General Grading Expectations

My undergraduate courses on Geography, History, and International Relations (PSCI 4820) and International Conflict (PSCI 4821) are upper-division courses; most or all students should be juniors or seniors. This means that the typical student in these courses has already spent at least two or three years in college as well as thirteen years or so in elementary, middle, and high school, and is within a year or two of graduating from college and becoming a (hopefully) productive member of society in the "real world" beyond school doors. At lower levels of the educational ladder, some teachers or schools may feel the need to lower their expectations for students, assuming that the students will acquire necessary skills at some later point in their educational careers. By the time students reach upper-division college courses, though, it is ridiculous to offer "social promotion" or to use grading policies that assume students will acquire skills or knowledge at some later time and place.

In short, by this point in your education, students should be putting forth the effort that they plan to put into their post-graduation careers. Whether you intend to go on to graduate/law/business school or you plan to start an actual job immediately after graduation, you will need to be able to focus your attention and your energies on the task at hand. Law school, for example, is a very common post-graduation path for political science majors -- and it is notorious for requiring intensive research and writing by students. If you see law school in your immediate future, you should plan to start putting forth law student-type effort in your upper-division undergraduate courses (if you haven't already started this earlier in your career); even if some undergraduate instructors will let you get away with poor efforts, few law schools will be as cooperative. Similarly, it is usually a bad plan to assume that you will be able to "turn on" high productivity or good work habits after graduation; if you do not get into these habits now, your life will be much more difficult after you graduate.

My grading standards and expectations reflect this general philosophy. By the time you have reached my upper-division courses at UNT, I expect you to have acquired most of the skills and habits that you will need for your post-undergraduate career, and I will grade all assignments in my courses accordingly. If you start researching and writing your papers a day or two before they are due, you should expect to suffer the same types of consequences that you will suffer in law school or in your career if you put off important assignments until the last minute. Similarly, if you are unwilling to put much effort into organizing your work or making it presentable (this includes issues such as spellchecking), then you should expect the same degree of leniency that you will find in law school or from the CEO of your company. By this stage of your life, you are not children; you are adults and will be treated accordingly.

"But I never learned to..."

Some students will argue that the K-12 educational system in Texas (or whichever state you were raised in) or the introductory English or other classes that they have taken at UNT (or whichever institution you attended for your first few years of college) did not prepare them adequately for upper-division writing. I can't stop you from trying to use this kind of excuse as a crutch now or at any later point in your lives, but you should be aware that "I never learned to write complete sentences" is not going to help you find or keep any kind of job beyond the level of "paper or plastic?" or "would you like fries with that?" At some point, regardless of your past educational experience, you are responsible for your own future; if you want to succeed, you will need to make every effort to acquire the necessary skills, even if high school and freshman English classes may not have given you every skill you need.

Even if you haven't necessarily learned how to write correctly and are still confused about which word to use in certain settings or about when and how to cite your references, there are plenty of resources available if you are willing to make the effort to learn. Most universities offer writing assistance to their students, so I encourage you to take advantage of these options at UNT or elsewhere (many of these writing programs at other institutions make available useful resources on the Web). I have also developed a variety of helpful resources on my web site to assist students; you are encouraged to take advantage of these resources as needed:

"I've never had to write a paper so far in my life, why start now?"

I've actually had several students use this excuse in the past to try to get me to agree to change my course requirements (either for the entire class or just for these few individuals). This kind of question hardly even deserves a response, but it's been raised often enough that I will answer it here. As I mentioned above in the previous paragraph, I can't stop you from trying to use this kind of excuse as a crutch in college or at any later point in your life, but this kind of excuse-mongering will not help you advance your chosen career. Try to imagine using this excuse on your law school admissions essay, inside the classroom if you manage to get into law school anyway, or in the legal profession if you manage to get through law school somehow (which obviously is highly unlikely). Would you seriously expect the law school admissions committee, your law professors, the senior partners at law firms, or judges to cut you a break because you never tried to write a serious paper?

"These expectations are too high" / "This class looks too hard"

It is worth noting that no upper-division course that I teach is specifically required for graduation from UNT. If you don't feel confident that you can handle a course with actual research papers and essay exams (or if you're too lazy to deal with such a course), you should remember that nobody is forcing you to take this particular course -- and you will probably be better off dropping it and trying to take a different course from some other professor. I believe in making course requirements clear up front; all of my syllabi now include copies of the entire writing assignment for the course, so students can consider this on the first day of class when deciding whether or not to stay in my course (all of these syllabi and writing assignments are also available on my web site, for students considering my course before the semester starts or thinking about my courses in the future). If you choose to remain in my course past the add-drop deadline, then it is only fair to assume that you have actually read the syllabus and writing assignment, and that you are willing to accept the responsibility for completing all of these requirements.

Grading Scale and Explanation

UNT does not use plus/minus grading, so there are only five possible grades for somebody who has completed a course. I always grade on a straight scale, with no rounding, as follows:

Grades are recorded in my grade book as percentages, reflecting the overall quality and depth of the student's knowledge and understanding of the assigned material. The actual point totals of any given assignment do not matter; a grade of 9 points out of 10 works out to be identical to 18 out of 20, 27 out of 30, 45 out of 50, or 90 out of 100, as each of these comes out as .900 or 90.0 percent. The following discussion is meant to offer general guidelines for the differences between different grade levels:

A (90.0-100): Excellent

An "A" grade reflects superior knowledge and understanding of the material in question. To receive this grade you must go beyond simply repeating material covered in lecture; there is usually quite a difference between "repetition" and "understanding." It must be noted that grades of 100 percent are very rare, and reflect perfection -- that is, such an answer could not be improved in any way; there are no factual errors in the answer, nothing important has been left out, and the student has done an incredible job of demonstrating an understanding of the material and its relationship to other important concepts or theories. A grade of 90, 93, or 95 percent is still a full "A" and reflects superior understanding above and beyond the repetition of lecture notes or readings. It is also worth noting that UNT does not award "A+" grades, so there is no practical difference between a final course grade of 90.0 and 100.0 percent.

B Range (80.0-89.9): Good

A "B" grade reflects work that is good and above average, but that is not good enough to reach the "A" range. Typical reasons include important omissions in the answer (leaving out concepts or ideas that really need to be there) or factual errors, perhaps from following the "shotgun approach" (write down everything you think you know about the subject, in the hope that the instructor will find what he/she is looking for). Remember, even if your answer includes the correct material the instructor is looking for, also including incorrect or inappropriate material indicates that you do not understand the material at the "A" level.

C Range (70.0-79.9): Average

A "C" grade reflects work that is average at best. Such a grade typically indicates a paper or exam answer that reflects a basic understanding of many of the concepts involved in the assignment, but does not address or integrate these concepts in a very satisfactory manner. "C" answers often contain important errors of fact and/or important omissions from the answer, and are generally not very well organized or written.

D Range (60.0-69.9): Below Average

A "D" grade reflects work that is below average. In the eyes of UNT, such a grade reflects performance that is not worthy of credit toward graduation with a political science degree. Such an answer does not demonstrate the student's understanding of the assigned material, and often reflects a very poorly organized and written argument. In addition to common errors of fact and frequent omissions of relevant material, such an answer rarely reflects much independent thought by the student beyond simply trying to repeat (often incorrectly) material from the lecture or readings.

F (below 60.0): Unacceptable

An "F" grade reflects work that is completely unacceptable. Such work usually shows little resemblance to the assignment, whether because the student left out large parts of the assignment, didn't bother to complete the assignment (preferring some other assignment without the professor's knowledge), or acquired the paper from some other source that was written for a different assignment.

Do I grade on spelling, grammar, organization, etc.?

No, I don't actually deduct a set number of points for each typo, misspelled word, or improperly organized sentence in your paper (although this is something that I have strongly considered doing in the past). On the other hand, a paper that is full of such mistakes is not likely to be effective at any level -- whether in an upper-division undergraduate course at UNT, in law/graduate/business school, or in a report or proposal for your eventual job after graduation. As a result, I will not go out of my way to try to figure out what a student is trying to say if it is not obvious, any more than will a professor in law school when evaluating your work or the CEO of your company when evaluating your reports. If poor writing or organization make it difficult for the reader (in this case me) to follow your line of argument in a paper, you should never expect a professor or supervisor to struggle through your work and try to figure it out, and you should expect to receive a lower grade than a better-organized paper would receive.

Do I award Incomplete (I) grades?

No, I almost never award I grades, except in the most unusual and well-documented circumstances. Such grades generally involve the awarding of an unfair advantage to a student, as all of his or her classmates were able to attend all examinations and turn in all assigned coursework on time. Remember, any student could do a better job with an additional month or semester to write the paper or study for an exam, so I am very careful about allowing one student an opportunity that all of his or her classmates have not had.

Do I Grade with a Curve?

I never use curved grading scales in grading individual assignments, except for multiple-choice Scantron-style tests (which I only use in large introductory courses) and methods homeworks; in general, assignments like essay exams and research papers produce grade distributions that are good enough that no curve would be needed. I have also found consistently that any possible distortions in a single assignment (whether the grades appear to be too high or too low) wash out long before the final grade is determined, at least partly because my courses are generally graded using several very different types of assignments (such as quizzes, essay exams, and research papers). The only situation in which I would consider using a curve in grading for a typical upper-division course would involve a course where the final grade distribution (after the final exams are graded) is too low. This has happened less than five times in my teaching career, all of them in methods courses or large introductory courses that were graded with Scantron multiple choice tests; I would be very surprised if it happens in a more typical upper-division course.

Do I "Round Up" in Grading? Do I Allow Extra Credit?

I do not round grades up on either individual assignments or final grades, so an 89.9 is still a B. (It is amazing how some students believe that they are entitled to a higher grade; I once had an FSU student ask why I couldn't round his 64 up to a 70 so he could get a C- for the course and get credit toward graduation.) The next best thing, though, is that I offer students one chance to earn enough extra credit to simulate rounding.

This only happens once a semester, and it's on a day when many students may not be in class: the last regularly scheduled class meeting before Thanksgiving (in fall semesters) or Spring Break (in spring semesters). On that day, I offer a relatively simply extra credit quiz at the end of class; if all 5 questions are answered correctly, the student will receive 1/2 of a point toward the final course grade. In other words, a student who otherwise had an 89.5 for the course (after the final exam) but got all five questions right on this extra credit quiz before Thanksgiving would have 89.5 + 0.5 = 90.0, or an A grade for the course.

Besides this one extra credit quiz, there are no other opportunities to earn extra credit in my courses, so please do not ask.

Penalties for Late Work

In order to get full credit for an assignment, you must turn in the assignment by the start of class on the day it is due. If you come to class late for any reason, and therefore turn in the assignment late, one-third of a letter grade will be deducted (e.g., a 93 would become a 90). Almost everybody else in the class was able to finish their assignments, print them out, and turn them in on time, and it would not be fair to them to give special treatment to students who did not do so. Similarly, even if you show up a few minutes late for class on the due date, it would be unfair to the students who showed up on time if I were to give special treatment to anybody else. Any student who feels that this policy is unfair is advised to consider what would be a "fair" length of time to allow the paper to be late -- by the end of the lecture (meaning that the student could skip the lecture to work on the paper without any penalty)? half of the class period? 5 minutes after the start of class?. (Of course, when considering this issue, it is important to think from the perspective of those students who got their papers in on time, and not just from the perspective of "I was X minutes late, therefore the fairest solution is to let everyone be X minutes late without any penalty.") The simplest way to avoid these problems is to plan ahead -- make sure the paper is finished (and printed out) well before the start of class, assume that you won't be able to find a parking spot that day, assume that anything else that could possibly go wrong to keep you from turning in your paper by the start of class WILL happen to you, and make sure that you will still be able to get to class on time despite all of these problems.

One full letter grade will be deducted for each day (or part of a day) that an assignment is late after the due date. Thus, a paper that would have received an A if turned in on time on Monday will become a B paper on Tuesday, a C paper on Wednesday, and so on. It should be noted that this refers to the day on which I receive your paper -- so if you claim to have slipped it under my office door on Friday evening, but I do not receive it until Monday morning, I will have to treat the paper as if it were handed in to me on Monday morning. Thus, you should hand your paper to me in person to ensure that I give it the proper credit -- and if I am not available, you should make sure that the office staff in the Political Science office stamp your paper with the exact time and date before putting it in my mailbox. Another excellent way to ensure that I know exactly when you turned in your paper is to email it to me; the email system will stamp your message with the time and date.

Computer/Disk/Printer Problems

I realize that with today's technology, there will be occasional problems with computers, printers, or disks -- but you need to plan ahead and take precautions, to make sure that these problems don't cause you to lose points on an assignment. You should always back up your files regularly onto several disks (don't just save your paper on a single hard drive or a single floppy disk; there are too many things that could go wrong). You should always have backup plans for computers to use in writing your paper and printers to use in printing out your finished paper -- the university offers computing centers with free access to computers and printers, which you can use if your own computer/printer (or those of your friends) should fail you for some reason. As a last resort, if your computer/printer should fail and for some reason you do not have access to any alternatives, you may turn in a floppy disk with the word processing file containing your paper; you can then print out another copy to hand in once you have access to a computer/printer again, and (as long as there are NO changes since the version that you handed in on disk) you will not be penalized for lateness.
Last updated: 22 August 2008
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