Why grading?

Given that grades carry so much weight, and that most instructors hate doing it, we think it is useful to think about assessing students with 3 overall goals in mind: to fairly assess students’ work, to motivate them to achieve, and to demonstrate to your department that you and your students effectively accomplished what the discipline asks of you. In this section, we will therefore talk about grading with the ideas of fairness, motivation, and accountability in mind.

Grading is used to evaluate and provide feedback on student work. In this way, instructors communicate to students how they are performing in the course and where they need more help to achieve the course’s goals. For instructors, grades help to assess what information, concepts, and skills students have successfully understood and which ones they have not. This kind of information helps you know what you may need to reiterate in class and what may require reworking in the course design. Grades also provide a standardized way of communicating student performance to third parties, including the lead instructor in a multi-section course, the departments in which students are enrolled, and students themselves.

To ensure that grades are fair and to motivate students to make an effort to improve their performance, we suggest that instructors think about the alignment of their assignments to the course’s overarching goals and communicate their expectations and grading practices in a transparent manner. Students are generally highly motivated to improve their work when the instructions of an assignment are clear and achievable, when the standards the instructor uses for grading are clear and fair, and when the feedback is timely and well aligned with the assignment in question. This kind of transparency will also enable students to understand what skills and content they have learned and what they are still struggling with in the course. If you are structuring your own course, you may therefore wish to work backwards—from the skills you want the students to learn, to assignments that will help them meet these goals, to a syllabus that makes completion of those assignments possible. However, even Course Assistants can be transparent about the skills they (and the lead instructor) expect students to learn or practice in each assignment.

One way of effectively implementing alignment and transparency is to use rubrics. Once you have decided which skills or characteristics you wish to emphasize most for an assignment, use those criteria to establish a grading rubric, differentiating between A-level work, B-level work, C-level work, D-level work, and failing work. (You can also grade on a number scale, or use check, check plus, and check minus grades, for shorter assignments.) Briefly describe what work of each caliber looks like, and distribute the rubric to students before the assignment is due, so that they have time to ask questions and have a sense of your expectations before they turn their work in. If at all possible, establish a rubric for each kind of assignment your students will be asked to complete and distribute these expectations alongside the syllabus or schedule of assignments. Establish any global policies (such as your policy on late work) in the syllabus. You may wish to hold yourself to similar standards by setting a schedule for when you will return work to your students; students cannot benefit from your feedback if they do not have enough time to digest it before the next assignment is due. Though it takes time to write up the rubric as you structure the course, rubrics save time at the grading stage: refer students to the expectations as you need to, and reserve your own time for commenting substantively at moments that reinforce the skills you are asking them to learn or practice.

In addition to rubrics, instructors can also use a number of grading strategies to help students succeed in the course, such as grading early, grading often, and allowing students to redo assignments. Grading early allows instructors to communicate their expectations to students, students to practice the skills that the course aims to help them achieve, and gives instructors an idea as to their students’ performance levels. Grading often, which involves more assignments with less grading, allows students to practice the skills of the course and gives instructors information about students’ progress towards the course’s goals. Allowing students to redo assignments provides them with a choice to improve their performance in the course; some may choose to keep the initial grades they earned and some may wish to work towards earning a higher grade. As with rubrics, instructors should remember that alignment and transparency is key to ensuring fairness in your grading practices.

Recommend Reading

  1. Barbara Walvoord, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College
  2. The Agony and the Equity: Testing and Grading,” Center for Teaching and Learning, Stanford University
  3. What’s Still Wrong with Rubrics: Focusing on the Consistency of Performance Across Scale Levels,” Robin Tierney & Marielle Simon, University of Ottawa


  1. A general resource on grading,Vanderbilt University
  2. A more targeted set of examples of rubrics for assignments across the disciplines, Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education
  3. A set of guidelines for commenting on student work, The Ohio State University