Making Informed Grading Decisions: Advice for Faculty Members

Meeting the spirit of the new grading policy when grading students' work can be challenging. Although we all recognize exceptional student work when we see it, we may find it difficult to differentiate among other levels of accomplishment. Delineating your goals for a specific assignment and articulating your grading criteria can help assure that the grades you assign reflect the quality of work you value. Giving these criteria to students can help them produce more sophisticated work and minimize any frustration about their grades after the fact.

Your grading decisions may seem clearer if you take time to reflect on the purpose of your assignments within the broader context of the class. For each assignment, first identify your educational aims for your students and then use these aims to construct a grading template or rubric. Examples of questions that might guide you in the process include:

  • What do you want students to learn from completing this assignment? That is, what are your goals for their learning?
  • What qualities of an assignment would demonstrate that a student had achieved—or even exceeded—that level of learning? These qualities may differ somewhat depending on the nature of the assignment, but articulating them specifically can help you make important distinctions for evaluating student work. For example, characteristics might include clearly stating an original hypothesis or thesis, organizing ideas coherently and progressively, analyzing data thoughtfully, addressing alternate interpretations, demonstrating clarity and conceptual understanding in problem solving, 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 describe an “A” piece of work? A “B” lab report? A “C” exam? 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.

Developing a grading template can help you evaluate students' work consistently and with a level of discrimination that coordinates with the department's grading policy. 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, they may not seem so to your students. You may also wish to provide exemplars of prior students' work that fit certain criteria. These exemplars can provide concrete examples of what may otherwise appear to students to be rather abstract descriptions of expectations.

Given students' concerns over the grading policy, you may be tempted to provide either too much or too little feedback on assignments. Both over-commenting and under-commenting on student work are counterproductive. Marking every error is not only time-consuming, but it also may not be that helpful for students. They may find it difficult to distinguish between minor mistakes in grammar or calculation and major flaws in reasoning, and may be generally demoralized. On the other hand, students need a clear idea of areas requiring improvement. Keeping your focus on engaging students' ideas in your feedback, rather than editing or simply correcting their work, may help them direct their focus more on their work's intellectual merit. 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 or as a colleague's comments on a proof. 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 and document their progress.


Walvoord, Barbara E. and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998.

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