To the B Student Who Thinks He’s Not a B Student

A while back, a student wrote to ask why he didn’t get a better grade. As far as I was concerned, he’d done well in earning a grade of “B” (and I always give them the routine about how I don’t give grades, they earn grades, etc.), but he thought that if he completed all the work on time, he would naturally get an “A.” I decided to answer him immediately, which is not what I usually do, but I’ve always wondered whether what I wrote was appropriate. 

Most people I know simply don’t answer these letters and discover that the students get tired of asking after the new semester begins; others invite the students in to discuss the course and sometimes find themselves in uncomfortable — not to mention lengthy — defenses of their grading policies.

I’ve always told the students they could discuss their grades with me once we are three weeks into the new semester, which is basically my version of hoping they’ll forget. Usually they do.

But I answered this young man for two reasons: because he was, in fact, a good writer and because he seemed genuinely perplexed by the fact that even though he did all the work, he didn’t get the best grade possible. 

With very few changes, here’s the note I sent:

Since I have a policy of not explaining or discussing grades until the second week after the new semester begins, consider this quick email a rare case of rule-breaking on my part: I’m making an exception because I think you have promise as a writer. 

First things first: Yes, you did misinterpret the following:  

If every assignment was completed on time and in its entirety with well thought out responses then the result would be an A in the class.

That’s not a deal I make in any class or with any student. You should also understand that getting a B is, in fact, doing very well. You should give yourself credit. It is an excellent grade. The fact that you did well is an indication of precisely the promise I mentioned earlier.

Secondly,  of course you made the deadlines — which is what I expect from everyone — and you handed in the assignments — which is also what I expect. That level of work secures students a “C” because that’s what we call “meeting the minimum requirements” and in no case would that snag anybody an automatic A. 

Yes, you exceeded those expectations, and that is why you did well. Why didn’t you get an A? You didn’t perform in an exemplary way when commenting on the works of your colleagues each and every week (and you knew that would be part of the grade) and the revisions you did for the final portfolio were not extraordinarily thorough or strong. They were fine, but they were neither genuinely extensive nor substantial. They were good. They earned a B.

Finally, I want to close with this thought: I suspect that you can do even better. I suspect there are many reasons why your work isn’t as perfectly focused, well thought-out, well organized, or thoroughly revised as it could be, but I’m hopeful that you’ll keep writing. You have talent and an interesting perspective on the world. 

If there’s anything else you want to talk about, feel free to come by during my office hours after February 1st.  


Dear readers, I’m interested in hearing how you’d handle a similar situation.


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