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Center for Teaching Excellence

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Before You Begin Grading

Why is Grading a Challenge?

Grading is a major concern for many new teachers and a lot of more experienced ones as well. Our perceptions of grading practices are influenced largely by our own experiences with grades. We all have our own ideas of how grades should be assigned, and what they should tell us about the student's performance. Given all that grades do and represent, they are a source of anxiety for students and often seem to inhibit enthusiasm for learning for its own sake.  Thoughtfully reflecting on the aspects of grading below will not eliminate the stress of grading for instructors, but it will decrease that stress and make the process of grading seem less arbitrary — to instructors and students alike.  

Grading Student Work. Office of Graduate Studies, Teaching at UNL, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Determine Your Grading Philosophy

Grading systems reflect an instructor’s experiences, pedagogy, personal philosophy and value system in measuring intellectual progress using standardized, objective criteria. Whatever our personal philosophy about grades, their importance to our students means that we must make a constant effort to be fair and reasonable and to maintain grading standards we can defend if challenged. Thus, a thoughtful examination of one’s own personal philosophy concerning factors that will influence an instructor’s assessment of students will be very useful.

What Do Your Grades Represent?
In the grading process, an instructor must quantify what and how much students learned according to some metric.  Have you thought about how you quantify this learning? What should be considered in a “grade”? How much of your grades are truly based on academic growth, and how much are based on compliance? These and the following are important questions to consider when developing your grading philosophy and policies:

  • What meaning should each “grade” carry?
  • What are the criteria you use to assess?
  • How should class grades be distributed? (using an absolute (criterion-referenced) standard, a relative (norm-referenced) standard, subjective determinations, or some other method of grading?) What are your reasons for choosing the method used?
  • Should borderline cases be reviewed?
  • What are your values concerning student attendance, class participation, and completion of assignments? Will you use grades as motivators (pop quizzes)?
  • Should performance be included in a grade? What do you consider outstanding performance? How should an average student perform?
  • Will content be weighted more heavily than creativity or style?
  • How will you handle late or missing assignments?
  • What are your reasons for allowing or not allowing students opportunities to earn extra credit?

These and other aspects of grading and assessment directly affect the instructor’s evaluation of students’ performance and are a part of an instructor’s grading philosophy. 

Four Types of Grading Philosophies

Grades are indicators of relative knowledge and skill -- a student’s performance is compared and ranked relative to the performance of other students in that course. The standard to be used is the mean or average score of the class on an assignment, and the grade distribution is set by determining the percentage of A’s, B’s, C’s, and D’s that will be awarded relative to that average.  

Benefits

  • Allows for screening students according to their performance relative to their peers.
  • Useful for competitive circumstances where students need feedback as to how they compare to their peers.

Drawbacks

  • Normal curve distribution of learning not necessarily a reasonable assumption.
  • Curve grade based on a single class is arbitrary (and thus meaningless) unless tied to program needs and goals, such as the number of students that can be accepted into higher levels of the program, or a norm established over multiple years.
  • Based on relative standing of students, not absolute standards of class learning.
  • Does not provide feedback as to actual content mastered by student.
  • Discourages collaboration and cooperation.
  • Maximizes grading errors at category cut points.

How to Use:

  • Establish minimum achievement standards linked to content mastery and then calculate number of As, Bs, etc. based on curve tied to student's performance relative to their peers.
  • Base curve on multi-year or multi-course distribution curve rather than on single class.
  • Establish department standard curve.
  • Weight tasks according to their importance in demonstrating course objectives.

Grades are based on preset expectations or criteria. Grades are usually expressed as the percentage of success or performance achieved (e.g., 90% and above is an A, 80-90% is a B, etc.). In theory, every student in the course could get an A if each met the preset expectations.

Benefits

  • Grade can be directly correlated to student's achievement of learning objectives.
  • Reduces competition among students.
  • Easy to calculate and for students to understand.
  • Consistency gives illusion of fairness.

Drawbacks

  • Can allow all students to receive the same grade and thus not provide information needed to screen students in competitive circumstances.
  • Scale and objectives can miss actual abilities and possible achievements of students by being too high or too low.
  • Because learning expectations may be mismatched to learning outcomes, encourages ad hoc grade adjustments of “fixed” scales, thus contributing to meaningless grades.

How to Use

  • When learning objectives and actual learning outcomes are mismatched, adjust learning objectives and re-calculate rather than adjusting final grades.
  • Adjust learning objectives over time as knowledge of students’ abilities becomes more familiar.
  • Weight tasks according to their importance in demonstrating course objectives.
  • Tie point systems explicitly with a domain of tasks, behaviors, or knowledge upon which the assessment will be based.

Students come into the course with an A; students lose this through poor performance or absence, late papers, etc. The instructor takes away points, rather than adding them.

Grades are subjective assessments by the instructor of how a student is performing according to their potential. Students who plan to major in a subject should be graded harder than a student just taking a course out of general interest. The standard set depends upon student composition and other variables.

In general, UofSC recommends implementation of Absolute / Criterion Grading, while recognizing that such decisions remain with the instructors and their departments. Regardless, whatever grading system employed should to be defensible in terms of alignment with the course objectives, the teaching materials and methods, and departmental policies.

Steps in Developing Your Grading Policies

Planning and Communication

Plan Your Grading Policy
The purpose and the appropriate type of grading system should be clear to you and to your students. 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.

Communicate Your Grading Policy
Once your plan is in place, take the earliest opportunity to make students aware of your policies. Setting expectations early in the semester helps avoid misunderstandings and challenges later on; a policy on grading articulated up front accomplishes this. Such a policy would include whether late work is accepted and how it is handled, extensions, make-up work, and regrade requests. Be clear about any consequences to grades that will result from absences, missed tests and quizzes, late assignments or violations of ethical conduct.

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 and grading procedures 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.

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.

Consider Assignment Design

When you are designing assignments, you should take several questions under advisement that will help to address aspects of your grading philosophy and strategies in advance.

  1. What do you want the students to learn? This question involves the fit of the assignment activities with the goals and objectives of the course. How does the assignment contribute to the course goals and objectives?
  2. What skills do you want students to employ: to solve, to argue, to create, to analyze, to explain, to demonstrate, to apply, etc.?
  3. How well focused is the assignment from the students’ perspective? Does the assignment give the students a clearly defined, unambiguous task? Are the instructions clear and concise? Is the rationale (how it relates to course learning objectives) clear?
  4. Are practical matters clearly addressed? For instance: How long is the assignment going to be? What should the assignment format be? When will the assignment be due? How will this assignment count toward the students’ final course grade?
  5. Can this assignment be realistically completed given the knowledge, abilities, and time constraints of the students?
  6. Is it possible for you to grade this assignment effectively, given your workload and other commitments?
  7. How much time will you need to grade the assignment? When will you return it to students?
Develop Grading Criteria

Many instructors like to give their students a statement of their grading philosophy, together with a sample set of criteria for each grade range.  Having clear criteria not only saves you time when grading, but it also helps to make the grading process more consistent. In addition, it enables you to explain very clearly to students the kind of work you expect from them and helps students understand why you have given their assignment a certain grade and how their work might be improved. It also enables you to clearly diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses, and thereby to focus on improving the appropriate areas more effectively.

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.

Identify and Weight Criteria
Consider the different kinds of work you’ll ask students to do for your course.  For the work that’s most significant to you and/or will carry the most weight, identify what’s most important to you.  Is it clarity? Creativity? Rigor? Thoroughness? Precision? Demonstration of knowledge? Critical inquiry?  Transform these characteristics into grading criteria, distinguishing excellent work (A-level) from very good (B-level), fair to good (C-level), poor (D-level), and unacceptable work. The process of creating a grading rubric takes a little time, but it is relatively simple if you follow these steps. 

Identify Criteria
Developing criteria may seem like a lot of work, but having clear criteria can:

  1. Save time in the grading process;
  2. Make that process more consistent and fair;
  3. Communicate your expectations to students;
  4. Help you to decide what and how to teach;
  5. Help students understand how their work is graded

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. 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.

Weight Criteria
Once you have identified criteria, make decisions about their varying importance. You will need to decide on the relative weight of each criterion. 

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."

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.

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