Alan Karras's Notes on the Meaning of Grades

J. Bradford DeLong

The Meaning of Grades:

GRADES, and their meaning, for students in Alan Karras’s classes:

One of the worst parts of an instructor’s job is to deal with grades. Many students believe that they are subjective and arbitrary. In short, they are. We have difficulty reconciling this with our normal social-science instincts, which urge objectivity and uniformity. However much I like the ideas of the Enlightenment, a certain amount of "faith" is still required. What I can do, however, is make sure that our arbitrary and subjective classifications get imposed uniformly upon the whole class and that any individual student is treated fairly within this system. My teaching assistants, readers, and I all assign grades based on the following general set of standards. Deviations between assignments are possible, but highly unlikely. Deviations within a single assignment should not take place. To wit:

A+ Truly exceptional. Your brilliant argument taught us something we did not know. Or, you conceived of a problem in an imaginative and innovative way. Moreover, there is not a single grammatical mistake. Not even one.

A Outstanding. We’ve looked and looked for errors and found perhaps a few lapses in grammar, but they are insignificant because you raised an interesting and important argument.

A- Excellent. You show a superb mastery of the materials. Your paper has a clear argument but something is just a little bit off, and consistently so. You need some tightening of argumentation, for example, or you should have pushed your data that extra step. Or, there are some writing flaws in your paper or, your organization might not be perfect and obscures your otherwise fine argument.

B+ Very good. You've clearly learned the material and there are no major errors. But your answer is lacking in originality, clarity, or sparkle. In some cases, this grade can be for a brilliant essay with significant and frequent writing flaws.

B Good. You have a solid argument but it is not fully developed. Your argument is plausible but you need more supporting evidence to make a convincing case. Or, you’ve given the right evidence but haven’t articulated the argument. Or in an exam, for example, the chronology is confused or in a paper, there are problems with annotation and the use of sources. These are not fatal.

B- Pretty good. Your answer is solid, but incomplete. You end the paper or essay where you should begin it. Your essay has the right elements but they are in the wrong order. Your argument is likely missing something and might also have some problems in expression. I might have to strain to figure out what you want to say but once I do, it makes sense. This strain suggests that you could have corrected the problem with more attention to your argument.

C+ Fair. It's not obvious that you've done the readings and listened to the lectures. What you say might be true, but it is unclear since your argument has many writing problems and a reader has to work overtime to figure out what you mean. Your argument, though plausible, is not especially deep or insightful. The paper has errors and an imbalance between generalizations and evidence. There are problems with annotation that suggests attention has not been paid to the detail and mechanics of writing a paper.

C Acceptable, but...

(1) You might have grasped the basic idea, but have missed the main focal points of the questions and/or;

(2) There are omissions or disturbing errors in fact or your logic is flawed and/or;

(3) Although basically correct, your argument has no supporting evidence and/or;

(4) your writing is obscuring your argument, your notes are inadequate, and your credibility is not so good either.

C- Still acceptable, but...

here are a greater number of problems and/or a fewer number of good points than needed to earn you a "C." In other words, more of the C problems (mentioned above) are true in a C- paper.

D+ Barely acceptable. There are serious errors, omissions, or inconsistencies here, but the light of understanding somehow, occasionally, flickers through.

D Just barely acceptable. Your answer is so vague that it's hard to find something good to say. Your writing problems also are pretty significant.

D- Passing. Be grateful your instructors are nice people with a great deal of patience. Perhaps you need to spend more time on your answers/papers next time! Asking for help might also be a good idea.

F Don’t think so. There's not even enough here about which to be patient. At least you will get some credit for your effort, which is better than the zero you would have gotten for leaving the answer blank.

Problems which should be made explicit:

(1) You cannot earn a perfect A if you leave out the time-frame or the significance of an ID on an exam. "Significance" does not mean piling on more data, it means stepping back to analyze the data you have already presented.

(2) If you mistake one ID for another, e.g. the equivalent of writing about the Aztecs when asked about the Inca. All is not lost; your grade will drop down to around a C. Then your answer will be judged as if I had, in fact, asked the question you answered. The same is true for exam questions that do not answer what was explicitly asked.

(3) Grammar matters. We do not give separate "language" grades. Rather, we reduce the grades of papers that are fraught with grammatical faults.

(4) Students often assume that their work starts out in a presumed state of perfection (i.e., with an A+) and points get taken off only to the extent that they fall from grace through ambiguity or error. On the contrary, I place you at the median range of B-/C+ and you have to work your way up from there by demonstrating mastery of the data and brilliance of interpretation. Hence, particularly on midterms, you may find your grades to be lower than expected.

(5) For papers, be advised, I take the obligation of scholarly responsibilities very seriously. Inadequate indication of sources will drop even a strong paper at the "A" level down to a "C." Willful misrepresentation will be grounds for, at the least, an "F."