Effective Grading

Grading is one of the more fraught experiences of teaching and learning. Students often find waiting for grades stressful, and sometimes they are so worried about the effect of a grade that they will argue about fractions of points. Instructors not only have to manage student stress about grading, but they also have to deal with their own. Many instructors worry about whether or not they are grading fairly, and most find grading to be incredibly time-consuming.

And yet, grading is also one of the most recurrent tasks in education. It’s a big part of any instructor’s job.

Below are some ideas from the scholarship of teaching and learning about how to grade effectively.

For more administrative concerns such as grading scales, pass/fail options and grade changes, see the Provost’s Faculty Handbook.

Why Do We Grade? | Best Practices | Saving Time | What Can I Do About “Grade Grubbing”? | Resources

Why Do We Grade?

Tradition -The first grades were assigned by Yale in 1783, and letter grades were first introduced by Harvard in 1883. Although our grading system is deeply ingrained for modern people, it is a relatively recent development in the history of education.

Communication – Grades help instructors to communicate to students, the university and society at large about a particular student’s levels of knowledge and skill.


Best Practices for Effective Grading

Clear expectations for each assignment – Students can only produce the work you want to see if they know what you are looking for. Some things that instructors might consider common knowledge are not common knowledge for students. In fact, they may be getting contradictory instructions from other professors. Rubrics can be a useful way to clarify your expectations (for both you and the students) and to save time when grading.

A clear grading policy in writing – Will you accept late work? What about electronic submissions? Are some assignments worth more than others? Are there any opportunities to make up work? What happens if a student is sick when an assignment is due? Although your policy will likely change the more you teach, it is useful to anticipate some of these issues and to address them before they happen. In addition, if a student challenges a grade, you can simply refer to your grading policy.

A mix of assignments – High and low stakes; short responses and long papers; presentations and exams. A variety of assignments will allow students to practice a wide variety of skills and give them a better chance to do well in the class.

One Week Turnaround (2 weeks maximum) – Students will appreciate getting work back in a timely manner. They will like you for not keeping them in suspense and return the respect you show them.


How Can We Save Time?

Grade only what is important. According to Walvoord and Anderson, the vast majority of instructors find grading to be a difficult and time-consuming task. Their advice: accept that grading will take time, and therefore only grade what is important.

Use rubrics. A rubric is a list of criteria for an assignment; it is often written as a grid. Rubrics save time because instructors have already worked out the criteria for each assignment. They may have added pedagogical benefits:

    1. Rubrics provided to the students give them clear expectations.
    2. Rubrics can help students become better evaluators of their own work.

You can also use Blackboard to create and disseminate rubrics. Once these rubrics are created in Blackboard, they can be exported and used in course after course. These rubrics can be used with standard Bb assignments and SafeAssignments.

More information and sample rubrics are available here.


What Can I Do About “Grade Grubbing”?

Set a clear grading policy – As noted above, a clear grading policy can head off arguments from students. If students do object to a grade, you can simply refer them to the policy.

De-emphasize the importance of grades – Communicate to students that the point of being in class is not just to get a grade but to actually learn something. Some students also see their grades as a reflection of their value as people. Try to be clear that you are grading their performance on a particular assignment, not on them as human beings or intelligent individuals.

Be sensitive to students’ concerns about grades – Even if you de-emphasize the importance of grades in your course, students will probably still be concerned about them. After all, they have spent most of their lives trying to do well in school, and many of them are hoping to go to graduate school. Helping students see that their lives are not dependent on one assignment may alleviate some of their anxiety.


Walvoord, Barbara E. and Virginia Johnson Anderson, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment, 2nd Edition, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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