A Word About Grades
Before I say anything about how I grade, one thing must be said. The
single most important thing to understand about grades -- in any class
-- is that they should only indicate where you need additional work
(typically, relative to your peers in that class) along one narrow
dimension, such as your knowledge about logic or the philosophy of
mind. They should not evaluate a person, but should evaluate some
specific needs of that person. You should therefore not treat your
grades as an evaluation of yourself, except inasmuch as they evaluate
how much more you need to study, and what you need to study.
This is why you should never expect an improvement in your grade for
telling me you worked hard. Nor should you ask for extra-credit. A
grade is not a message about what kind of person you are, and it is
not something that should be opened up to a competition of who fought
hardest for something extra to do. It should be -- and in my classes
I strive to ensure that it is -- a measure of what you know, relative
to what I judge you should know (or, again, relative what your peers
know) regarding some specific skill or body of knowledge that we are
studying. It makes no sense then to expect such a measure to be
changed by being nice. Also, your response to a grade should always
be a decision about how much more you need to learn, and never a
judgment about yourself in any other terms. Thus, a D just means you
need to work very hard to catch up on this material, not that you're
stupid or incapable.
DeLancey grading policy
Ideally, I would give absolute grades, but I confess that I don't
know how to do that. So, I use a curve. However, my purpose is not
to encourage competition so much as to find some measure that has
a justified foundation.
How do I curve? Ultimately I hope to curve over the history of a
course, and I will move to this measure in courses that are not
seminars as they stabilize and a history of grades is developed.
But now, and in seminar courses, I use the following method: I will
determine the mean, taking that to be a B-, and then assign letter
grades in relation to that.
Why B-? Grade inflation, fueled perhaps by a consumeristic model of
education which encourages us to see a degree as something purchased
rather than earned, has greatly eroded the utility of grades. For me,
then, the problem for turning a raw grade into a final letter grade is
to balance wanting to resist grade inflation with also not wanting to
hurt students whose grades may be interpreted by others as relative to
the very low standards now in place (that is, nowhere will it be
written on your transcript, "this guy was a tough grader").
In recognition of grade inflation, I take the class mean to be a B-
and just 1 percent away from a C+ (this is inflation, since
traditionally the mean was supposed to be a C). Then I determine all
other grades relative to that. I do this by letting one letter grade
difference be some multiple of the standard deviation in the raw
grades. This multiple is determined by me somewhat as a gut
determination of reviewing the class performance, but is never far
from about 0.7. Thus, if the raw class average were a 50%, then a raw
grade of 50% would be a B-; 49% would be a C+; and if the standard
deviation were 10% and I was using 0.7 as a multiple, then 57% would
be an A-, and 43% would be a C-.
(I try to average in, with perhaps some reduction in their impact on
the average, the late droppers from the class. This recognizes that
those who stick a class out when others have dropped have accomplished
something the others could not, and their grade should reflect that.
This also means that the curve is usually kinder than it sounds
This means, of course, that your actual raw grades alone are not
enough to indicate how you are doing. For example, if you get a 5 out
of 10 on an assignment, but most others got a 3 or less, you may have
the equivalent of an A performance on that assignment.
At any time, you may ask me for an approximate letter grade for the
class. Do it by email, since I will check email from my computer and
have my grades spreadsheet handy at that time. (Don't forget to tell
me who you are! I sometimes get emails from students who don't write
their name and who have an email addresses that does not tell me who