Grades and Grading

by Cassie Morton

Grading depends very much on your own values and educational philosophy. Your department may have its own standards for grading, and in community colleges where students will often be sequencing into a higher level course, you should find out if these are in place in your department.

Function of Grades

Most faculty agree that grades serve as an indicator to the student and to the professor as to how well student is learning. They also serve as indicators for how well students will perform in higher level studies, in graduate schools and in employment in the field. They serve other functions as well:

  1. They help student learn what good work is and where there is need for improvement.
  2. They help the instructor determine what students have and havenít learned.
  3. They stimulate good work and encourage students to do more.
  4. They help students self select to pursue higher studies in the field.

General Strategies

  • Grade on the basis of mastery of skills and knowledge as outlined in your syllabus.
  • Set clear standards, guidelines, and expectations from which you base your grading. Outline these clearly in your syllabus. Describe the sorts of evaluative measures you plan to use for grading quizzes, exams, papers, class participation, group work, etc. Give clear definitions as to what constitutes each letter grade. This should be reviewed with students on the first day of class.
  • Avoid grading on the curve because it is not really based on student learning. A little competition is healthy, but grading on the curve works against collaborative learning activities that are so conducive to true learning.
  • Try not to overemphasize grades because this only increases studentsí anxiety and motivates them to work for the wrong reasons.
  • Set policies on late work. This should be clearly described in your syllabus.
  • Avoid modifying your grading policies during the term. This erodes the studentsí confidence in you. If you must make a change, clearly explain your reasons to the students.
  • Provide numerous opportunities for students to demonstrate their mastery of the skills and knowledge in the course. Give numerous short tests and written assignments so that students have some form of evaluation every two or three weeks.

See Module 6 on other forms of assessment for alternative assignments .

Some suggestions upon which to base your thinking when grading are:

  • Grade based on studentís mastery of the subject and its skills.
  • Give students frequent updates as to how well they are doing in the class.
  • Get permission from the students to share excellent student work with the rest of the class.
Primary Trait Analysis ( PTA) and Rubrics

Walvoord ( 1998) describes PTA as a process that creates a scoring rubric that can be used to assess any student performance or portfolio of student performances. A rubric is both highly specific and criterion-referenced. The teacher:

  1. Identifies the factors or traits that will count for scoring ( such as "thesis" "materials and methods", "eye contact with patient", and so on); 
  2. Builds a scale for scoring the student's performance on that trait; and 
  3. Evaluates the student's performance against those criteria. 

English teachers have used these for years in scoring writing samples and standardized tests such as the SAT. Websites abound with rubrics for grading work such as compositions, history papers and examinations, group work and critical thinking. See a brief overview of PTA and numerous examples of scoring rubrics in various disciplines. Sharing this rubric with students gives them a much clearer understanding of what good work looks like.

Evaluating Essay exams

  • See the above section on rubrics for helping you establish a set of criteria.
  •  Read exams without knowledge of the name of the student.
  •  Read all or at least several† of the exams to establish some idea of the general level of performance.
  • Select models of excellent, good, adequate ,and poor papers to which you can refer to refresh your memory of the standards by which you are grading.