Changing the Ground Rules: Mid-Course Adjustments and Grading

This Q&A was adapted with permission from the book Chalk Talk: E-advice from Jonas Chalk, Legendary College Teacher, edited by Donna M. Qualters and Miriam Rosalyn Diamond –


Dear Jonas,

My course syllabus stated that we would have two “midterm” exams this term, each counting as 20% towards the course grade, with homework and projects counting as another 20%, and the final exam counting as the remaining 40%. This term, I gave the first midterm a little later than I had intended, and I’ve gotten slightly behind the syllabus in presenting the material. Now I see that this term is a week shorter than the Fall term; I don’t see how I can fit in the second midterm exam. I told the class these things, and that I wanted to cancel the second midterm. I told them that I would count everything else proportionately greater. This seemed to elicit a strong reaction from many students, and several of them told me after class that they thought that changing the grading policy at this point was unfair.

Is it really so bad to change the way in which I calculate the students’ grades? Shouldn’t I be allowed to change my grading policy to adapt to the course’s progress

Signed: Midterm Blues Man


Dear Midterm Blues Man,

While instructors get behind in their syllabi for a variety of reasons, I’m afraid that I think the students’ objections are justified. It is important for instructors to check the academic calendar before preparing their testing and grading schemes. The testing/grading policy listed on the syllabus and given to your students on the first day of class is a contract between you and your students. While that contract may not be a type that is legally binding (I’m not an attorney, but my daughter plays one on TV), it is certainly morally binding, and students base a number of decisions and expectations on the stated grading policy. The establishment of a trusting relationship between you and your students is also injured.

Effective time management is an important stepping stone to success in a student’s academic life. Our students are constantly making decisions about how much work to put into each of their courses on any given day. Right or wrong, when studying for that first midterm exam, or when working on homework and projects, a number of your students may have decided to devote more time to some other course knowing they still had the second midterm exam to fall back on. It is impossible for students to make appropriate time management decisions if their instructors change the ground rules as the term progresses.

To put things in perspective, imagine how you yourself would feel, or would have felt, if halfway through your tenure-track period, your department or the University told you that the way in which they would evaluate your past and future accomplishments had been changed. Not only would you be uncertain where you stood at the moment, but also you would worry that perhaps the procedure would change yet again in the future.

Some faculty members believe that changing the grading policy is okay, as long as it is a change that clearly cannot result in lower student grades. An example of this would be to announce at the end of the term that you will give each student the better of two grades: the grade earned only on the final exam or the grade calculated according to the originally stated policy. While instructors sometimes implement this sort of change, you should still be careful – you don’t want to be unfair to those students who worked hard to do well according to the original scheme.

I understand that it will be difficult for you to fit in that second midterm exam, but it will be more difficult for your students to deal with a shifting grading policy. You need to find the time to give that second exam, at least in some form. Perhaps you could consider giving a take-home test, or maybe shortening the midterm exam to half of a class period.

Good luck,


Quick Tip

One way to “change” your grading policy to help students who are doing poorly is by giving optional quizzes or tests, which some students may take and others may skip unpenalized. This is a good device, for it leaves your grading policy unchanged for those who opt out of taking the test, while still not being unfair by simply boosting the grades of the others.

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