What Not to Base Course Grades On

A distinction should be made between components which an instructor evaluates and components which are used to determine course grades. Components or variables which contribute to determining course grades should reflect each student's competence in the course content. The components of a grade should be academically oriented--they should not be tools of discipline or awards for pleasant personalities or "good" attitudes. A student who gets an "A" in a course should have a firm grasp of the skills and knowledge taught in that course. If the student is merely marginal academically but very industrious and congenial, an "A" grade would be misleading and would render a blow to the motivation of the excellent students in the program. Instructors can give feedback to students on many traits or characteristics, but only academic performance components should be used in determining course grades.

Some potentially invalid grading components are considered below. Though some exceptions could be noted, these variables generally should not be used to determine course grades.

Class attendance

Students should be encouraged to attend class meetings because it is assumed that the lectures, demonstrations, and discussion will facilitate their learning. If students miss several classes then their performance on examinations, papers, and projects will likely suffer. If the instructor further reduces the course grade because of absence, the instructor is essentially submitting such students to "double jeopardy." For example, an instructor may say that attendance counts ten percent of the course grade, but for students who are absent frequently this may in effect amount to 20 percent. Teachers who experience a good deal of class "cutting" might examine their classroom environment and methods to determine if changes are needed and ask their students why attendance was low.

Class participation

Obviously seminars and small classes depend on student participation to some degree for their success. When participation is important, it may be appropriate for the instructor to use participation grades. In such cases the instructor should keep weekly notes regarding frequency and quality of participation; waiting until the end of the semester and relying strictly on memory makes a relatively subjective task even more subjective. Participation should probably not be graded in most courses, however. Dominating or extroverted students tend to win and introverted or shy students tend to lose. Students should be graded in terms of their achievement level, not in terms of their personality type. Instructors may want to give feedback to students on many aspects of their personality but grading should not be the means of doing so.


Neatness is written work, correctness in spelling and grammar, and organizational ability are all worthy traits. They are assets in most vocational endeavors. To this extent it seems appropriate that instructors evaluate these factors and give students feedback about them. However, unless the course objectives include instruction in these skills, students should not be graded on them in the course. A student's grade on an essay exam should not be influenced by his/her general spelling ability, neither should his/her course grade.

Personality factors

Most instructors are attracted to students who are agreeable, friendly, industrious, and kind; we tend to be repelled by those with opposite characteristics. To the extent that certain personalities may interfere with class work or have limited chances for employment in their field of interest, constructive feedback from the instructor may be necessary. An argumentative student who earns a "C" should have a moderate amount of knowledge about the course content. The nature of his or her personality should not have direct bearing on the course grade earned.

Instructors can and should evaluate many aspects of student performance in their course. However, only the evaluation information which relates to course goals should be used to assign a course grade. Judgments about writing and speaking skills, personality traits, effort, and motivation should be communicated in some other form. Some faculty use brief conferences for this purpose. Others communicate through comments written on papers or through the use of mock letters of recommendation.