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## Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers: Grades and Grade Weighting

1. All evaluations eventually go to numbers.  If you're planning to give credit for but not mark numerical grades on some assignments, please take time to consider how you will eventually convert that row of mixed checks and check-pluses (or H's and U's, or whatever) to "8.5/10%."  (Class participation grades may fall in this category; see below.)  Your main options:

1. "Eyeball it":  Possible (though still problematic) for very low grade weights, i.e., under 5% of the final grade total; not recommended for grades that have more impact on the final grade.

2. Contract-grade it: Establish a set range for each grade-level: "Complete all parts and earn at least 6 check-pluses to earn an A; Complete all parts and earn at least 3 check-pluses to earn a B."

3. Assign points to each non-point marker, add them up, and average them, either publicly or in your own private notes.  Think about how points translate to numerical-based letter-grades:  if checkplus/check/checkminus translate to 3/2/1 points, then each check is equivalent to a "D" (2/3, 66%); if they translate to 5/4/3 points, then check = B-.

2. All numbers eventually go to grades.  If you have an analytical rubric that says "Evidence: 20 points," then a 20 = A+ and a 16 = B-, on a standard 100/90/80/70% grading scale.  If you're intending to allow for the possibility of "D" essays, you need to allow for the possibility of "D" and "F" scores (12 or 10) for sub-categories like "evidence."

3. Compare grade weights to consider workload.  Does everything on your syllabus that is weighted at 15% of your final grade require about the same amount of work, critical thinking, risk, skill, and/or attentiveness?  This may not be a simple judgment:  depending on your assignments, the 20-25 pages of weekly informal journal writing you're expecting students to do across the semester may seem to you quite equivalent to the 4-6 page, two-draft, argumentative essay you're assigning.

4. Compare grade weights to consider priorities.  It can be frustrating to find that students who have done very poorly on something you consider crucial to the course nevertheless hold a B+ final grade.

1. Your grade weights should reflect, in some way, the institutional priorities of your writing class:  if students' finished-product essay-writing has a total weight of 35%, the course may not look like it's prioritizing that institutional goal.

2. Your grade weights should also reflect your own pedagogical priorities:  do you want to have a high-weight for the first essay to get students' attention early, or a lower-weight to lessen early risk?  is revision important to you in teaching writing? exploration/reflection?  reading? You can help make those priorities clear through your grade weights.

3. You can attempt to influence students' priorities through grade-weighting, particularly by anticipating their assumptions:  something called a "Quiz" or "Reading Analysis" is likely to already seem like more of a priority than something called a "Reflection" or "Journal," so you may be able to gain equal attention with lower-grade-weights for the former or need a higher, "take-me-seriously" grade-weight for the latter.

5. Consider using fewer ranking-levels for lower-weight or lower-priority assignments.  You may be certain you can account for the difference between an essay that earns an 88 out of 100 and an essay that earns an 87, and at a 25% grade weight that difference may be important to you -- yet it's still only the difference, in the final overall grade, of ¼ point.

On a 5%-weight assignment, even the difference between "A+" and "B-" is only 1 point out of the total score, and if you have ten response entries for 5%, the A+/B- difference on each one has a 0.1 effect overall.  Is it worth your time to make finer distinctions? Or can you mark those response entries at A, B-, D, and 0, or just Y/N, and move on?

6. Remember (and sometimes use) the difference between "F" and "0."  In US academic grading, "F" is usually still counted as "50-60%."  However, as anyone who's gotten a 33% on a multiple-choice-exam knows, a much wider range of "F's" exists.  You might consider giving low-range "F's" as well as Zeros on some assignments when students simply haven't met even the most minimal standards.

7. Create grade-weight space for all high-priority activities.  Do you really want students to bring drafts to workshops?  to complete the reading assignments?  Might you at some point want students to complete a short homework assignment?  Will you assign and collect in-class writing?  Do you know where those assignments will be weighted?  Adding the phrase "…and Exercises" to a grade-weight category like Participation, Reading Responses, Short Assignments, or Freewrites, gives you a "home" for those miscellaneous activities, and a ready response to the student question, "Does this count?"

Special Grading Situations

1. GMU English 101: No Credit/Revision Required. The NC grade is designed as a final-grade-policy: students whose work through the semester does not earn, overall, a C or better in English 101 are given the grade of NC.  They will need to re-take the course; however, in the meantime, their college GPAs are not affected.

"NC" may be a useful grade for occasional individual assignments during the semester; however, you may certainly record grades of C-, D, F, and 0 for coursework, and leave the "NC" designation for the final grading.  You may also return work to students without a grade and require revision.  However, you need to know and specify for students what that "R" grade will become if the student chooses not to revise and resubmit.

2. Class participation.  GMU policy says, "Students are expected to attend the class periods of the courses for which they register. In-class participation is important to the individual student and to the class as a whole. Because class participation may be a factor in grading, instructors may use absence, tardiness, or early departure as de facto evidence of non-participation."  Grade deductions based on absence need to be linked to students' class participation grade, and be proportional thereto; that is, a student who misses 7 of 28 class sessions may be penalized for ¼ of his/her participation grade.

Particularly if your "participation" grade is 10% or higher, you need to do some "itemizing" so that students can clearly see you're not just giving higher grades to "pets."

To avoid multi-level rankings of each student across 42 class meetings (!!), or having to define exactly what constitutes participation from both loud and quiet students, consider making the participation part of the grade all-or-nothing based on attendance; you can state that you'll "round up" or that you'll do +/- 10% of the participation grade based on your overall impression of contributions, if that seems fairer.

3. Off-the-cliff grading. Please avoid plunge-off-the-cliff policies unless you're absolutely committed to them pedagogically and personally.  This includes any single policy that could automatically (without stated room for exception) cause a student's course grade to drop by more than 5-10%, or that causes a single essay grade to drop precipitously for relatively small, unrevisable reasons.

Plagiarism is a cliff policy that's already on the table; "can't pass the class without completing all major assignments" is a pretty common and pedagogically defensible cliff policy. However, "More than 3 grammar errors will drop your essay grade 20%" is a cliff policy that's less defensible; "after two absences your class participation grade will drop to F" is a steep cliff policy not allowed at Mason; "you must turn in all photocopies of all your sources or your essay will earn a zero" is a cliff policy; "I never accept late work" is a cliff policy.

If it helps, imagine that your Best Student has a bad day and violates such a policy: if you would feel personally or pedagogically worried about dropping his/her grade that much, consider modifying your policy.

4. Final Portfolio.  There are three common kinds of portfolio grading.  In a true portfolio-based class, no essay-grade is final (or sometimes even recorded) until the final portfolio; revisions are expected through the last minutes of the semester; often the portfolio itself is graded holistically.  (Note that all portfolio grading puts a lot of time-pressure on the instructor at the very end of the semester.)  First-year students often need more guidance (and/or motivation) than this, so two alternatives are common:

1. Modified Revision-Based Portfolio:  Students' essays are given individual grades through the semester; students are then expected to produce additional revisions (sometimes on all essays; sometimes on 1-2 of their choosing; sometimes on 1-2 of the instructor's choosing, or a combination of student/instructor choice) and usually create a reflective portfolio essay.  This is a substantial amount of work, making the portfolio qualify for a higher grade weight.  Two complications should be considered:

1. Will essays be graded separately and their (improved) quality factored into the portfolio grade, or is the purpose of the portfolio more to demonstrate revision and reflection?

2. If essays are re-graded, do the previous essay-grades stand or change retroactively?  (A kind of "double-dipping" can result if this policy is not clearly specified.)

2. Modified Compilation-Based Portfolio:  Students' essays are graded individually through the semester.  Students assemble these essays into a final portfolio with a reflective essay, an exercise that is productive in terms of helping students see their writing but which may not be as much work as Option A above and thus not worth as high a grade-weight.  (If students revise essays, their revisions often affect the previous essay grades, as per the instructor's policy.)

 Last updated June 2008. Email Shelley Reid