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Grading Philosophy

I have been asked to comment on my grading strategy for the ethics class. Al and I do things a bit differently, and there is definitely not a right or wrong way to do things, but this is my approach.

Coursework categories

I have three types of coursework in my course, each worth a certain percentage of the grade. For each category I will explain my grading philosophy below.

  • Exams, 25%. (1-hour midterm 9%, 2-hour final 16%)
  • Papers and presentations, 40%. (7.5% for each of 4 papers, 10% for the presentation)
  • Class participation and informal assignments, 35%.

I use exams to focus on the two lowest levels of Bloom's taxonomy, Knowledge and Comprehension. (See Wikipedia:Bloom's Taxonomy for more info.) On exams I ask only about definitions, key ideas, theories, and methods that are presented in the textbook or other readings. The reasoning behind this is twofold. First, in our outcomes-based assessment model, we need to be able to demonstrate knowledge and comprehension of ethics-related topics. As this is hard to tease out of longer writing assignments, the exams are a good place to do it. The second is that I do not want "test panic" to cause a student that has prepared conscientiously to do poorly on the exam. This is also why exams have less weight than the papers and presentation.

Papers and presentations

I use papers and presentations to evaluation the upper parts of Bloom's Taxonomy; application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. I also use papers and presentations to try to move students up from the lower to higher levels of Perry's scheme. In particular, I think it is important for students to formulate their own novel position, and argue for it. As you will see from looking at the paper assignments on this site, I feel that persuasive, thesis-driven writing is the most appropriate type for this class, and that the most important feature of a good paper is an interesting thesis. A well-written paper on a boring thesis will never receive more than a C- in my class, while an interesting paper with a flawed presentation may get an A- or B+.


Just as my paper assignments are persuasive writing, my final presentation assignment is also meant to be persuasive and thesis-driven. I use the Pecha Kucha presentation style. Students must produce a 20-slide talk, where the slides use timer functionality so that they auto-advance every 20 seconds. The result is a talk that is 6 minutes 40 seconds long. Students are encourage to write their script in advance, and practice many times before presenting. Slides should have little or no text, but use imagery to support the student's speech. The goal is to, again, present a talk that is persuasive and entertaining, as well as informative. I find that students that focus on "informative" first end up producing talks that are not at all successful.

Participation and informal assignments

The most controversial element of my course, at least among my colleagues, is the huge weight I place on "participation." It is important to understand that this is more than just attendance in class. If I give a quiz, the student's quiz score adds participation points. Free-writing assignments, which are used to motivate students to read and prepare for class, give participation points. Any substantive contribution during class discussion, or in-class activities, gives participation points. I assign participation grades based on a traditional bell curve, though I reserve the right to raise or lower the mean depending on my assessment of the overall participation rate of the class as a whole.

The average student gets about 6 participation points per class period (though some earn substantially more or less). Most students earn 2 points per class period for their informal assignments, which are usually free-writing or reflection questions that respond to the assigned reading for the day. I grade informal writing as follows:

  • 3 participation points for a particularly deep or insightful response
  • 2 points if the answer proves that the student read and understood the reading
  • 1 point if the student did something useful
  • 0 points if the student obviously did not prepare for class
Grading informal assignments should not be allowed to take up your grading time, which should be focused on the paper assignments. Grading free-writing is mostly spot checking, and I can usually get the grading done, and recorded in my gradebook, in less than 30 seconds per student.

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