January 14, 2018 4:33 pm

Norman Eng

I used to hear students grumble about their grades:

“I don’t understand how I ended up with a C.”

“I was late only three times!”

“I think it’s unfair that I got a B even though I got As in basically every assignment…”

And I’m thinking, Why are you surprised? I explained everything in the syllabus! That attendance is mandatory. That it’s worth 20 percent of the course grade.

So why do students act surprised when they get lower end-of-term grades?

Part of it is because I’m telling them, rather than showing them. Communicating effectively put students in our shoes. Or anyone else’s shoes, for that matter. That’s what teaching is about.

Students too can have ridiculous expectations. Especially when it comes to their grades. So, to minimize complaints, I show students my thinking process as I’m determining final course grades. On the first day of class.

And it only takes ten minutes. And two steps.


Step 1: Pull Up An Old Grading Sheet

This could be from last semester. Make sure it includes the attendance record for each student and all their assignment grades (see example below). Replace the student names with generic labels like Student 1, Student 2, etc.

(If you don’t have a grading sheet, make one up beforehand or download my spreadsheet template. Strategically fill in the grades—with some good, some bad. You’ll see what I mean.)


Click to see detail


When you’re going over the syllabus, tell students: “I want you to understand my grading process up front—what goes through my head when I’m determining your final grade. So, I’m going to show you. You’re about to get a peak into the mind of Prof. Eng! So pay attention…”

Then pull up your grading sheet on the projector screen.

Step 2: Do a “Think-Aloud”

Strategically narrate how you figure out students’ final grades. Here are some examples:

“Hm…OK, I’ve entered all the grades for the assignments, let’s see what they get for the course. Student #5 did really well on the Text Response papers. He got 40 points out of 300, but didn’t put enough time on the final paper, which is worth 50 points.”

“How about Student #19? She did pretty well on the assignments. B+ student. But, wait, I remember she had some attendance issues. Let’s check. OK, three absences. Wow. And she never gave a doctor’s note or anything. So that’s gonna hurt. That’s 10 points deducted from her 89 average, so she’s going to end up with a C+.”

“And I can’t believe only a third of the class did the extra credit. That one point is a freebie! Student #24 got an 89, a solid B+. If he had done the extra credit, his final grade would have been an A-.”

“This student is texting all the time. So her “citizenship” grade is gonna be low. If I’m an employer, I’m NOT hiring her.”


For students, this can be a “wow” moment: You mean two absences can really hurt my grade? Professors actually notice when I text under the table?

Students see consequences. While they seem obvious to you, for a lot of students they’re not. You need to spell it out. And students don’t always think of the consequences when it’s written in the syllabus. So show, don’t tell.

Your think-aloud makes it real.

Here’s where I transition into talking about being professional. How not to appear entitled, immature, and/or shortsighted. Not just to me. To employers and colleagues.

Do I hear less complaints about grades? I think so. Just one ten-minute investment on Day One—without being preachy. Just show them what it’s like to be you. And students will respond.

Try this exercise and let me know your thoughts.

*** To get your grade spreadsheet template, sign up to get my free Teaching College Starter Kit.

    • Dennis, I hear what you’re saying. I find that the impact does stay with them. But I do remind them about attendance and grading policies throughout the semester.

  • I have realized that as well. They need reminding. Students focus on what’s in front of them. They most often ask about their final grade with less than a third of the semester remaining. One of my resolutions is to remind them in every class after midterm where to look to get the grading details . It’s all there, they just need to refresh their memory and to look at it before it’s to late to change their behavior.

  • This is just another excuse to lower educational standards. If the instructor, teacher, professor, etc, issues a syllabus at the start of a course, then it is the students responsibility to read it and understand and accept the requirements for the class and grades. This is not only reducing educational standards but breeds self-entitlement and the lack of taking personal responsibility by the students. Enough of this politically correct BS.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}