Evaluating Student Work

Grading students' written work such as papers, essay questions on exams, and laboratory reports can be a time-consuming task that may seem to yield few rewards. Delineating your goals for the assignment and articulating the characteristics of a good piece of work can make the process less time-consuming, more efficient and consistent. Giving these guidelines to students can help students produce better quality work and prevent confusion or frustration about their grades after the fact.

The evaluation process can be expedited by taking two preliminary steps. First, think about the purpose of the assignment in the broader context of the class and your educational aims for your students for that assignment, and then use your ideas to construct a grading template or rubric. Examples of questions that might guide you include:

  • What are the learning goals for your students for this assignment?

  • What qualities of a written assignment would demonstrate that a student had met -- or even exceeded -- these learning goals? Be as specific as possible about factors such as clearly stating a hypothesis or thesis, organizing ideas clearly, showing creativity or imagination, synthesizing ideas from a number of sources, analyzing data, and so on.

  • Given the number of learning goals that you would ideally like students to achieve, which ones are of first importance? Of secondary value? Clarifying the relative value of each objective can help you allocate proportionate grade or point assignments for a grading rubric.

  • In light of the objectives that you've identified for your students, how would you briefly describe an "A" piece of work on this topic? A "B" paper? A "C" paper?Using this description as you comment on student work makes your expectations clearer for them, helps them improve future work, and makes the process more efficient for you.

By first organizing your thoughts about the assignment in general, you can then more easily design a set of grading criteria or a rubric. This template can help you grade consistently. The exact model of the template will depend upon your discipline and the type of assignment that you are grading, and can range from the simple to the elaborate. When possible, providing your students with your grading criteria prior to the assignment can clarify your goals for their learning for them and guide them in understanding the process of producing a quality piece of work. Although these goals may seem transparent to instructors who are experts in a field, interpretation of our expectations is often very challenging for students. You may also wish to provide exemplars of prior students' work that fit certain criteria. Providing this extra guidance will help more students achieve success in approaching their learning more as an expert and less as a novice.

One example of a simple list of grading criteria useful in evaluating essays or term papers comes from Barbara Gross Davis's Tools for Teaching (p. 223):

  • Focus: The problem chosen is focused enough to be covered adequately in the allotted text.

  • Organization: The paper's structure is clear and easy to follow.

  • Development: The paper introduces the topic sufficiently and presents pertinent information to convince the reader of the author's claim, summarizes findings, and reaches an appropriate conclusion.

  • Sentence structure: Sentences are well formed, suitably varied, and used for different effects.

  • Mechanics: The paper is generally free of spelling, typographical, and grammatical errors.

You can expand each aspect of these criteria to be as specific as you desire about the requirements of a particular assignment.

If you are grading laboratory reports the list above can be adapted to reflect the content and style required for each part of the report. For example:

  • Purpose: The hypothesis or goal of the experiment is clear with an emphasis on the scientific principle involved.

  • Introduction: The introduction includes sufficient background of the experimental rationale and explains the appropriateness of techniques.

  • Methods: The description of the procedure is clear and includes appropriate references so that others can reproduce the work.

  • Data: The format of the experimental data is easy-to-follow and appropriate, e.g., tables and graphs, with correct units and explanatory headings and legends.

  • Results and Conclusions: The results and conclusions drawn follow logically from the data collected with an appropriate and supported discussion of alternate explanations and error analysis.

  • Mechanics: The report is generally free of spelling, typographical, syntactical and grammatical errors, and follows conventional usage styles.

In providing written feedback on students' work, both over-commenting and under-commenting are counterproductive. Marking every error is not only time-consuming, but it also may not be that helpful for students, especially if you do not plan for them to revise the assignment for resubmission. They may find it difficult to distinguish between minor mistakes in grammar and major flaws in reasoning, and may be generally demoralized. On the other hand, students need a clear idea of areas requiring improvement. One tactic is to compose a paragraph about each student's work that addresses areas of strength and weakness based on the grading criteria. These remarks may be structured much as a professional reviewer's comments on a manuscript. By typing these comments in a word processing file, you can save them as part of your record of students' work and use them to follow their progress.

References and Resources:

Davis, B.G. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993

Walvood, B.E. and V.J. Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998