David L. Hildebrand, Ph.D., Philosophy

FAQs-Frequently asked questions

Student FAQ's -- Some Frequently Asked Questions

What are grades for, anyway?

Is grading just subjective?

What do the grades A-B-C-D stand for?

I don't understand my exam grade. How can I learn from my exam's mistakes? How can I best make a case for a change in my grade?

What do the marks on my exam mean? Is there a key?

How much should I study for class? How should I study for exams?

How can I estimate my "participation" grade in the class?

I need a grade of ?? in this class for because of (GPA, law school, graduate school, to stay off of academic probation, a summer internship, etc.). Can that be taken into account?

Why is attendance mandatory?(Note: Does not apply to all classes)

Often, I have done the reading but I'm reluctant to talk in class; what can I do about this?

At times I disagree with something the professor or another student has said. How can I raise an objection without attacking them personally?

Where can I find some advice on writing philosophy papers?


Exams and Grading

What are grades for, anyway?

Grades are the currency of the academic system; they reward and punish performance, and are used by many (graduate schools, businesses, etc.) as indicators of achievement. Because grades are abstract, quantitative measurements, they don't say much about a student's unique personality and character strengths; nor do they reveal much about what specifically a student knows.

It may be argued that grades are actually detrimental to real learning because they direct the student's attention toward the grade rather than toward the material. Students and teachers alike can forget that grades are just a means to an end, whereas learning is often an end in itself, a path to self-discovery. When knowledge comes to be seen merely as "the steps one must take to get the grade one desires," then true education is dead.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the grading system will be going away anytime soon; in the meantime, we're stuck with it. The best advice I can offer students is to put the grade out of their mind and strive to learn as much as possible about philosophy. My experience has shown that this leads to the greatest correlation between effort and outcome.

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Is grading just subjective?

In most cases, questions on exams and papers are drawn from the texts and lectures for the class. When I grade an exam or paper, I check to see how well a student has understood the material we've covered. Though I am not infallible, I have had extensive training in the reading and writing of philosophy. This gives me the perspective to make judgments about how well a student essay or exam is making its point, and to make suggestions for improvement. (In the past, I have compared my grading standards with those of other teachers; there is a remarkable level of agreement as to what should get an A, B, etc.)

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What do the grades A-B-C-D stand for?

Here is a very general guide to what I consider grades to represent:

A--mechanics (spelling, grammar, organization) nearly flawless, good understanding of concepts and creative interrelation of key ideas; one or two surprisingly good points, not necessarily spelled out. No factual errors; interpretative blunders must be minor. Textual support (quotation, e.g.) is used judiciously to support or elaborate on a key point in the paper. Quotations are set up by the paper then explained or explored so they connect with the thrust of the paper's argument. Citations to support follow standard forms (Chicago, MLA, etc.).
B-- good mechanics, working grasp of concepts; few factual errors; creativity may be minimal. Textual support (quotation, e.g.) is not used judiciously (see above); instead, quotations are thrown in without adequate set up or exploration; while they may relate to the paper's argument, their connection is loose or ambiguous. Citations may or may not be present and/or follow standard forms.
C-- fair mechanics, good and bad understanding of concepts, factual and interpretative errors present but are not enough to make the whole grossly off-course; the basic question gets answered by the assignment. Textual support (quotation, e.g.) is barely used or used without care. Quotes may be over-long or too short; most important, their connection to the paper's argument is a mystery. Citations may or may not be present and/or follow standard forms.
D-- lousy mechanics, little understanding of concepts, little or no interrelation of ideas; barely answers question--or doesn't, but at least gets something straight. There is likely no textual support.
F-- assignment incomplete or work fails every criterion; does not answer the question.

Here is a model of what an "A" in participation means:

A -- Missed little of no classes, regularly raised questions showing more than casual acquaintance with assigned readings, able to answer basic questions about material, brought up interesting examples or implications in class discussion, when responding to peers attempts to understand their point before agreeing or disagreeing with them. In sum: showed informed and active thinking about material in readings and in class; serious effort to articulate thoughts and think on their feet. Sincere effort to speak in front of other classmates and professor.

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I don't understand my exam grade. How can I learn from my exam's mistakes? How can I best make a case for a change in my grade?

Understanding why you made a B, C, etc. requires first that you understand the specific mistakes you made; unless you get more perspective on the material, you will not be able to see why you earned the grade you did or argue for a change in your grade. Here's what I suggest:

1. For each exam or paper question, reread the question, then reread your answer and the comments made on your answer.

2. For each comment, try to figure out why your answer was mistaken or unclear. Look back at the texts and your lecture notes; doing this may take time. Many of the comments should become clearer. Make short notes about what you find. Make a note next to any comments that are still puzzling you.

3. Discuss the comments you don't understand with the teacher; this can be done in office hours or over email, depending on the complexity of the questions.

Once you have done 1-3, you will have a much better sense as to why your answer was lacking. If you do not do 1-3, you have very little ground on which to base a grade complaint. Sheer unhappiness does not make for a very strong case.

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What do the marks on my exam mean? Is there a key?

There is. Click here for a list of Commonly Used Grading Abbreviations (COMING SOON)

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How much should I study for class? How should I study for exams?

Study Time: Imagine you were a musician asking how much to practice. The answer to the question, How much should I practice? Is another question: How good do you want to play? So, as a rough estimate, I suggest: at least two times the amount of time in class. (If the class is 2.5 hours a week, you should study about 5 hours a week—including all activities: reading and re-reading, outlining, note review, etc. See study tips for details.) Some may object, "But I work." I do sympathize. Many of us have responsibilities that compete with this class. Consider the question from this angle: Would you tell your boss at work that your responsibilities there should be reduced because you go to school? You are in school for a brief while, it is important not to try to take too many classes. Just because you have the time (and money) to meet the scheduled class hours doesn't mean you have time to take a class. Estimate the amount of time it will take to do a good job and register for that much class. All this advice presumes that you want to do well (as measured by getting good grades). Exams:I strongly recommend looking at the handout entitled "Studying for and from exams." It's available on my website and as a handout. Follow this link to get it: Studying for and from exams. (COMING SOON)

 

About the relation of lectures and what is tested on exams:

The main purpose of my class remarks are to bring out the larger themes running through the material; these themes are important for learning what philosophy is, and they also will connect the various readings together. That connection of themes makes this a "course" and not just a bunch of lectures. So, a WARNING: my class remarks CANNOT REPLACE your own close reading of the text. I simply don't have time to just tell you every detail the reading says; it is up to you to read carefully before class and nail down as much of the reading's details as possible. Then, in class, we can try to string them into a larger whole. WHAT THIS MEANS for EXAMS: Exams will test not only your knowledge of larger themes brought out in class, but also your understanding of smaller (but important) details of the readings. In part, you can know which details are "important" by doing the reading in advance and seeing how these pieces fall together in class. You can also ask questions. From time to time, I will make up practice quizzes which can help you identify whether or not you are reading carefully enough to do well on the exams in this smaller detail regard. Ability to answer study questions will typically show you are learning the larger themes—at least some of them.

How can I estimate my "participation" grade in the class?

Generally, participation means the ability to raise informed questions and comments (in class, office hours, email) about the issues or authors we are covering in the course. It also means taking an active role in group projects.

There are various ways you can keep track of your participation level; one, is to discuss it with the teacher over email or in office hours. The earlier you do this, the easier it will be to make changes. A second way is to keep a short checklist in the back of your notebook. Write the date of each class in one column; then, for each day you make a comment or ask a question, make a mark. This will give you some perspective on how often you are challenging yourself to speak in class.

Here is a model of what an "A" in participation means:

A -- Missed little of no classes, regularly raised questions showing more than casual acquaintance with assigned readings, able to answer basic questions about material, brought up interesting examples or implications in class discussion, when responding to peers attempts to understand their point before agreeing or disagreeing with them. In sum: showed informed and active thinking about material in readings and in class; serious effort to articulate thoughts and think on their feet. Sincere effort to speak in front of other classmates and professor.

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I need a grade of ___ in this class for because of _____ (GPA, law school, graduate school, to stay off of academic probation, a summer internship, etc.). Can that be taken into account?

Unfortunately not. Grades are almost always important to students and there's usually a substantial reason why. Since everyone enrolls in a class with the same syllabus, grading fairly requires that everyone be subject to the same conditions.

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Class attendance and participation

Why is attendance mandatory?

Some see philosophy classes this way

PROFESSOR ---delivers--> information about philosophy ---absorbed by---> STUDENT

I.e., A one-way information flow; if that's what you're interested in, I can recommend some books and some websites; my classes require more. In other words, philosophy is written and verbal. it is a participatory, active form of intellectual training. What this means is that like any other active training--sports, theater, music, etc.--you have to show up and make a serious effort to participate in discussions. That's also why the attendance policy is quite serious.

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Often, I have done the reading but I'm reluctant to talk in class; what can I do about this?

This is a problem for many people; in fact, public speaking is a greater fear for most people than death! In philosophy, it's important to overcome this fear. One thing that can be done is to write down a question or comment you thought about during the reading and bring it up in class; having discussions with other students (or the teacher) outside of class is another way to increase your confidence about speaking up.

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At times I disagree with something the professor or another student has said. How can I raise an objection without attacking them personally?

It's important to be able to criticize someone's argument without attacking them personally; there are a number of ways to do this. Consider, for example, these verbal substitutions:

"Your claim seems to be that" rather than "You believe that."

"I disagree with the claim that." rather than "I disagree with you."

"You may have made a mistake" rather than "You're wrong"

Additionally, one can criticize someone's position by emphasizing both the areas that are shared in common as well as the points of difference. Too often, criticism only contains those points where there is abject disagreement. Usually, there is much common ground that can be usefully explored as well.

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Papers

Where can I find some advice on writing philosophy papers?

There are several good books on this topic; ask me for recommendations. For some quick tips on writing philosophical essays, Click Here (COMING SOON)

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Last updated Oct 07, 2010 11:50:AM