. What constitutes excellence? Doing more than simply completing the terms of the assignment. An excellent final project is sophisticated, nuanced, engaging, and insightful. It is technically polished and free of any kind of errors. It shows evidence of a substantive, thoughtful engagement with the course materials. It is, above all, interesting, designed to draw the reader/viewer/user into full engagement with its content and its form.
  2. Maintain an excellent blog. Make me look forward to visiting your blog often, and stimulate thoughtful conversation in your comments.
  3. Contribute to an excellent wiki. Make sure that your own entries are substantive, and keep an eye on the project as a whole, taking the responsibility for making the entire wiki as complete and polished as you can.
  4. Participate excellently in class. Excellence in class participation means not simply speaking frequently, but contributing in an active and generous way to the work of the class as a whole, by asking questions, offering interpretations, politely challenging your colleagues, and graciously accepting challenges in return.
  5. Deliver an excellent presentation. An excellent presentation is one that is focused, organized, engaging, and to the point. It has what my predecessor, Brian Stonehill, used to refer to as “heart, smarts, and sparkle.”


  1. The B+ is my default “you have successfully completed the terms of the assignment” grade; anything higher requires something more, some spark of interest or insight, something that goes a bit beyond my most basic expectations for completeness and clarity. That it falls at B+ is probably evidence of my contribution to grade inflation, but I mostly want to be honest here about the ways that I actually grade, rather than the ways I wish I did, I guess.

  2. I disagree with the idea of a default grade – grades are based on work accomplished. (If at the beginning of the semester they’ve done no work, then they start with an F1) While in practice an “average” performance may be a B+ (more like a B for my criteria), I avoid any situation that suggests “grade entitlement” and rather frame assessment as related to what was actually done, rather than what was “lost” or “failed.” You hand in a paper that meets the assignment but doesn’t excel, you get a B; you excel, you get an A (or you fall short of the assignment, you get a C). I’d be afraid that the statement posted here would result in students happily doing minimal effort and expecting a B+ (which I wouldn’t give for minimal effort).

  3. I wonder if this is a matter of how we’re defining “minimal effort,” Jason. For me, minimal effort wouldn’t result in a successful meeting of the terms of an assignment, at least not if it were obvious to me that the effort had been minimal. It’s possible that you may be right — that this policy may result in my students doing less and being content with a B+ — but my one-semester sample thus far doesn’t suggest that that’s so. (It’s also possible that this is a campus-culture issue, but I’m not sure exactly how I’d describe that.)

  4. Agreed that minimal effort wouldn’t meet the terms of an assignment, but students might perceive that it would if told that a B+ is theirs to lose. Students at instutitions such as ours have acheived at high levels for years, and many believe its less due to their efforts and more because it is in their nature – one grade-bickerer once flatly told me “I am an A student” as factual rationale for why she didn’t deserve a B. (I was tempted to offer an argument as to why such identity categories are not internal essences but rather manifestations of performative social utterances of external behaviors, but I doubted she’d appreciate me justifying her grade with poststructuralist theory… anyone know Judith Butler’s grading policy?) I fear anything that encourages a sense that they are entitled to a decent grade before actually accomplishing anything in the course.

  5. I am very specific about my grading policy. I provide a rubric for each assignment (paper, exercise, class participation, project,exam, etc.). All of this adds up to 1000. There is always some discretionary aspect, which allows me not have to designate every damn point. It probably sounds like I am a control freak, but I find it makes grading really easy and effectively eliminates complaints, and lets students know exactly what it will take to achieve each grade level. I admit it can be a lot of work if there are lots of assignments and/or students. I used to include a statement saying “if you do excellent work and attend all classes you will earn an ‘A’ grade.” It was meant to say “I don’t grade on a curve.”

  6. I know what you mean. I teach computer ethics at a technical university. Most see come into my course with the basic idea that it’s going to be easy since they do not have to program. Despite warnings in the begining that I have no problem failing people they still seem to think that handing in a bad final essay should count as a pass grade.

    This term I am going to test blogs by requiring my students to blog. Actually I wrote a post about this earlier today.

    Any tips about students blogging as part of the course are hightly appreciated.

  7. Mathias: I think it is a good idea to try blogs. I use them as a kind of personal journal. My guidelines a pretty simplistic, namely, to get full points the entries must be at least 250 words, must be relevant to the course, and must not just restate ideas from class or readings. I do not give grades for blog comments, but it would probably be a good idea . I try to make a meaningful, though usually short comment on every entry.

  8. Thanks for the advice. I will probably not grade each entry as such but rather make it a requirement that the students post at least three times a week. I also agree that there must be a word count. Mostly to avoid all the questions if this is left open.


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