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Course Documents

Grading Scheme for Written Work

Letter Grades

This semester, when I grade your papers, I will use a simple letter grade scheme. Here is what those letters mean to me (and to many American teachers).


A “straight A” is generally understood to mean, “This is outstanding work, far exceeding my expectations.”

For me, when I give an A, it means, “I genuinely enjoyed reading this paper. There is nothing, or almost nothing, about the language or the way you express your ideas that distracts me from engaging with your ideas themselves. And the ideas are interesting, thought-provoking, and persuasive.”

Don’t expect to get all A’s, particularly on your early work. If I give a student all A’s right from the start, it means the student has come into the class having already learned everything I have to teach. I will probably feel a bit apologetic towards this kind of student!


This grade is very rarely given. Some teachers never give A+s at all. To me (and to many other teachers, I think), an A+ means: “This is one of the very best student papers I have ever seen, and expect to see, in my entire career as a teacher.”


For me, an A- means, “This paper is close to an A, but there are one or two minor problems that distract me from fully engaging with your ideas.”

Important: To the American mind, an A- is still a kind of A. If you are getting A-s it means the teacher is pleased with your work but is pointing to one or two places where there is room for improvement. If I give you an A-, please don’t freak out! I graduated summa cum laude from Yale and I got plenty of A-s when I was in college (and high school)!


B used to mean “good,” but because of grade inflation its meaning has changed and it is now more generally understood to mean “okay,” “just fine,” “average.” (The colloquial phrase “a B movie” means “a mediocre movie.”)

If you get a B on your paper, it means, “This paper is just fine; you’ve done what I asked you to do. But there is plenty of room for improvement. I can point to many problems (or one or two significant problems) that seriously distract me from engaging with your ideas.”


A B+ is also a paper with significant room for improvement. However, by adding the +, I am saying, “There are one or two things I think you did quite well. I am commending you for those things.”


A B- is a paper that meets my basic expectations for the assignment, but there are one or things that are really significant problems. I feel that the student has done the assignment in good faith (i.e. actually tried) but there is at least one thing I think the student really needs to work hard on.


A C used to mean “average,” but because of grade inflation its meaning has now shifted to “below average.”

If you get a C on a paper, it means, “Hey! I am concerned about you! I’m sending you a warning signal — there are a number of things I think you really need to work hard on.”

If you get a C and didn’t expect to get a C, I highly recommend you make an appointment with me so I can give you some extra help.

If you get a C and didn’t try hard on the assignment, it probably means, “I can see you didn’t try hard.”

C+ / C-

For me these grades basically mean the same thing as C.


For me, a D means, “this assignment is incomplete or off-topic.”


F stands for “fail.” I will probably only give an F if a student commits plagiarism.



In addition, when writing feedback on written assignments, I use two symbols you should be aware of:

•  (bullet point)

This means, “This is a minor problem.”

⦿ (circled bullet point)

This means, “This is a major problem.”

A paper with no real problems at all is an A paper. Usually, for every minor problem (bullet point) I will drop the grade by one grade level, and for every major problem (circled bullet point) I will drop the grade by two grade levels. So a paper with one minor problem is an A-; a paper with two minor problems or one major problem is a B+; a paper with three minor problems or one major problem and one minor problem is a B; and so forth.