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I took a graduate course (C.S) in a U.S university. We were not provided with any grading scale in the syllabus. I was assigned a letter grade but I have no idea how it was calculated. Below is an example of a grading scale from another course

If X is your overall course score, letter grades will be assigned 
using the below scale. Scores will not be rounded.
100 ≥ X ≥ 93 A 93 > X ≥ 90 A- 90 > X ≥ 87 B+ 87 > X ≥ 83 B 
83 > X ≥ 80 B- 80 > X ≥ 77 C+ 77 > X ≥ 73 C 73 > X ≥ 70 C- 
70 > X ≥ 67 D+ 67 > X ≥ 63 D 63 > X ≥ 60 D- 60 > X ≥ 0 E

Can I ask the professor how my letter grade was calculated? if so, would something along the lines of "Could you please provide us with the grading scale used for the course or post it on Canvas?" be acceptable and non-offensive?

  • What exactly do you mean by a “grading scale”? You may be asking for something that doesn’t exist. – Thomas Dec 30 '18 at 8:18
  • @Thomas I have clarified what I meant by grading scale. – Ram Dec 30 '18 at 8:40
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    Thanks, that clarifies it. Note that sometimes this scale is set at a university level and in other places the course instructor decides afterwards. So there will be a huge variation in the possible answers to this question. – Thomas Dec 30 '18 at 9:17
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    For what it's worth, that is a very common grading scale. Letter changes every 10 percentage points, the high and low 3 percent of that range indicates a plus or minus. – Alex Reinking Dec 30 '18 at 16:13
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    Of course you can ask, but ... please read the syllabus and other provided materials carefully first. I've put a detailed description of this scheme in my syllabus for every course I've ever taught and I've gotten the question from more than one student every single term. ::sigh:: – dmckee Dec 30 '18 at 19:44
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You can certainly ask the professor to justify how a grade was calculated and assigned. In most universities and most systems the professor is obliged by the rules to justify to students how a grade was obtained. Moreover, minimal decent teaching practice is that the manner in which grades are to be calculated and the conditions in which the evaluation is to occur are fixed in advance and known before evaluations occur and that the calculations are reproducible by the student evaluated (there are of course particular contexts, e.g. evaluating a student with discapacities or an exam that contains an error in a problem formulation or an interruption (e.g. power outage) in its administration, in which particular modifications might have to be made).

Assigning grades according to some scheme known only to the professor is considered something bordering malpractice in many countries. In Spain, where I work, a student always has a formal right to see how exams etc. were graded and to formally protest any perceived error in their grading.

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    Kudos to Spain. Regrettably, in some places like the U.S., scaling and setting grades post-hoc is far more standard practice. For example, in Krantz, How to Teach Mathematics by the AMS, he writes "TAs can be allowed to set the curve for grading (under supervision) and to perform the other ordinary functions of the instructor" (Sec. 2.15). Also the commonality of departments dictating certain grade distributions in advance (Sec. 2.10). – Daniel R. Collins Dec 30 '18 at 13:51
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    In almost all US universities, syllabi distributed at the beginning of the semester have to spell out a grading scale. That's a guarantee to the students. The "curving" mentioned in the previous answer can therefore only be used to the benefit of students, and I know of no case where it has made things worse for students. – Wolfgang Bangerth Dec 30 '18 at 17:20
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    @WolfgangBangerth The curve can certainly hurt the students: imagine a situation in which everyone does extremely well. An absolute grading scheme would give everyone As, but a curved grading scheme won't. Admittedly, this doesn't seem to happen very often, but I've definitely seen it happen (and personally I use a "best of curve or absolute" system for exactly this reason - the curve protects the students from me having unreasonable expectations, and the absolute protects the students from stupid consequences of everyone being awesome). – Noah Schweber Dec 30 '18 at 19:07
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    I think "curve" is used in two senses. Sometimes, "the curve" is a predetermined distribution over grades: the best k% get As, the next 2k% of students get Bs, and so on. This can hurt students, especially if the scores are tightly compressed. On the other hand, "curving" also is used for ad-hoc adjustments when an exam or assignment is harder than expected. You might remove exam questions that no one got right, or rescale a rubric. These virtually always only benefit the students. – Matt Dec 30 '18 at 23:59
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    Actually this is quite variable. In my undergraduate years there was never a fixed marking scheme because of class sizes, although the distribution of letter grades was usually public, Now my school requires detailed proportion of assignments, essays, exams etc to produce a final numerical grade. IMO the latter simply causes grade inflation. – ZeroTheHero Dec 31 '18 at 2:15
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In my opinion: If you have received your grade you can ask the Professor to provide some explanation. At least for us in Europe it is ok to ask. It just depends on the way you ask. Depending on the person he/she will always be offend when you ask. However, just asking for the individual points/grades and how your overall grade was calculated shouldn't be offensive. Why I think so: it should be in your own academic interest to know where you did something wrong and how you could improve.

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    +1 for "the way you ask". Try for curious/inquisitive rather than argumentative/confrontational. Frame this as help for the future, not a request for a higher grade. – Ethan Bolker Dec 30 '18 at 15:21
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Yes, of course you can ask. Do it pleasantly but I would even expect a response.

In addition to understanding the mechanics of the calculation (or if it was qualitative what went into it still), you should ask for advice on areas that were weak and how they can be improved and also advice on further studies depending on the class. You may get some very practical advice like "this is one topic you need to know for sure in next course" or "don't worry about it too much, since you are going into life sciences" or whatever. IOW, have a discussion about your academic process, not JUST the grade. But still...get an understanding of the grade!

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