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Grading Issues Related to Conduct

You have the right to:

  • establish rules for your classroom in order to ensure a constructive learning environment.
  • judge a student's expertise in your academic discipline. You may grade a student on any of the learning goals you set for and communicate to that student.

You do NOT have the right to:

  • grade a student based on his or her behavior alone.

Grading on Mastery of Content vs. Conduct

The difference between behavior and academic fitness can get quite fuzzy. Part of the learning goals of clinical medicine is the ability to interact effectively with patients and other medical colleagues. Thus, a medical student might be graded on his/her ability to be personable and could be graded down in this area if they were considered rude or difficult to interact with. A student in entry level science courses is responsible for mastering academic skills and content and no matter how rude or difficult this person is, he/she should not be graded down because of it. On the other hand, a student in a course where one of the learning goals is the ability to work and create knowledge in collaboration with other students, might be graded on his/her ability to collaborate.

Grading a student on behavior Grading a student on course learning goals
Grading a student on attendance in a large lecture course (attendance is not part of the learning goals for such a course) Grading a student on attendance in a clinical or lab course where their ability to contribute to a group is part of the learning goal
Grading a student down for handing in papers late in order to punish him or her for lazy or disorganized behavior Grading a student down on a paper handed in late in a course designed to teach study skills for college


Because students are assured of the right to due process, if you choose to include student behavior as a criterion for course grading it is important to have clear distinctions between grading on mastery of academic content and grading on conduct. It is equally important to develop strategies for clarifying expectations for students and for letting students know what opportunities are available if they wish to discuss grading issues with you.

Grading on mastery of content. Because the instructor is universally recognized a the authority on course content, barring the "arbitrary" or "capricious" assigning of grades, instructors are granted the right to evaluate a student's mastery of content or skills in the academic discipline.

You may evaluate students on any learning goals established for a course and fail students who do not need minimal academic standards you have established. As part of due process, however, you are encouraged to develop clear criteria for evaluation, identify those criteria for students, let students know the level of mastery expected for each criterion, and provide opportunities for students to discuss directly with you concerns about the grades you have assigned. In this way, grading cannot be perceived as "capricious" or "arbitrary".

Grading on conduct. Inappropriate classroom behavior should be confronted apart from the instructor's grading practices and processed through the University's regular conduct system (see Student Conduct Code). In cases where misconduct is at issue, courts expect university personnel to follow due process procedures.

Glass grades should be assigned on mastery of course content unless it can be clearly shown that a direct link exists between the misbehavior and a specific course goal. Under any circumstances, the student's due process rights must be respected. Once again, for cases of misconduct, instructors are encouraged to use the University's formal administrative channels. Unless a student's misbehavior is linked to course goals, an instructor should not use conduct as a grading criterion.

Example: A situation in which no relationship exists between the misbehavior and class goals

  • A student who is responsible for and can demonstrate mastery of course content in an entry-level course but is rude and inconsiderate toward the instructor. (The instructor should request that the student change the behavior, and depending on the student's response and the seriousness of the misconduct, use the University's normal channels to charge the student with violation of the Student Conduct Code. An appropriate penalty would then be determined through that process.)

Example: A situation in which a possible relationship exists between the misbehavior and class goals

  • A student appears to demonstrate disorganization and/or lack of motivation by being consistently late to class. (The instructor may request that the student change the behavior because it is distracting to others, or lower the student's grade for any learning that is lost because of the tardiness, i.e., a missed quiz at the beginning of class, inability to participate in an initial group discussion that is essential to the learning in the class, etc.).

Example: Situations in which a clear relationship exists between the behavior and class goals

  • A student's inability to communicate effectively in a clinical course in which a major goal is to develop the ability to interact effectively with patients and colleagues. (Mastery of certain communication skills is part of the competency required in the course. As a result, the behavioral competency is stated in the course goals. Attendance in such clinical or laboratory learning environments may, indeed, relate to mastery of the subject.)
  • A student's inability to collaborate in a course in which a learning goal is to create knowledge in collaboration with other students. (Ability to collaborate is clearly stated as a skill required in the course, so the student has been given notice; and the instructor can assess student's mastery of collaborative skills.)

Grading on Attendance or Late Submissions

Although, on the surface, lowering grades because of absences or late papers may appear to violate students' rights, instructors may use such conduct in determining grades when students are given notice that such behaviors are criteria for evaluating student performance. To avoid pitfalls, instructors who choose to lower grades for poor attendance or late submissions should provide students with information regarding how and why these behaviors negatively affect course mastery.

Including attendance as a criterion for grading

  • Be sure that the students understand that you are not merely grading on attendance but rather whether their learning is affected by absences (it is usually helpful to clarify this both orally and in the syllabus).
  • Link attendance to specific course goals (i.e., learning to work in groups, generating insights through class discussion, developing skills under the instructor's supervision because immediate feedback is an important part of the process, etc.).
  • Consider making attendance part of a participation grade (i.e., suggest than in important part of the learning in a course comes from interaction among students and the instructor and that students are not experiencing the development of ideas in a course if they are not present for the interactions).
  • Let students know what their options are if they wish to discuss grading procedures with you.

Taking off points for late papers

  • Be explicit that you are not grading on students' laziness or lack of ability to organize their time.
  • Tell students both orally and in the syllabus that assignment due dates serve to determine how well students can master the content in a specified amount of time and that anyone needing extra time (excepting students with disabilities who may need special accommodations) will be docked points as an indication that they did not show an acceptable level of mastery in the time allotted.
  • Let students know that, for the sake of equity and fairness, all students will have the same amount of time to demonstrate their mastery of assignments.
  • Inform students that it is essential that they reach acceptable levels of mastery by a certain time so that you can move on to new material or skills.
  • Let students know what their options are if they wish to discuss grading procedures with you.