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I noticed that some teachers announce the grade breakdown in the first class or in the syllabus, while some don't. What's the best practice? If giving the grade breakdown at the beginning is preferable, is it better to use an absolute or relative breakdown?

Example of grade breakdown announced in the syllabus (absolute breakdown):

Letter grades are determined at the end of the semester. The default cutoffs are: a final average of 90 and above is an A, 80 and above is a B, 70 and above is a C. These boundaries may be adjusted downwards if necessary because of the difficulty of the assignments or quizzes, but the boundaries will never be adjusted upwards, so a final average of 90 is guaranteed to be an A. The boundary adjustment is done heuristically, and there are no grade quotas, no grade targets, and no centering of the class on a particular grade boundary.

Example of grade breakdown announced during the first class (relative breakdown):

The first half get A, the second half get B (except in case of failure to try to do the homework or show up at the exams).

I am especially interested in computer science education in the US.

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    The only reason not to announce it, I think, is if you intend to grade on a curve -- which I consider a lazy alternative to actually getting the tests and homework calibrated to the proper level of complexity. – keshlam Nov 15 '14 at 21:09
  • My undergrad university had a fixed grade scale for all courses. It was up to the lecturers to make sure the difficulty of the work got a good distribution of marks, very occasionally scaling upwards if the course was difficult. I think it's important for the students to get a good idea of what sort of marks they need to get in the remaining items of assessment in order to get the grade they want. – Moriarty Nov 16 '14 at 13:07
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I think it depends on the situation (assuming there is no official department or university policy on the matter).

For example, I am a young (math) teacher teaching a single course that has 25 students in it, at a college that I have never taught at before. I figured it was unlikely that I would be able to write exams that effectively separated the A's from the (A-)'s (say) based on some numerical scale that I set ahead of time. So I chose to not put a grade breakdown on the syllabus.

After each exam, I look at the performance of the students, and I give them an individual grade update containing what I call "a good estimate" of their letter grade thus far in the course. This prevents them from just remaining in the dark all term long with regards to their grade.

I have taught sections of courses at bigger schools where the grade scale is set ahead of time and is the same for all 800 or so students enrolled in the course. This makes sense, as the content of the courses is the same year after year, the exams are similar every year, and in general everything involving the course is somehow standardized.

I would say that, in general, it's fine to not announce a grade scale ahead of time if you don't have to. Just be prepared to have something to say about grades, because students will likely want to know. Sometimes I give myself some wiggle room on the syllabus by saying "your grade will not be lower than the following...", so they know that a 90 (or whatever) will guarantee them an A, but they might also earn an A with a score of less than a 90.

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There will surely be a strong correlation if the decision to be ambiguous on Day 1 about what precise performance will result in an A (sort of an "I'll know it when I see it" nod) is compared to the number of student grade appeals at the finale.

I have taught in arguably the most quantitative of departments at a number of schools, and the policies have always revolved around a fixed basket of accrued points to be earned. Want an A? Then get an A level of points on the assignments throughout this semester.

Few students protest their grade when they come up short. Fewer still try for a formal appeal. None have come close to winning it.

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