Grading Student Work

Grading is one of the more difficult and complicated tasks faced by faculty. However difficult, grades are an important part of the teaching process because they are used as an evaluation of student work. Grading must accurately and fairly reflect the quality of student work and this can take time. If not managed correctly, grades will raise a number of concerns for students. There are ways to make grading easier. First, start by considering grading as a process. These activities will help establish a process for grading and minimize student complaints:

Establish a Grading Policy

Set up a grading policy to set student expectations

Develop Grading Criteria

Explain your standards and grading criteria for students

Make Grading More Efficient

Techniques for managing the grading process including group work and multi-section courses

Meaningful Feedback to Students

Decide which comments are the most useful in guiding each student’s learning

Minimize Student Concerns

Help students understand their grades


Establish a Grading Policy

Communicate your grading policies, standards, and criteria to graduate assistants, graders, and students in your course. Document your expectations about all facets of grading including how each assignment will be graded, timeliness, consistency, grade disputes, etc.

As stated in the Syllabus Template, include a list of all graded activities with percentages of the total grade. Communicate the Institute grading policies, including how numerical scores match to letter grades. Be sure to also address your specific grading related policies for your course. For example, you may want to include a policy related to how student behavior will affect grading (i.e., being late or missing class will result in a decrease in your course by one/half grade). You may also want to include a policy on late submissions (i.e., Late assignments will result in a reduced grade equating to three points off for every day late. Assignments will not be accepted after five days late without prior approval from the instructor).   

Develop Grading Criteria

When establishing a grading policy, you should include grading criteria. Consider the different kinds of coursework you’ll assign students.  This might include: quizzes, exams, lab reports, essays, class participation, projects, and presentations. Identify and communicate how coursework will be weighed.  Will exams be 40% of the grade? Will weekly quizzes be 10% of the grade?

Next, think about what elements are most important for each.  Is it clarity? Creativity? Rigor? Thoroughness? Precision? Demonstration of knowledge? Critical inquiry? Transform the characteristics you’ve identified into grading criteria for the work most significant to you, distinguishing excellent work (A-level) from very good (B-level), fair to good (C-level), poor (D-level), and unacceptable work. This may feel tedious but the work upfront will make grading more efficient and alleviate student concerns in the future.

Establishing criteria will:

  • Save time in the grading process
  • Make the grading process more consistent and fair
  • Communicate your expectations to students
  • Help you to decide what and how to teach
  • Help students understand how their work is graded

Make Grading More Efficient

Rubrics can be used to help faculty accurately, fairly, and efficiently grade student work. Rubrics can also help students. When used as part of a formative, student-centered approach to assessment, rubrics help students develop an understanding of the assignment requirements and identify the quality of work expected.

A rubric is a teaching tool used to:

  • Communicate expectations for assignments
  • Provide guidance for students
  • Provide feedback on works in progress
  • Grade final submissions

Beyond rubrics, there are other general techniques you can use to make grading more efficient:

  • Grade while you are in a good mood.
  • Sometimes it’s sufficient to grade student work on a simplified scale. Use the minimum number of gradations consistent with the learning objectives. Why grade on a six-point scale when pass/not pass would be sufficient (and significantly more efficient)?
  • Create assignments that have clear goals and criteria for assessment.  The better students understand what you’re asking them to do the more likely the assignments will be on-target and easier to grade.
  • Spend more time on guiding students in the process of doing work than on grading it.
  • Budget your grading time. How much time do you have between when you get the papers and when they must be returned? Break up assignments into smaller, manageable units. Consider planning for several grading sessions.
  • Keep your rubric in front of you and use the language of the grading standards in the comments. That helps students see how your assessment of their work is connected with what they were asked to do.
  • Use the words “see me” instead of writing lengthy explanations. It can be much more efficient to explain some issues face to face.
  • If the assignment has sections, grade each part separately. This will help you grade consistently as well as efficiently.
  • Make notes to yourself as you grade. This will help with consistency and make it easier to find student work if you change your mind.
  • Use abbreviations or symbols for common feedback and provide a key to the class.
  • Use spreadsheets (e.g. Excel) or a grade book in the learning management system to keep track of student grades. These tools can automate most or all of the calculations you might need to perform to compute student grades. They can also reveal informative patterns in student grades.

Suggestions for marking up student writing efficiently:

  • Read a random sampling of submissions first. Instead of diving right into the pile, get a broad sense of what kind of work the class is doing. Consider taking an hour to skim through all or most of the submissions before doing any grading. Getting an overview of consistent errors, consistent good points, and the quality range on the assignment will cut down on the time spent on each paper later.
  • Spend a reasonable amount of time on each student submission. You will be tempted to spend too much time on submissions that have problems. Use a timer and allow a specified period of time per paper. This will allow you to address all assignments including giving good papers good comments.
  • Make your feedback precise and concrete. Avoid filling the margins with comments. Students can absorb a limited amount of feedback. A couple of good remarks per page are enough to be helpful without being overwhelming. Things that recur—good and bad—can be included in your closing comment.
  • Don’t copyedit. Mark the first few instances of a particular type of editing error, but when errors recur, make a general note in the margin or mention them in the closing comment.
  • Papers that have not been proofread are not worth your time to read. Return them and help students understand how important it is to produce work appropriate for the audience—and that includes presenting good, clean, easily read text.

    In addition to these techniques, there are some situations that need additional considerations: Group Work and Multi-Section Courses.

    Group Work

    When assessing group work:

    • If both product and the group process are important, include both in students’ grades
    • Have students self-assess their contributions to the team
    • Assess individual contributions and understanding as well as group products and processes.
    • Have team members evaluate each other

    Given the concerns students may have regarding the value of group work, aim for a focus on quality rather than quantity when assessing group work. All of the basic principles of assessment that apply to individual students’ work apply to group work however there are additional aspects to consider. Depending on the objectives of the assignment, both process- and product-related skills could be assessed. Also, just like you would assess an individual student’s performance, you should also assess group performance. Consider these grading methods for group work.

    Multi-Section Courses

    Some unique grading problems are associated with multiple- sectioned courses taught by different instructors. It can help to have a common course outline or syllabus, common text, and a set of common classroom exams.  To promote fairness and equality, the following conditions might be established as part of course planning and monitored throughout the semester by a lead instructor:

    • Have a graduate assistant grade assignments for students not in their section or lab to curb favoritism.
    • Each section of an exam can be graded by only one faculty member to ensure consistency across all exams and course sections.
    • Faculty can grade together. In addition to being more fun, graduate assistants are a resource for grading questions. Also, if you are grading a large class, it can streamline the grading consistency checks. To ensure consistency, exchange a few papers in each score range with each other, and grade them independently. Compare the scores and take corrective action if necessary.
    • The number and type of grading components (e.g., papers, quizzes, exams) should be similar for each section.
    • All grading components should be identical or nearly equivalent in terms of content measured and level of difficulty.
    • All faculty should agree on the grading standards to be used (e.g., cutoff scores for grading quizzes, papers, or projects; weights to be used with each component in formulating a semester total score; and the level of difficulty of test questions to be used).
    • Evaluation procedures should be consistent across sections (e.g., method of assigning scores to essays, papers, lab write-ups, and presentations).

    Provide Meaningful Feedback to Students

    Finding a balance between efficiency and meaningful feedback is imperative. Be sure you devote sufficient time to provide meaningful feedback to improve students’ learning.  

    • Use comments to teach rather than to justify your grade
    • Link your comments and feedback to the goals the assignment
    • Ask questions that will guide further inquiry by students rather than provide answers for them
    • Provide both positive comments and constructive criticism
    • Be respectful yet, precise and concrete. Abstract terms are difficult for students to apply to their writing.
    • Provide a final comment explaining the grade. A student should be able to read the final comment and get an idea of what the grade is, even without seeing the letter grade.
    • Avoid one-word comments such as “good,” “unclear,” or "awkward" without further concrete explanation.
    • Ask questions to point out something that’s missing or to suggest improvements.
    • Identify strengths and weaknesses, and explain them. This helps students know their progress, and helps them build their skills.
    • Avoid sarcasm or attempts at jokes in student feedback.
    • Keep a record of common problems and interesting ideas, and discuss them in class.

    Minimize Student Concerns

    The strategies described above: establishing a grading policy, developing grading criteria, using grading rubrics, and following tips for efficient grading will help minimize student concerns. In addition you might consider the following to further minimize student concerns about grading:

    • Avoid modifying your policies, including those on late work, once you’ve communicated them to students.
    • Communicate your grading criteria to students at the beginning of the term and remind them of the relevant criteria when assigning and returning work.
    • Discuss the role of grades with respect to the goals of the course
    • Consider providing anonymous sample assignments for each grade range (Always ask the writer’s permission before you do this, and discuss each paper in a section in which its author is not present.)
    • Design assignments that allow students to incorporate peer and/or instructor feedback before final submission

    Further Reading

    Walvoord, B. & V. Anderson (1998). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

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