Understanding Grades: The Syllabus

By Sarah Wright

Surprising Grades

Let's say you're a pretty good student. You almost always do your homework, show up to class on time every day, participate in discussions and have a good rapport with the professor. Everything seems to be going well, but then you take a big exam, and you don't do so well on it. That's ok though, right? You've done everything else you need to. One test can't make that big a difference, can it? Unfortunately, it can make a big difference, and seemingly little things can lead to an unpleasant surprise when final grades are reported.

Many students in a similar position end up being pretty displeased when they get their grades at the end of the semester. It could be that you test well, but never do your homework. Or maybe you participate in class and demonstrate your knowledge of the subject at hand, but can't be bothered to put effort into writing a good paper. Whatever the specific case, many students put in uneven performances, but assume that their good performance in one area will help make up for their deficiencies in another.

The Syllabus is the Key

Sometimes, students get by just fine without excelling in every area. But often, one seemingly minor slip-up can have serious consequences. Students who are shocked at their final grades might have been able to avoid that unpleasant feeling by paying a bit more attention to their syllabus. Syllabi are not just for understanding what material will be presented in a class; they usually include other important information, including a grading rubric that explains how final grades will be calculated.

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Knowing how much certain aspects of the class will count toward your grade can be immensely helpful not only in preventing unpleasant surprises, but also in helping you shape your approach to your work. Rubrics are likely to vary from class to class. Some professors put heavy emphasis on homework and attendance, while others don't count such activities toward the final grade at all. Many professors will place midterm and final exams at extremely high percentages of the final grade - sometimes as high as 75%. It's a good idea to gain an understanding of the way you will be scored for your work early in the class. The syllabus may be the only place that you will find such information, so examine it carefully.

What to Do

One good piece of advice for understanding the grading system in a specific class is to make sure you're there for the first day. Usually, when a professor or TA hands out a syllabus, they'll walk the class through it. When they get to the section about grading, listen and make sure you understand the way the rubric works. The professor may take this time to explain how to earn extra credit, if that's an option. If you have any questions at all about how you will be graded, ask them now, before the class begins.

If you know you are deficient in a certain area, you might want to visit your professor's office hours and discuss it with him or her. For instance, if you know that you are a poor test-taker, and exams make up a significant percentage of the final grade, you might want to discuss that with your instructor. Approach the professor early in the class and make it clear that you have concerns about a specific part of the grading rubric. See if he or she is willing to work with you to address your concerns.

Another way you can take action if you're worried about deficiencies in a specific area of the rubric is to make sure you excel in all other areas. If class attendance and participation are listed as part of the rubric, even if it's a small percentage, make sure you are in class and ready to make useful contributions every day. Those are easy points, and you shouldn't just let them go. If you absolutely must miss class, email your professor and ask if you can meet them during office hours to talk about what you missed, or write a short essay on the day's material to show that you weren't just playing hooky. Whatever you do, just make sure you're paying attention to the information given on your syllabus. Knowing how you'll be graded can help you avoid any unpleasant surprises at the end of a semester.

Are you looking for more advice on how to succeed in college? As suggested above, try taking advantage of faculty office hours if you're feeling some strain in a class.

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