The purposes of grading student learning

Student awards ceremony

We grade to:

  • Provide feedback about student achievement. Students and faculty want to know how well students are performing when compared to pre-determined standards. Advisors use course grades to guide a student in pursuit of a degree.

  • Analyze course effectiveness and make informed decisions about student progress, teaching methods, and assessment methods.

  • Foster student learning. Though we usually think of grading as the "final act" of learning, it should also fuel desires for new learning. "What more is there? What comes next? Where do I go from here?"

  • Meet administrative requirements.

Grading cannot be separated from all the other class components. The process helps us discover strengths and needs of students and of the whole course delivery. We should consider how we will grade students at the same time we are writing student learning outcomes for our syllabus.

The essential components of grading student work

  • Established student learning outcomes - specific knowledge, skills, behaviors, attitudes - and how and to what standards they are to be expressed or performed are understood by faculty and students.

  • Rubric or scoring guide which further clarifies the areas above is understood by faculty and students.

  • Grading must not be completed in isolation from the whole learning process. Formative assessments provide feedback on learning throughout the classes leading up to summative, graded assessment.

  • Process for physically grading the assignment or test must be organized so as to provide the most effective feedback to the students and to provide

Grading that is useful to the students

Students find a grading system useful when it has the following components:

  • NO Surprises

  • Clear, well-defined student learning outcomes established up front

  • Formative assessments throughout the course provide regular feedback on performance and understanding

  • Summative evaluations are clearly linked to the student learning outcomes.

  • Individual feedback is specific and focused on learning, not on errors

Grading that is useful to the faculty member and to the program

Grading is useful to the faculty member when:

  • Analysis of cumulative results provides feedback to assist with course improvement

  • Analysis of individual student results identifies specific needs that can be addressed

  • Evaluations of outcomes are analyzed within the context of the whole program, decisions about curriculum and teaching can be addressed.

Grading Strategies that save time, provide specific feedback, and continue the learning process.

  • Using a rubric, check specific descriptors that were achieved and circle those that were not met.

  • Do not write more on the student's paper than they did.

  • Use peer reviews of drafts of a paper to provide feedback before you grade the work.

  • Team testing - Though controversial, a team-testing process that begins with individual testing and is then followed by team testing is very rich. It does require the faculty to grade an additional test for each team and to compute a composite score for each student, but the rewards outweigh the workload. The peer feedback during team testing is powerful.

  • Effective formative assessments leading up to the summative, graded assessment ensure better results and less corrective feedback.

  • Not all graded assignments need to have complex feedback. A few well-placed exclamation points, checks, question marks, or brief comments can send the message you wish to relay.

  • When further explanation is needed, instead of writing all over the exam or paper, just write "See me."

  • One faculty member who found they were making the same comments to all the students had stamps made up with a couple acronyms of these. It saved them time and the students got the message.

The Bell Curve and Grades

Some faculty members choose to assign grades based on a pre-determined distribution. When the distribution is based on previous student performance over time, it is called a normal distribution. Generally we associate normal distributions with a bell-shaped curve:

Bell curve

The standard bell curve provides the following grade distribution: Lowest 2% of the students receive F's, next 14% receive D's, next 34% receive C's, 34% above average receive B's, and 14% + 2% = 16% above that receive A's.

Other faculty members do not force a set of grades into the bell curve. They often use percentage distributions such as: 0-59% = F, 60-69% = D, 70-79% = C, 80-89% = B, 90-100% = A. The percentages represent the part of the assignment, test, or course work the student successfully completed.

Criterion-referenced Grades
Another concept to be considered for grading is criterion-referenced grading. Students graded only by the distributions above could fail to learn large portions of content and yet still receive a high grade in a course. Criterion-referenced grading tracks student learning of specific criteria. Evaluations are developed so results can be analyzed according to the criteria. Students are provided feedback focused on each criteria.

In addition to the information included here, we invite you to participate in events focused on Assessment listed in our calendar and to contact the Faculty Center for additional assistance.


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