Evaluating Student Work

As instructors, we need to assign grades to our students–but perhaps more importantly, we need to give them meaningful evaluation on their work and guidance on how to improve it. Grading according to a set of standards or a rubric allows you to evaluate and give feedback on your students’ work according to your discipline’s or profession’s criteria. Asking them to reflect on their own or their peers’ work teaches them how to engage in this evaluation as well. 

Below we offer recommendations for grading as thoughtful evaluation, rather than mere ranking, to use Peter Elbow’s useful distinction. In light of trenchant critiques of grades–that they are imprecise and unclear forms of communication, curtail curiosity and risk-taking, or incite cheating (for instance, see Susan Blum’s Introduction to Ungrading)–we also introduce some alternative approaches that minimize grades and invite more student participation in evaluation.

Establishing Grading Standards

Establishing Grading Standards

Think about the purpose of the assignment, and then use your ideas to construct grading standards or a 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, showing creativity or imagination, synthesizing ideas from a number of sources, 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? 
  • In light of the objectives that you've identified for your students, how would you briefly describe an "A" (etc.) piece of work on this topic? 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, which can help you grade consistently and fairly. Your rubric will depend upon your discipline and the type of assignment that you are grading, and can range from the simple to the elaborate.

Giving Students Feedback

Giving Students Feedback

How can we encourage students to recognize the value of feedback during the semester and use it for later assignments?

  • Give early–and frequent–feedback during the semester, and be as specific as possible, pointing out how aspects of the work fulfill, or fall short of, your standards.
  • Consider the relationship between giving feedback and assigning a grade. Do you see your comments as “explaining the grade,” or vice versa? Do all of your assignments need to be graded?
  • Sequence the giving of feedback (first) and the assignment of a grade (second). This is perhaps the most radical of our suggestions, but, as many studies have shown, the separation of grades from the written feedback can help students focus on the guidance instructors provide. As Ruth Butler found in a 1987 study comparing the effects of grades and comments on motivation, the students who were given comments versus grades were more focused on the tasks and “expressed most interest and scored highest on divergent thinking at posttest” but “subsequent performance decreased and was unrelated to comment content when comments were given in conjunction with grades” (481).
  • Give feedback on the work, not on the student. For instance, write, “this argument needs the support of evidence about…” or “how does this explanation fit with what the text says about…” Treating the student’s effort as serious disciplinary work and less as just an assignment can help the student focus more on the work and less on the grade.

Talking with Students about Grades

  • Ask students to wait some period of time after you have returned grades before scheduling a meeting with you. This delay may encourage the student to be less reactive about the grade.
  • Listen attentively and patiently to the student’s concern, and try not to interpret anger, frustration, or emotion as a personal attack on you. Avoid the desire to defend yourself or placate the student.
  • Help the student determine ways to advance on the next assignment and to see their work in your class as part of a process toward disciplinary competence, not as progress to a grade.

New Approaches to Grading

New Approaches to Grading

Instructors who use alternative grading practices rely on written or verbal feedback and encourage student self-awareness and metacognition during the semester, and then use some form of reflective assessment, frequently involving the student, to determine the final course grade. While these approaches may seem more conducive to small seminars than lecture classes, many can be adapted to larger courses with careful structuring and planning: for instance, peer review activities, specifications and contract grading (more on these methods below) can all be done in large classes by setting up clear expectations for students at the start of the semester; in addition, the focus on students’ own self-assessment emphasizes student effort and analysis.

Below, we introduce three specific approaches to alternative assessment, and then some more general recommendations (many of which you could implement in modest ways, even if you choose to grade traditionally):

  • Specifications Grading: In a course with specifications grading, students earn grades based on the learning objectives they meet. Instructors divide learning outcomes into different “assignment bundles” (differentiated by quantity and difficulty) leading to each grade; students must meet an “acceptable” level of learning, according to defined specifications, to get credit for that assignment. Specs grading ties student grades firmly to the material they have learned and gives them autonomy; instructors typically offer substantive feedback and allow students to redo assignments. 
  • Contract Grading: Under a system of contract grading, students and the instructor enter into a contract in which the student, or class as a whole, articulates their goals for the course in consultation with the professor. Students and instructor meet regarding those goals during the semester, at the end of which the student assesses their own achievement of them in consultation with the instructor. As Christina Katopodis and Cathy N. Davidson write, “Asking students to determine success for themselves, and to carefully review and agree to a contract as members of a community, affords them an opportunity to practice self-determination—one of the most important qualities a self-reliant adult needs in any career path or community” (106).
  • Portfolio-Based Grading: With this approach, the instructor invites students to produce a portfolio of work, including their own metacognitive self-reflections on their work. Stommel highly recommends making this portfolio more broadly useful to the students, for instance by having them create a website they can share with future colleagues, employers, or graduate schools. 

Broader Recommendations that may help students focus their attention on learning, rather than (simply or exclusively) grades:

  • Encourage self-reflection by requiring students to turn in a written reflection with each assignment. Blum asks students, for instance: “What were they trying to get out of the assignment? What did they learn? What was successful? What was less successful? Why? What might they do differently? What would they like help with?” Stommel asks students to write self-reflections three times during the semester, starting with very specific prompts that become more open-ended later in the term. 
  • Allow students some flexibility of choice in completing assignments (e.g., of topic or medium of expression, depending on your goals). This can help students take ownership of the learning process. 
  • Ask students to create an individual plan for learning and meet with them at the end of the semester to discuss how it went. See, for instance, the Individual Development Plan at the UW–Madison. This involves thinking about learning in the context of the entire semester rather than in any one summative assignment.
  • Use written comments, which allow for nuance, precision, and focus on growth. Because studies have shown that students often neglect careful attention to comments when they also receive a grade, you might offer more extensive comments on ungraded drafts, if you wish to grade the final version of the assignment. 
  • Create a library of comments that you can draw from and reuse for common issues you see in student work to streamline the process of giving feedback in larger classes. (You can do so in Canvas with the “Save Comments” function.) Christopher Riesbeck describes compiling a large library of “critiques” from a sentence to a paragraph in length for his lecture course on Artificial Intelligence Programming (127-128).
  • Ask students for their own sense of what their grade should be. While Stommel, for instance, acknowledges that he wishes he didn’t need to assign a final grade, “I have found that asking students to give themselves a grade also makes the why and how of grades a valuable subject of the conversations we have—valuable because they will go on to be graded in other courses and thinking critically about how and why grading happens helps that become more productive for them.”
  • Let students help shape the course’s learning outcomes. Blum suggests using “emergent outcomes, outcomes that are co-created by teachers and students and revised on the fly” and “[s]etting trajectories rather than mapping in advance the possible shapes for learning” (Ungrading 30).
  • Create systems of peer review in your classroom, so that an otherwise individualized experience becomes communal or social, as Davidson and Katopodis suggest. They propose combining contract grading and peer review, and using the peer review process to confirm that the contract created by the student has been fulfilled. They add the skill of giving and receiving feedback as one learning goal in the course, arguing, “It is the single most valuable life skill you can take away from this course” (110).
  • Consider how your approach to grading serves your learning goals.You might intentionally compare your learning goals to the rubrics or expectations you have for student work to make sure your assessments do evaluate whether your learning goals have been met. 
  • Communicate your grading practice clearly and transparently in the syllabus and throughout the course to students. If relevant, describe why you are minimizing grades in your classroom, which can help bring students on board. Stommel suggests that “whether we're grading or not grading, we think critically (and talk openly with students) about our approach, assumptions, tacit expectations, actual expectations, etc.” as a part of good teaching, communication that can become a space of deeper dialogue about learning than would be possible through the “transactional system” of grading.
  • Note that using an alternative approach to grading may require you to rethink how you use the Canvas gradebook. Reach out to the Canvas team for support.

Grading Policies

Grading Policies

The Honor Committee has developed an informational cover sheet that faculty members can use with in-class examinations. The purpose is to have an easy and reliable way for a faculty member to make plain to students what written materials, if any, can be used during an examination, and to give students clear information about such details as the length of the examination and where they can find the course head or preceptor while the examination is in progress. Faculty members who choose to use the cover sheet should print out the form, complete it as appropriate for the examination in question, and have copies made on colored paper in the department or program office when the examination is printed.

Grading and Returning Student Work

Course syllabi should clearly articulate a framework for grading student work that aligns with the rubrics established by the department, including clear and transparent descriptions of the course attendance policies and assignment deadlines. When returning graded work, all faculty should take explicit care to protect students’ confidentiality. Graded problem sets, exams, or other written work should never be returned in a public setting that would permit one student’s grades to be disclosed to others without their consent. Whenever possible, graded work should be returned to students directly by a professor or preceptor, or via the department’s office staff who may personally return graded work to students on an individual basis. Alternatively, graded work may be returned to students in sealed, private envelopes that do not permit students to view other classmates’ grades when searching for their own work, even accidentally or unintentionally. The Office of the General Counsel offers additional resource materials that explain how students’ educational records are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA).


References and Additional Resources

References and Additional Resources

For the University policy regarding grading, see Grading at Princeton.

Blum, Susan ed. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press, 2020. 

—. “Ungrading.” Inside Higher Ed, 13 Nov. 2017. Accessed 13 April 2023.

Butler, Ruth. “Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance.” The Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 79, no. 4, 1987, pp.474-482. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.79.4.474

—. “Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: the effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance.” The British Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 58, no. 1, 1988, pp.1-14. DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.1988.tb00874.x

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

Elbow, Peter. “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English, vol. 55, no. 2, 1994, pp.187-206. 

Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity: What it Is, Why it Matters, and How it Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin, 2019.

Katopodis, Christina and Cathy N. Davidson. “Contract Grading and Peer Review.” Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan Blum, West Virginia University Press, 2020, pp. 105-122. 

Kohn, Alfie. “The Case Against Grades.” Alfie Kohn website and blog, Nov. 2011. Accessed 13 April 2023.

Larson, Michelle. “Alternative Grading for College Courses.” Center for Transformative Teaching, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 20 Jan. 2023.

Nilson, Linda B. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus, 2014.

Riesbeck, Christopher. “Critique-Driven Learning and Assessment.” Ungrading, edited by Susan Blum, West Virginia University Press, 2020, pp. 123–139. 

Stommel, Jesse. “Ungrading: A Bibliography.” Jesse Stommel blog, 3 March 2020.  Accessed 12 April 2023.

—. “How to Ungrade.” Jesse Stommel blog, 11 March 2018. Accessed 12 April 2023.

Streifer, Adriana and Michael Palmer. “Alternative Grading: Practices to Support Both Equity and Learning | Center for Teaching Excellence.” Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Virginia, 4 Dec. 2020. Accessed 13 April 2023.

Ungrading, with Susan Blum.” Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast, 25 Feb. 2021. Accessed 13 April 2023.

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