Behind the Grading Curtain: What Your Grade Actually Means

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There are many different systems of grading in the world, but almost all rely on the same principle: a student's performance is ranked according to specific criteria. The letter-grade system using the letters A, B, C, D and F is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, although many universities vary the ranges of numbers that these represent.
An A at one school, for example, may range from 100 to 90 while at another it will range
from 100 to 80. Likewise, additional letters such as W, N, or I may be used for certain
special cases, but it is those letters A-F that really interest us.

Well, actually it's not the letters; it's what they represent that really matters.
It is very easy -- incredibly easy, in fact. It might even be horrifyingly easy to
think that grading works by starting with a 100 and deducting points for mistakes (like
typos or grammatical errors). This idea probably comes from math tests in primary
education where you really did lose points for mistakes, but in essay-writing things are
much weirder. After all, how do you put a number on the quality of an argument or a
chain of reasoning?

Thus you might be thinking that an A is simply your starting grade and then any
lower grade represents the amassed influence of your errors, but your instructors are
working with a completely different set of standards. In their mind, the starting point is
actually a C. From there you have to earn your points by performing beyond
expectations. Here is how it really breaks down:

F: This is a fail. Let's not waste too much time thinking about it.

D: This grade is awarded to sub-standard work. In other words, you tried to complete
the assignment, but there were problems that kept you from handing in acceptable
work.

C: This is the foundational grade. Almost every university describes it in the same terms.

A C means that the student has completed the assignment in a satisfactory way and is
benefitting from his or her education. It's worth taking a moment to think about this. For
many students a C is a badge of failure. After all, most graduate schools will not accept
anyone with less than a B average, so it could be seen as a badge of mediocrity but it is
then up you to go beyond expectations. Any errors of grammar, punctuation or
formatting -- any errors whatsoever -- could easily plunk your work right into the C
zone.

B: this grade is (supposed to be) reserved for exceptional work. Essays need to be wellorganized, insightful and free from any mistakes.

A: the transcendent and seemingly elusive A is really not that hard to achieve if you
keep your head in the right place. Ironically though, you will not achieve it by worrying
about your grade. To get an A you need to forget about school, essays, grading
schemes and all the other business of academia. Focus only on creating an elegant
piece of work that takes the purpose of your assignment and carries it in a new and
surprising direction.

Ultimately, grades are a representation of how well a student has identified the purpose
of an assignment and then produced work that addresses that purpose. It can seem
sometimes like university assignments are simply hoops through which students must
jump in order to get their certificate or diploma, but such an attitude will almost certainly
guarantee a solid C-average.

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This page contains a single entry by Legible Larry published on April 12, 2013 9:35 PM.

The Tale of the Three Hateful Brothers: Syntax, Grammar and Punctuation was the previous entry in this blog.

Dial E for Shakespeare is the next entry in this blog.

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