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Giving The “Right” Grade: Advice on A vs B vs C vs D work

College is a meritocracy. It’s a system designed for fairness, supporting all students to achieve. Key achievement markers are assignments and course grades. For college instructors, giving the “right” grade is a critically important part of the job. Determining grades can be a complex mix of quantitative and subjective analysis, as well as factoring overall student performance. Instructors can take a few actions to help make sure that they’re giving the “right” grade.  

Have a detailed rubric: This is a “must-do” for any instructor. Develop your course outline with a rubric that details the expectations for assignments and how grades are determined. This is everything from a grade scale to specific deliverables and timing. Your rubric should contain criteria for students to complete assignments, a description of quality work and assignments and the course is scored. Consider writing a section under the grade scale that spells out what type of coursework resembles an “A,” “B,” “C” or “D.” Spend time in the first class to review this with students and answer questions. Also, review the rubric with your Dean or department Chair so that you’re both on the same page regarding how students will be evaluated. 

Provide examples for subjective assignment evaluation: Many assignments require subjective grading, even within the confines of a rubric. This is the instructor’s own evaluation of a student’s work based on assignment criteria. You can help students by describing how you will assign grades for subjectively evaluated assignments. Tell them what “A,” “B” and “C” work means for each assignment in specific and measurable ways, and encourage student dialogue about it. This will help students decipher your grading methods and help dispel a perception that your grading is opinionated.  

Flex for enthusiasm and effort: In some cases -- particularly with undergraduate students -- teachers can flex their grading strategy and assign the “right” grade to struggling students who show sincere enthusiasm and effort not to fail. Some students perform poorly, yet they come to class with a readiness and intention to learn and follow through with supporting actions. These are the students who attend each class, actively participate, have a positive attitude, and seek instructor guidance to perform better. To be clear, assignments and course grades are to be held to their criteria – it’s still a meritocracy! However, in some cases when students hover in the “C-, “D” or “F” range, instructors can carefully factor a student’s enthusiasm and effort as part of the grading process. After all, our goal is to encourage student learning as well as the successful completion of the course, not fail the students showing a genuine desire and effort to succeed. 

Assigning the right grade and knowing what is “A, “B” and “C” work is part of the job. This should be described well in the course outline and discussed with students. Instructors are encouraged to assign grades with a mix of qualitative and subjective evaluations, along with a touch of flexibility. 

About the Author

Christopher G. Bona is adjunct faculty at Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication. He teaches a mix of business and communications courses.

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