How Grades Work

It is traditional, at the end of semester, for professors to post student grades, and for students to feel shocked or surprised at their grades and email demanding a higher final mark, or to ask how in the world they got the final mark they did. Usually, those emails reveal that students often seem to have a poor understanding of how grades work. This page hopefully will give you a better understanding of how grades and grading works, to avoid miscommunication and misunderstanding. It is in the form of a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document.

I’m not satisfied with my grade.

That’s probably—but not necessarily—a clear sign that I’m not satisfied with your performance in our class.

Why not?

There are many possible reasons:

  • Maybe you have unrealistic expectations of how grades work.
  • Maybe you didn’t do enough of your homework, or didn’t do your homework well enough.
  • Maybe you didn’t participate in class.
  • Maybe you have no talent in the subject, and performed poorly despite hard work.
  • Maybe you had other priorities, and simply didn’t devote enough time to mastering the skills or content covered in the course.

I can say that it’s not personal. I don’t judge you personally for your low grade.

Wait, what do you mean, “unrealistic expectations”?

Many students ask me to “give” them a higher grade. This makes me feel like students think I am this person:


But I am not Santa. I don’t give grades. Students earn them.


I said: I don’t give grades. Students earn them. That’s so important, let me repeat it:


But there are other kinds of unrealistic expectations. For example, a lot of students think this way:

  • A/A+: “good” grade
  • B/B+: so-so/bad grade
  • C/C+: terrible grade
  • D/D+: horrible grade
  • F: unthinkably awful grade

This is simply unrealistic. Worldwide, the understanding of grades is actually this:

  • A/A+: excellent
  • B/B+: above average/good
  • C/C+: average/mediocre
  • D/D+: poor grade
  • F: failing grade

The reason so many students in Korea believe that A/A+ is merely a “good” grade, and that B/B+ are unsatisfactory, is because grade inflation is so common in South Korean schools and universities. This is why those universities have been required to create relative grading standards and apply them.

(To be fair, grade inflation is also a problem in North American universities, and universities in other countries such as Japan, China, India, and so on.)

What about attendance? You didn’t mention attendance!

I almost never count attendance toward grades. Attendance is like showing up for work: you might get fired if you never go to the office, but just showing up isn’t doing your job, and definitely nobody will pay you just to go to an office and sit.

Similarly, I’m not going to give you grades just for showing up in a classroom and sitting. I almost always evaluate participation, not attendance. You can have perfect attendance and get zero in participation, if you never open your mouth in class, or, worse, if you refuse to cooperate with classmates, do the in-class exercises, and so on. I also explain this during the first week of every semester, very clearly, so you should know this is you’re in my class.

Some people do occasionally get F in my class because of attendance. But usually, this is an indirect effect: if you do not attend, you cannot participate, and usually if you do not attend, you fall behind on homework. Attendance affects other grades pretty directly, so there’s no need to grade attendance, even if the university requires me to take attendance.

Requires you?

Yes. Here’s how it works: the Ministry of Education asks for attendance sheets to make sure university classes are actually being taught. So the university needs my attendance sheets. So the university requires me to take attendance.

If I was not required to do so, I would not take attendance. I think it is a waste of valuable classtime. I want to build a machine where students can swipe their ID card, so that I can take attendance without wasting classtime, in fact, but I need to get better at computer programming before I can do that.

By the way, the same is true of grading. I think grading does not help students. I believe that universities like Alverno College, which uses an alternate grading system (without letter grades) is a more helpful, encouraging, and educational environment, because it helps students focus on learning instead of focusing on getting the right “grade.”

Grades were invented to sort people into classes, mostly to justify some people being rich, some people being managers, and most people being poor and ignorant. Grades are a weapon used against students. (See points 2, 3, 4, and 5 of John Taylor Gatto’s famous essay “The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher” for a clear explanation of that.) But of course, most universities are not run by educators. Administrators love grades because they can count and measure them. Administrators love things they can count and measure so much that when you tell them those things hurt students, and ruin education, they don’t listen. So I have no choice but to give you grades.

So I do. And I carefully design the grading system for my classes to be fair and to reward effort and time management skills more than the language ability you happened to have when you start the class. (Because it’s unrealistic to think you’ll improve your English at two hours a week for a few months, and because your English level mainly reflects your economic status during childhood…)

I don’t care about that stuff. I just want a higher grade.

Well, that’s a sign that you don’t care about your education, and that makes me sad. But a lot of people feel that way, so let’s move on.

Okay, okay. Tell me the relationship between letter and number grades.

I use a slight variation on the global norm when it comes to letter grades. The variation is because in a lot of countries, grades are more nuanced, with three grade ranks for each letter: A+, A, and A-. Usually, this is used in those countries:


Letter Grade

94 – 100


90 – 93


87 – 89


83 – 86


80 – 82


77 – 79


73 – 76


70 – 72


67 – 69


63 – 66


60 – 62


< 60


For some reason, in Korea there are no minus grades, so my variation on the global norm is as follows:


Letter Grade

96 – 100


90 – 95


85 – 89


80 – 84


75 – 79


70 – 74


65 – 69


60 – 64


< 60


You’ll notice this is more generous for you. A 65% would be a D in Canada, but is a D+ in this system.

But in small classes, the University doesn’t require Relative Evaluation! Absolute Evaluation is possible in small classes!

Er, you seem to be confused. Even if I’m not required to use relative evaluation, I’m also not required to become Santa Claus. I’m not required to give everyone an A+ just because the class is small, and I wonder where you got that idea. In any case, please read this.

Okay, okay, but look… I need a higher grade. 

Then you probably need to take the class again and work harder, get more of the homework done, improve your skills more, or attend and participate more.

But I need it. 

No, you don’t. You want it. You perhaps don’t understand the difference between want and need.

Need is when you require something or you cannot live. You need air. You need water. You need food. And believe me, if I saw you on the street, begging for food, I would buy you food. If you needed water, I would give you some of mine. If you needed air, I’d try help you breathe. Needs shouldn’t depend on your English ability, or whether you got your homework done. (Though, in the real world, they do: if you don’t do your job, nobody will give you money to fulfill your needs.)

So no, you don’t need a higher grade: you want it. But so does almost every other student in our class. Everyone wants a higher grade. Some people want it so they can get a scholarship; others are competing to transfer into another program, or another university. Still others are simply trying to graduate. Can I just give everyone an A+ just because they all want one? Does any system in the  world work that way?

Well, other professors sometimes do it…

Well, that’s called grade inflation, as I explained earlier. It’s a problem. It’s usually not a good sign, and certainly not a sign of a teacher who cares abou the students and their education.

Besides, as I said, I don’t give grades: you earn them.

Which is to say, if you really needed a higher grade, I would already know about it. You wouldn’t have to tell me: I would know because you would have acted like it during class. You would have spoken in class every time the class met. You would have completed every homework assignment to the best of your ability, on time. You would have dropped by my office regularly to clarify questions. You would have studied and practiced a lot to master the skills and information taught in class. You would have surprised yourself with how much you learned.

In most cases, if you needed a higher grade for some external purpose—to get a scholarship, to transfer to a different program or school, or graduate—you would have done the work necessary to get a higher grade… or at least would have demonstrated you were trying to do so.

But I was very busy… I had to work…

Wait, wait. I’ve heard every excuse, so first, let me tell you a story.

When I was a university student, in Canada, I had to work jobs to pay for my rent and food, and take loans to pay tuition when I didn’t get enough scholarship money. I studied very hard for scholarships, but the competition was very fierce, and I didn’t always get scholarships, though I often did. They usually were enough for tuition, but not for my living expenses, so I also had to work.

I worked retail jobs. I worked outdoors in the summer. I worked at a honey bee farm. (And I’m allergic to bees.) I worked at night at the audio-visual department of my university as an audio technician for live broadcasts of educational classes by satellite. I worked as a waiter at banquets. I worked as a recital assistant, moving heavy musical instruments and recording student music concerts. I worked odd jobs: cataloguing LPs in the university’s music collection, teaching music lessons, working at a pizza shop, making resumés for people. Sometimes, I worked two or three jobs in one semester. Sometimes I finished work, went home to sleep for five hours, and then went back to school. The most I ever worked in one week was three jobs, totalling about 40 hours of work a week. That didn’t last long. It was too much, and was hurting my health.

The longest I went without sleep was a week. I had a big assignment to finish, so I stopped sleeping to get it done. This was not healthy. But the assignment got done. Have I mentioned that my father was fighting cancer at the time? That I was dealing with health issues myself at the time? That I had to pack my apartment up and move during this time? That I was living on coffee and ramen noodles because I was poor?

So look, I believe you when you say you’re busy. I have been so busy I thought I would go crazy or fall on the ground at any time. I know how it feels, to be desperate in terms of time, and money, and having no energy, and needing sleep. Believe me, I can sympathize even if your situation is less serious than that.

But here’s the thing: instead of sleeping, I finished my homework. Instead of lying down, I drank coffee and sat in a chair and read until I fell asleep. Instead of enjoying my sleepy mornings, I work up early to get my work done. I didn’t have time to hang out with friends except at lunch sometimes. I didn’t go drinking—I didn’t have time for that either. (I didn’t drink a bottle of beer until I was 25. I was too busy.) When I had spare time, I went to the library and got books to read, so I would understand my major better. I had professors whose demands on me were literally crazy: who wanted me to spend twenty hours a week on their classwork. I did as much as I could without having a heart attack.

I did that because I took school seriously. I didn’t want to waste my years as a student. I didn’t want to waste the money being spent on my studies. I knew I needed a degree so I wouldn’t have to work those kinds of jobs later. So I made school a high priority.

And you know what? My case isn’t even the worst. In my first semester at one university in Korea, one of my students missed class for one week. When I asked her why, a week later, she said that her mother had died. She brought the paper to me, too: it was true. I told her if she missed class again, I would understand. She refused, and kept attending class. She said, “School was important to my mom, and it’s important to me.”

She was willing to make that sacrifice, because school was important to her.

One of my students was a single mom… and she was diagnosed with cancer during final exams. Another of my students ended up in hospital because of a car accident during midterms. I’ve had a student whose family lost its family apartment in the third week of semester and were sleeping in classrooms at night sometimes, just to stay warm. I had one student who was a foreign student, and she was assaulted by a male classmate during semester. I’ve even had students who were struggling with depression and suicidal feelings, and needed to get psychological help.

All of those students actually passed their classes, and most of them did surprisingly well in their classes. Each of those students did one simple thing: they told their professors what was going on as soon as they could, and asked for a little more time, or a make-up assignment. They made it clear that they had not missed the exam irresponsibility, but for reasons out of their control. They made it clear they were willing to sacrifice and earn their grades, instead of expecting them to be given as a gift.

I’m not asking you to compare yourself to the students who had cancer or a child to take care of, or were hit by a car, or homeless, or whatever. I’m asking you to compare your behavior to their behavior. Did you handle your situation responsibly? Did you communicate with your professors? Did you proactively show your professor that school is important to you, and do the work necessary to earn a higher grade? Did you push yourself to your limit in terms of getting your work done, learning as much as you could, and really making an effort in class?

Be honest. Come on, really.

Can you tell me about other students’ grades?

No, and it’s a very bad idea to try push this discussion in that direction. We will not talk about other students’ grades except in the abstract: in terms of class averages and generalities, I mean, and even that only if you insist on asking. Other students’ grades are none of your business, and I expect you to respect that boundary. Consider that a warning: I am quickly impatient with anyone who tries to cross that boundary.

I don’t understand why I have to listen to all of this. I just want a higher grade. It doesn’t hurt anyone. 

See, that’s the problem. Grades have distracted you to the point where you’re missing the point: if you want a higher grade, then it’s easy to do in most classes. The cause of your low grade is almost certainly your behaviour. Maybe you should review this post about how to do well in my class? It’s guideline of simple, obvious things that many students seem not to realize they should do.

Huh? It’s too late for that. Look, I just want a higher grade. I want you to reevaluate my grade.

Well, if you’re sure, and you’re very serious about it, I can do that. But it’s probably a very bad idea.

Remember: I spend a lot of time on grading. When I make a mistake, it’s usually me being too generous. If you ask me to reevaluate your grade, I’m willing to do so… and occasionally, I’ll find I was unfairly harsh on an assignment. (Rarely: it has happened about three times in 15 years of university teaching. I’ve also made grading mistakes occasionally… also about two or three times in fifteen years.) However, I almost always find the grade you received is in fact higher than you deserved on the basis of your work. Usually, I’m over-generous about participation marks, for example, and when asked to reevaluate fairly, I have to be honest about that… though I will do everything I can to talk you out of asking me to rethink your grade if that’s the case. If I tell you it’s a bad idea, then it’s a bad idea, okay?

So you’d better be 100% sure you want to take that risk. Maybe you should look at all your homework, any videos or recordings from class assignments, written feedback from me, and so on. Maybe you should make an appointment to meet with me and discuss your final grade, as well as how you can improve your skills or knowledge in the future.

No, wait! I think you, uh, made a mistake!

That happens sometimes! (It’s happened maybe three times in the last fifteen years, almost always a typing error or a calculation error.) Talk to me and we’ll fix it.

Okay, actually, I mean that I think you were just unfairly harsh on an assignment. 

You should bring a copy of the assignment and show me as soon as you see the grade. Not at the end of semester: ask me about it right away. Respectfully, and understanding that while I try very hard to be fair while grading student work, Professors are human and aren’t perfect. (I realize that is true, don’t worry.)

But you also need to be able to explain how you think I was unfair. Not, “Well, I need a higher grade!”—which is irrelevant to the question of whether I was fair—but, “I think this part of the assignment was graded in an unfairly harsh way. Here’s why…”

Obviously, you also need to have the copy of the assignment that I gave back to you with feedback. Which is why I told you to keep all your homework on file.


I think that’s all I have to say about that. I hope it’s helpful to you.