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Grading Philosophy and Policies

Professor John Tatter




I believe that my evaluation of student work--that is, my assigning grades to papers, projects, and examinations--should be accompanied by specific feedback about what is or is not effective and correct in that work and why. If my own experiences as a learner are any indication, evaluation without feedback is not particularly helpful.

I agree with Grant Wiggins, President of the Center on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure, who claimed in a recent address that "feedback is not praise or blame. It's what you did and did not do, whether you realized it or intended it. Assessment should make its chief business the confronting of performers with the effect of their work . . . . and then performers must do something about the effect, either to explain it, to justify it, or to correct it."

Though grades and marginal comments on student work often feel like praise or blame, their purpose is, from my perspective, not to provide pain or pleasure as motivation. The purpose of grades and marginal comments is to show students what they are doing well so that they can continue doing it and to show students the areas in which they need to improve their skills and to suggest ways in which they may improve. As Wiggins suggests, "self-adjustment is the goal."

In order for self-adjustment to happen, however, students must receive feedback about their work that is both specific and non-threatening. I try to provide that kind of feedback. In their response, students must fight the tendency either to get defensive about having done something "wrong" or to get overconfident about having done something "right." In this regard, I insist that a student who wants further feedback on a particular assignment should read my marginal comments carefully, reassess his or her work as objectively as possible in light of those comments, and wait at least 24 hours before coming to see me.

My students should be aware of two particular grading scales within which to understand the numerical scores that I assign to their work. First, students should re-acquaint themselves with the College's definition of grades, which can be found in the College Catalog and which equates particular grades with specific qualities:

  • "A" means distinctive work (rare--unusually effective, creative, comprehensive)
  • "B" means very good work (clearly above average--not just correct or competent)
  • "C" means satisfactory work (average, typical, competent)
  • "D" means unsatisfactory but passing work (flawed, weak, below average, minimal)
  • "F" means failing work (seriously flawed, incompetent)
The parenthetical comments above are my own expanded definitions of the terms distinctive, very good, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, and failing. I take these definitions seriously, and I often struggle in drawing the line between work that is very good and work that is distinctive. I also recognize that there is a range within a class of work that is "very good" or "satisfactory." So I assign numerical scores to all assignments according to the following scale:
  • 90 and above is the "A" range
  • 80 - 89 is the "B" range
  • 70 - 79 is the "C" range
  • 60 - 69 is the "D" range
  • 59 and below is the "F" range
Students should realize that a score of 0 (which I assign to work that is not submitted or that is submitted late without permission) is far more deadly to a final grade average than a score of 55, even though the latter is a failing score. In other words, students should always take their best shot.

Students should see their course syllabus for a percentage breakdown of the composition of the final grade in the course.



John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu