A picture of a Macbook in a classroom. From Nick Byrd's blog post about grading.

On Grading (Or “How To Get An A”)

I’m a tough grader. But am I unreasonably tough? No. At least that’s the view I’ll arrive at in this post. 🙂 I’ll compare my grading to (a small and biased sample of) others’ grading, mention a few of my own grading experiences, summarize my grading philosophy, and present the basics of how my students can get an A.

1. Groundwork

First, my grade distributions often form bell curves centered in the low B range — sometimes the C range. So unless students’ work is exceptional, students tend to get a B or C. (NB: This is not a justification; it is a description.)

Second, I take myself to have been a pretty serious student. (Flashback: in high school, I used my free periods to write papers …not assigned papers. Just papers that I wanted to write.) With a few exceptions in my entire life, I have paid attention in class, done all the homework, and tried to actually learn the material. Nonetheless, I have definitely earned a few Bs and even Cs.

Yeah. Earned. 

I emphasize this because I want to point out that showing up, paying attention, and working hard doesn’t necessary produce high quality work. We can do all of these things and still not learn much and/or perform well.

2. Am I More Harsh Than My Colleagues?

Imagine a bunch of roughly (equally) qualified people grade the same paper. Do you think that they’ll give it the same grade?

I’ve actually participated in this kind of experiment. Roughly 35 philosophy PhD students read the same paper (silently), filled out a grading rubric, gave it a grade, and then discussed the process as a group.

Trust me, we disagreed quite a bit about the paper! But somehow, our grades didn’t differ drastically. When they differed, they usually differed by only a half letter grade. (And, interestingly, everyone I heard from agreed that the grade depended on the kind of class in which the paper was written.)

More to the point, my grade usually wasn’t lower than my peers’. (I don’t remember exactly how often my grade was higher/lower than my colleagues or by how much.)

Answer: I’m not obviously more harsh than my peers.

3. Am I more harsh than my own college professors?

I recently went back and graded my own papers from my undergraduate days. It was eye-opening.

As an undergraduate, I got As on most of my papers — and I am not mentioning this to boast (as you are about to find out). As I graded each paper, I was surprised by my former professors’ grading. I assigned grades that were sometimes one or two letter grades lower than my professors’ grade. So while my professors thought most of my papers were in the A range, I thought many of them were in the B and occasionally the C range. As I see it, only five of my papers were A quality; three were A- quality (n = 28).

How is it that a few seemingly B- and C-level papers received an A?

Honestly, I am not sure. There are probably a few explanations. Perhaps some professors were just going easy on me. Perhaps some professors weren’t able to read every paper carefully. Or perhaps some professors really thought, upon a careful reading, that these seeming B- and C-level papers deserved an A.

Personally, I am just not convinced that so many of my papers were actually A-worthy. If that kind of work actually merited an A, then…well, the bar simply wasn’t high enough!

Answer: Yes. I am (at least sometimes) more harsh than (a few of) my college professors.

4. Time-out: How did a sometimes C-level student get into grad school?

Good question! The truth is that I didn’t get into a PhD program the first time I tried. Or the second time.

The first time I applied to PhD programs, I completed more than a dozen applications. I got in to zero. So instead of going to graduate school, I got a job and spent most of my free time reading philosophy and writing. After about two years of that I applied to a dozen more PhD programs. Again, I got in to zero PhD programs. But one school offered admission to their MA program. After completing the MA, I applied to more than two dozen  PhD programs. I got in to two programs: one in philosophy and one in psychology.

Answer: a sometimes C-level student got to grad school only after multiple attempts, many applications, and — no doubt — an enormous amount of luck.

5. Why do I grade the way I do?

The fate of society depends (to some extent) on (among other things) my students’ judgments and decisions. Consider one way that students’ judgments and decisions impact society: voting.

There are only a handful of conditions for being a responsible voter. For instance, voters need to be able to

  • find credible sources.
  • understand arguments.
  • communicate their understanding of arguments.
  • evaluate arguments (i.e., identify its merits and demerits).

Since these basic competencies are necessary for responsible voting, and since voting is one of the ways students impact society, I hope that my students’ obtain these competencies. And I grade accordingly. Insofar as students work represents a deviation from these basic competencies, they’re grade deviates from the A-range.

6. How to Get An A

There is a non-zero chance that you are one of my students. If you are, then you might be asking yourself, “So how do I get an A?” Here’s your answer:

In general, you must not merely demonstrate that you tried. In addition to trying, you must actually be correct (where applicable). For example, you need to use terms correctly, correctly recite arguments’ premises, understand the ways that arguments work (and don’t work), etc.

But that will only get you an A on the straightforward parts of your grade like attendance, participation, and quiz questions.

More complicated assignments — e.g., papers — require much more. After all, A-level papers don’t just show that you’ve tried. And they don’t just get the details right. They do both of those while also being cogent, clear, and concise.


As for my grading, it’s comparable to a room-full of my peers. That’s at least some reason to think that my grading isn’t significantly harsher than others — even if my grading is sometimes harsher than a few or my own college professors.

Also, there’s far more to good work than showing up and trying. That’s as true at the undergraduate level as it is at the graduate level. And it’s true in non-educational settings as well.


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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog