Three students came to my office hours and told me that they are straight As but for some reason are failing my class. I have 14 students who got A- and A. 11 are in 80s range, 9 got 70-77, and 9 in 50-60% range (three of those didn't turn in assignments). Is this a normal grade distribution or are some failing because I am doing something wrong? I was told that the problem could be my mid-term exam (it wasn't well-designed!!!) or that I am a difficult grader.

I was also told that this grade distribution (lots of Fs!) are common for new teachers. In other words, new teachers have lots of As and lots of Fs. Honestly, I don't understand the logic behind that. How is that possible? Or why?

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    Your question is unclear to me. 1. You mixed percentage grade with letter grade. 2. Did those who didn't turn in assignments get F's?. Exactly who is got F's? Those below 50%?
    – Nobody
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 8:31
  • They grade distribution itself does not seem unreasonable, but such thing might be hard to judge without knowing the content and grading method you have used. Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 8:34
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    If you are concerned about having too many A grades and too many F grades there is a really easy cure . Keep your standard test templates but add a few really hard questions and a few really easy questions .This will make an A as hard to get as an E .I know from experience that an A is just as hard to get as an E .
    – Autistic
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 9:44
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    My first concern would be this: are the students really straight A students in other comparable classes, or did they just say that to emphasize their complaints?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 12:19
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    Grade distribution is pretty unimportant compared to well-thought out standards for the course. Anecdote: Last spring I had two sections of the same class with identical schedule, lectures, etc. At the end one section had a 28% passing rate, and the other 60%. We must be humble that what the students bring to the table make much more difference than anything the instructor ever does. Commented Feb 19, 2016 at 5:43

3 Answers 3


tl;dr: seems like perfectly acceptable distribution. Students will try anything to get a better grade, don't mind them too much.

To begin with, with N=43, especially if this is your first time teaching the class, you don't have a lot to go on. As you teach it a few more times, you'll get a feel for your overall grade distribution.

I personally average somewhere around 20-25% A, 40-50% B, 20-25% C, and 5-15% D/F/W across all my classes. But I've had some individual sections that were virtually all As and Bs, and I've had one where the D/F/W was a clear majority (!). No one in the administration complained or questioned my grading/instructional skills in that last one because they were due to extreme absences and not handing in heavily-weighted assignments, and also because I had taught it before with more "normal" (= commonly occurring, not statistically normal) distributions.

As to new teachers having lots of As and Fs, if it fits an inverted bell curve, it's a sign that your class is probably a bit too easy, the As are people that get it, and the F are those that don't, but without more difficult questions, you have no way of discriminating any other levels. But frankly, your distribution seems fine and unremarkable to me.

As the user autistic notes in the comments to your question, if you're concerned about too many As/Fs and not enough B/C/Ds, you may need to have questions or assignments that include both more difficult (to pull more Bs out of the As) and easier (to pull more C/Ds out of the Fs).

Your ultimate recourse (and resource) is if the course is something that has been taught before at your university by someone who is still there, ask them to look over how you're grading. If it seems fine to them, then you just got a class that happens to have that grade distribution. If not, then you may want to make some minor adjustments based on their recommendation.

What I wouldn't do is judge your grading with their other instructors. Besides the fact that they could just be very lazy students in your class alone, each department within a university will have its own culture of expectations, workloads, and grade assigning. Those students may have As, but in a department that doesn't demand much. You may also have students that are surprised at getting an A, if they come from one that is far more demanding.

  • Thanks a lot for taking the time and responding! I really appreciate it!
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 5:37

Ask your students why they think they are failing to understand the material.

Is the course too hard? Are they unaccustomed to your lecturing style (and should you try to change it)? Are some of the students missing important pre-requisite knowledge that you are assuming the whole class has? Are the assignments very tangential to the lecture material?

We can only guess as to the reasons. Ask the students.

  • Thank you so much for responses! The class is an introductory level course. I have 4 short essay assignments, a mid-term, and a final exam. The mid-term wasn't easy! I had some difficult questions and some easy ones. I have also been grading for other professors for years and never had complaints! So I am really confused! I asked them if they understand my lectures and they said yes! So I am confused!
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 15:39
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    Bear in mind that grading for another teacher is a different experience than giving the lecture and grading assignments for your own class. (You were in the lecture and know you mentioned thought processes XYZ, and they only mentioned X in their exam.) It doesn't seem the grade distribution is entirely unreasonable. If you are a difficult grader emphasize the level of detail you expect in every example and in an introductory course be sure to explain concepts in more than one way if possible. Pause often in class to assess understanding. Remember, it may just be lack of effort on their part.
    – Ramrod
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 17:13
  • Thanks a lot! You are so right because when I was grading I could tell if someone understood the material or not because I knew exactly what I explained (or spent time on) in class!
    – Kar Masia
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 18:42

It would raise some concern that 9 out of 43 students received F's A more typical number, historically speaking, would be 5%-10%. An example would be: Georgia State University in 1920; however, the question is why did they get F's

If you have a batch of students who did not turn in the work or demonstrate that they learned the material then the grades seem justified.

Try to look at other instructors tests that you can compare to yours and have peers look at your tests.

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    The typical percentage of failing depends on the place and subject. Where I did my undergrad, 40% F was rather common, and 70% not unheard of.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 13:48

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