Grading Student Work

Grades reflect personal philosophy and human psychology as well as efforts to measure intellectual progress with standardized, objective criteria. Whatever your personal philosophy about grades, their importance to your students means you must make a constant effort to be fair and reasonable and to maintain grading standards you can defend if challenged. Grades cause a lot of distress for students and often seem to inhibit enthusiasm for learning for its own sake, but grades are a fact of life. They need not be counterproductive if students know what to expect.

Good Grading Practices

Plan your grading policy.

Make a plan for evaluating student work and stick to it. Establish evaluation procedures when the course is in the planning stages. If you are working with assistants or colleagues, meet with them and decide how many and what kinds of evaluation methods to use. Then decide how the students' work should be graded and what proportion of the final mark each assignment, quiz, etc., will comprise. This is also the time to set out a policy for missed or failed midterms and late assignments.

Explain your grading policy.

Once your plan is in place, take the earliest opportunity to make students aware of your policies. Make your syllabus the cornerstone. Divulge the true agenda and the kinds of evaluations that will be the basis for the grade. Give the definitions for each letter grade.

Also take time in class to tell students what you expect from them and how you plan to measure their progress in achieving the goals of the course. Explain these goals and how you feel the evaluations, grading procedures and policies will help to achieve these goals and allow you to fairly evaluate their progress. Good planning and clear explanations will prevent student confusion — and possibly anger — later.

Be clear about any consequences to grades that will result from absences, missed tests and quizzes, late assignments or violations of ethical conduct.

Keep students informed.

Keep students informed of their progress throughout the course. If a discrepancy exists between the grade a student thinks he or she has and the number in your grade book, resolve that discrepancy immediately.

Maintain accurate records.

Keep accurate records of your evaluation of each student's performance throughout the semester. Such records will make it easier for you to justify and/or reevaluate a student's final grade if necessary. Records are extremely important, of course, if you decide to base the final grade on some composite of the semester's work. (You should keep your records around for several years, since students may come back later to question a grade, finish an incomplete, or ask you to write a recommendation.)

Track grade distribution.

If you are evaluating a reasonable number of students (say, more than 20), it also is a good idea to make a graph of the distribution of grades on each quiz or assignment to tell at a glance how the students are doing. Doing so also will show the most frequent scores and where the middle of the scoring range is. Both statistics are informative for students concerned about how they are doing with respect to the rest of the class.

Distributions will make it easier for you to see how good your evaluation method was. Uneven or badly skewed distributions suggest a poor testing method. If you plot similar distributions for a number of assignments or quizzes, you will be able to see how consistent your marking has been and also if there is (hopefully) a trend toward improvement in the students' performances. Composite grades also can be plotted this way, making the assignment of a final letter grade an easier task. For example, if your distribution plot indicates that all the scores are bunched together, you may want to consider shifting or narrowing the range of your letter grade assignments. Attach copies of the distributions to exams for your future reference and for the use of future instructors in the course.

Be consistent.

Once a policy is set, apply it equally to all students. Subjective adjustments during or after a course are likely to prove dangerous. Validate grades with an alternative assessment of learning, such as a pre-post test or knowledge survey. Avoid testing on material other than what you teach or using grading methods other than those stated in your syllabus.

Grading Papers

There is nothing more arbitrary to a student than a paper returned with just a grade on it, accompanied by no comments or merely perfunctory ones. The feedback you provide to students should help them improve their writing as well as explain why you graded the work the way you did.

Use written comments to highlight strengths as well as weaknesses and offer specific suggestions for improvement. Follow a consistent procedure in reading and grading student writing.

Read through the paper quickly.

Read not as an editor or a judge, but as a normal reader of normal prose.

Write a summary comment.

Address the writer and his or her thesis as though both were real and counted for something, even beyond the boundaries of the course. Focus on two or three things the writer could do to most improve the work.

Make selective marginal comments.

Do not obliterate the text — use the margins, the back of the page, or an appended note. Write clearly; use prose rather than abbreviations. Try to say enough so the student has a reasonably good chance of doing better next time. Focus your comments on issues of accuracy and completeness of information, logic and appropriateness of style. Point the student in the direction of significant improvements in thinking and analysis. If you find you are saying similar things to several students, prepare a handout on whatever the students are stumbling over — how to write a review, for example, or how to develop an argument.

Make specific, concrete recommendations.

Writing "confusing" in the margin isn't helpful. The student probably knows it's confusing but doesn't know how to write it more clearly. Instead, write something like "unclear—it would help to define inertia first."

Mark only significant mechanical errors or grammatical problems.

Unless you're a writing instructor, resist the urge to edit the student's writing (but do point out instances when grammatical or mechanical errors interfere with your understanding of their ideas).

Find ways to treat all papers equally.

Scoring papers involves a great deal of subjective judgment. You're likely to be more careful and stringent with the first few papers you read, becoming more efficient and lax as you tire of grading. To avoid this pitfall, try the following:

  • Skim a few papers before you actually start grading to get an idea of the range of quality.
  • Segment your grading session into more manageable chunks of time. This strategy will help you avoid grading fatigue. Stop grading when you get too tired, bored, or frustrated.
  • When you return to grading, skim the last couple of papers you graded—and your comments on them—to help you remain fair.
  • Ask students to write papers twice. Students submit the first draft and you provide constructive criticism on both content and style. Students then revise the paper and you grade the second draft, assigning a grade based on a scoring rubric you have previously discussed with students.

Return assignments within a reasonable amount of time.

Before you hand papers back, it's a good idea to discuss the common problems you encountered. It is useful to distribute a sheet of general comments for the students' reference. Consider allowing students to rewrite papers. This may seem overwhelming, but in fact, very few students take you up on this, and it will help them clarify their thinking and improve their editing.

Grading Essay Exams

In an exam situation, students must perform under pressure for a predetermined length of time, without much opportunity to review and revise their work. Therefore the standards you impose on student writing under the circumstances of an essay exam must be different than those you impose on writing done over a course of several days or even weeks.

The scoring of essays can be unreliable; scores not only vary across different graders, they vary with the individual grader at different times. Graders can be influenced by a number of extraneous factors, such as handwriting, color of ink, and word spacing. To ensure that you achieve as much consistency in your grading as possible, and that you mark the first test by the same standards as the last, here are some suggestions for grading practices that will increase the overall reliability of your essay tests.

Prepare model answers to all questions in advance.

The model provides a key that clarifies the major points students should cover in their responses. Before starting to grade a batch of tests, skim over several essays to determine if the model answer needs to be modified. If, through some quirk in wording, students have misinterpreted your intent, or if your standards are unrealistically high or low, you can alter the key. The effects of an ambiguous lecture or other anomaly in teaching the material can also be a legitimate reason for altering the answer key. If you don't see any of these problems and you have carefully constructed the model answer, students should not be able to surprise you with better answers than yours. However, be open to legitimate interpretations different from your own.

Grade anonymously.

If you know the identity of the student, your overall impressions of that student's work will inevitably influence the scoring of the test. When grading essay questions, fold the blue books over so names are not visible (even better, ask students to use their student ID numbers rather than their names).

Grade each essay separately.

Reading answers to Question 1, then reading everyone's answers to Question 2 (then taking a break, if necessary) is preferable to grading a single student's entire test at once. Otherwise, a brilliant performance on the first question may overshadow weaker answers to other questions (or vice-versa). It's also easier for you to keep in mind your expectations for one answer at a time. Shuffling the papers after grading each question will help compensate for the tendency to give later papers lower scores as you grow tired.

Write comments on test papers as you grade them.

Comments do not have to be extensive to be effective. Point out specific elements of the answer that were missing or incorrect and the number of points lost as a result. For example, you may assess penalties for incorrect statements, omission of relevant material, inclusion of irrelevant material, or errors in logic that lead to unsound conclusions. Students have a right to know why they receive the grades they do, and need specific guidance to maintain or improve performance. Strive for a few analytical comments on the good and bad aspects of the essay rather than a detailed critique — writing too many comments tends to overwhelm students, and they may miss the main points of your critique.

Decide if you intend to grade grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation.

Decisions of this nature should not be arbitrary. What counts for one student should count for all students.

Distribute your model answers with the corrected essays.

While alleviating some of the burden of writing comments on exams, this practice has several other benefits as well. Students tend to learn a little more when they compare their answers with the model, and they develop a clearer picture of why they received the grade they did, thereby reducing the number of requests that you re-grade their papers.

Grading Problem Sets, Short Answer Questions, and Multiple Choice

These types of tests are easier to grade than essays, but difficulties can still arise. You may think you have written the perfect question with only one correct answer, but you must always be prepared for alternative answers. In the case of multiple choice questions, for example, if students are doing worse than chance on a particular question, it is likely that the question was poorly worded. In this case you must either give credit for more than one answer or toss the question out (by giving everyone credit).

Grading Group Work

Spend a lot of time explaining, both verbally and in writing, why you are doing group work, what are the academic (and other) goals and objectives of the group work, and why it is important for the students. Acknowledge and discuss with students some of the problems with group work. You may want to consider whether you will grade the group work at all; it may make sense for group work to be ungraded.

Here are some strategies for grading and assessing group work:

Use homework as a ticket of admission

Require students to work individually outside of class on the group assignment (e.g., complete a worksheet, write and/or answer discussion questions) and to bring their individual work to class. This serves as their "ticket in" to the group work. Students without their ticket are not allowed to participate in group work that day.

Assign (or have students select) group roles for each student.

Roles can vary, but may include convener, scribe, presenter, etc.). Rotate these roles periodically. This helps keep all students active in the group and encourages them to develop different skills.

Specify the grading criteria

Specify in writing the grading criteria you'll use, and discuss it with your students. Consider letting students have some input into these criteria before they are finalized. Student control increases the sense of ownership and responsibility the students will have for the group activities.

Require a Division of Labor report

Reports can cover a variety of topics, addressing how often they met, who was present, who did what parts of the group project or assignment, etc. This reminds the students who is and isn't doing their share and gives you information to use when grading.

Consider peer input when assigning grades

Determine what portion of the grade (say, 20 percent) is determined by peer ratings. Students can rate other group members on specific or global items. Students can rate other groups on presentations.

Adjust individual grades according to contributed effort

You can use the division of labor report, peer ratings, and completed homework "tickets" to determine the individual grade portion.

Using Grading Rubrics

Establishing and discussing specific characteristics of success when an assignment is first distributed benefits both students and instructors. Creating grading rubrics, or grids, is a typical way to do this. Having received the criteria with an assignment, students are able to write toward specific goals. Later, when they look at their grades, they can see at a glance the strengths and weaknesses of their work. Instructors are able to grade according to customized descriptive criteria that reflect the intention of a specific assignment and won't change according to the hour of night or the amount of effort a particular student is suspected of expending.

Rubrics can also save on grading time, as they allow instructors to detail comments on one or two elements and simply indicate ratings on others. Finally, grading rubrics are invaluable in courses that involve more than one instructor, as in team-taught or multi-sectioned courses, because they ensure that all instructors are measuring work by the same standards.

The process of creating a grading rubric takes a little time, but it is relatively simple. Follow along with this Sample Grading Rubric.

Step One: Identify criteria.

The first step involved in creating assignment-specific rubrics is revisiting an assignment's intended outcomes. These objectives can be considered, prioritized, and reworded to create a rubric's criteria. If, for example, you assign a literature review hoping students might become skilled at reducing complex texts down to pithy summaries, "concise summary" can be one of the grading criteria included in the rubric.

Take care to keep the list of criteria from becoming unwieldy; ten ranked items is usually the upper limit. In addition, to be usefully translated and used by students, criteria should be specific and descriptive. Criteria like "clear," "organized" and "interesting" don't mean much to students when they sit down to revise.

Step Two: Weigh criteria.

Once you have identified criteria, make decisions about their varying importance. Say, for example, you are a geography instructor who has assigned an essay to help students become skilled at creating concrete and accurate observation-based descriptions, practiced in analyzing their data and in devising a land-use proposal, and able to create correctly-formatted, error-free prose. When creating a grading rubric for that assignment, you will need to decide on the relative weight of each criterion. Is the error-free prose objective equal to the analysis objective?

Step Three: Describe levels of success.

When the criteria have been set, devise an assessment scale. Many instructors like to limit this section of the rubric to a three-point scale ("weak," "satisfactory," "strong"). Others may prefer to break this down into five or six levels, adding categories like "needs extensive revision" or "outstanding."

Step Four: Create and distribute the grid.

When you have named and ranked the specific criteria and levels of success, sort them into a table and distribute the table with the assignment.