[NorthernKentucky University]

Course expectations and procedures:
Philosophy and approach to grading

Rewarding achievement is paramount.

After two decades of teaching and numerous experiments with alternative approaches to grading, I've settled on an approach that is predominantly but not totally based on rewarding positive behavior. I want my students to succeed and I would much rather look for evidence of their success than their shortcomings. To keep this in context, remember that almost all approaches to grading can be placed in one of two broad categories, they either emphasize and reward student achievement or they stress finding and penalizing student mistakes.

The first approach, which is the one I believe in and most heavily incorporate in my grading, focuses on how much students know and how well they perform. It's meant to provide positive reinforcement and encouragement by awarding points for appropriate responses and successful performances. It allows relative assessment and comparison of how well each student's performance compares with others in the class, but it doesn't necessarily assume that anyone is or should be perfect. The instructor's focus in grading is to find and reward everything that's right and commendable in each student's work.

In contrast, the second approach is more negative and punitive in nature. Instead of emphasizing success, it highlights errors and shortcomings. In a typical test using this approach students presumably start with 100 percent and lose points for every error the instructor finds. Scores are calculated by subtracting points from whatever would have been a perfect score and the emphasis is on how far from perfect they are. The instructor's focus is to find everything that's wrong and take away as many points as possible.

But, some penalties are necessary.

Most of the grades students earn in my classes are the result of points they earn for what they do well. But, in some classes and some circumstances, grades may be affected by points that are taken away for errors that warrant more of a response than simply not earning points.

In Feature Writing, for instance, the goal is to help students write well enough to have their work published. Most of the points that determine grades in this class are given as rewards for story ideas, research, organization and story flow, quality and variety of quotations, sentence and paragraph structure, etc. But, because proper spelling and correct grammar are so intrinsic to effective writing, points are deducted for spelling and grammar errors. Such penalties are appropriate in this course and in Principles of Public Relations which emphasizes professional, business-like communication. They are not, however, imposed in non-writing, lower division courses such as Contemporary Mass Media.

Cheating, habitual tardiness and/or other behaviors that interfere with classroom decorum and class progress are also subject to penalties as specified in the syllabi of all my courses.

Traditional academic standards prevail.

Although some schools and faculty differ in the percentages they link to various letter-grades, -- For example, some local high schools define an A as 93 percent of the maximum possible score, while many college professors define an A as 90 percent of the maximum score. -- there is near unanimity about what each letter-grade represents.

A   represents exceptionally high achievement as a result of aptitude, effort and intellectual initiative. It is awarded for performance that is well above average and for exceptionally high quality work.

B   represents high achievement as a result of ability and effort. It is awarded for above average performance and for work whose quality is above what's expected of an average student.

C   represents average achievement and is awarded for performance and for work quality that is expected of average college students.

D   represents below average achievement. It is awarded for less than average but minimally acceptable performance and for work of less than average but not wholly unacceptable quality.

F   represents a notable lack of achievement. It is the failing grade awarded for unacceptable performance and for work that does not meet the minimum assigned requirements.

Performance standards are relative.

Because I believe in using a relative performance grading scale rather than an absolute scale-- i.e., I believe the grading scale should be curved to fit each class so the students are only compared to and competing with others who were in the same circumstances and had the same opportunity to succeed, not to every possible student or even to every student who's ever taken one of my classes. --my first step in grading a test or an assignment is to award points to each piece of student work.

The details of how points are awarded and how many points are awarded are not discussed here because they vary tremendously from course to course and assignment to assignment. In addition to the nature of the assignment and the required techniques differing because of the subjects being studied, some assignments are simply more demanding and/or more complex than others and warrant more points being awarded for their successful completion.

A description of the specific elements which were evaluated in grading each assignment, the range of points that can be earned for each of those elements, and a statistical summary of the class' overall performance is normally returned with each graded assignment.

Average and top scores set the scale.

Once a set of student assignments has been evaluated and points assigned to each of them, the array of earned scores becomes the basis for setting each letter-grade's cutting-point. A cutting-point is the minimum number of points needed to earn that particular letter-grade.

The C cutting-point is the first to be determined. Philosophically as well as practically, it's the core grade around which the others are structured. C represents average performance, so the C cutting-point could simply be the average of all earned scores. But, given my desire to allow students some leeway, I normally set the C cutting-point at 90 percent of the average score.

The D cutting-point is set at 65 percent of the average. And, by default, any point total below the D cutting-point earns a grade of F.

The highest point total invariably deserves an A in any relative-performance based approach, but the top score shouldn't be the cutting-point. There needs to be leeway here just as there is at the C-level, so I normally set the A cutting point at 90 percent of the highest score. But, if there is a wide gap between the top score and the next highest so there would only be one A for the entire class, I may base the A cutting-point on 90 percent of the second or even the third highest score instead of the top one.

The B cutting-point is normally set half-way between the average and the A cutting-point.

Plus and minus designations may be used to reflect variations in performance that don't warrant a completely different letter-grade. Minuses are usually awarded to those who miss the next higher grade's cutting-point by a single point. An "A-," for instance, would be awarded to someone who scored 89 points on an assignment where the A cutting-point was 90. Pluses may be used for scores that are not close enough to the next higher grade to deserve a minus, but which are notably higher than other scores at the same grade level. For instance, a score of 87 would not warrant an "A-" if the A cutting-point was 90 but, if the next highest B's were all 81's and 82's, the 87 might be awarded a "B+."

Appropriate adjustments may be made.

These general procedures are used in assigning grades in all of my classes. However, as the instructor, I retain the right to adjust cutting points, procedures, and overall grading scales if such actions seem necessary or appropriate due to an unusual compression or spread of point totals and grades or because of other extenuating circumstances.

Average grades predominate.

Since C represents average performance and the majority of people in most groups tend to cluster around the group average in terms of their abilities and their exertions, there are usually more C's in a typical class than any other single letter-grade. Concurrently, A's are not very numerous because they require exceptionally high achievement. F's are also relatively rare except for those who are caught cheating or who walk away without finishing the course or officially dropping it.

These general patterns do not, however, hold true in every course. In upper division courses, especially those populated by majors who have already extensively studied the subject, there are likely to be more A's and B's but fewer C's than in more-general, lower division courses.

(18 Sept. 2001)
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