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Paper with "A+" on it

While many graduate students enjoy teaching, few enjoy grading-perhaps because assigning a single letter grade to a student's understanding of a complex topic can feel artificial, says Chris Spatz, PhD, a psychology professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas who teaches statistics.

"Especially for psychologists, the deep-down realization of the unreliability of tests makes grading difficult," says Spatz. "We know that every score really represents a range."

While no grading system is perfect, grades do serve an important purpose, notes John Ory, PhD, author of "Tips for Improving Testing and Grading" (Sage Publications, 1993.) Most importantly, grades provide feedback to students-telling them whether they are learning the course material, he says. They can also motivate students to study, notes Ory, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

How can grading be used to encourage student learning? Graduate students and grading experts offer their advice.

  • Set clear expectations. Provide specific goals for your students and base their grade on whether they have been met, says Theodore Burnes, a fifth-year applied psychology student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Usually, when a student says 'Oh, my grade was unfair,' what they really mean is they were not clear about the expectations, or the expectations that were put forth on paper were not what they were graded on," he says.

For example, many graduate teaching assistants expect student papers to use good grammar and organization, but they assume this mastery of writing mechanics "goes without saying," leaving students surprised when points are deducted, Burnes observes.

  • Be consistent. When grading written responses, write down your grading criteria and list the amount of points for each item. This allows you to base grades on how well papers met the assignment criteria instead of how they compare with others, says Jeff Lawley, a fourth-year counseling psychology student at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Ranking papers-and students-relative to each other tends to take the focus off learning and instead puts it on how well others are doing in the class, notes Elizabeth Linnenbrink, PhD, an assistant professor at Duke University who studies assessment and motivation. Instead, set specific criteria for students to meet, she says.

Keeping a detailed answer key can also help your grading consistency, notes Spatz.

"I struggle to keep those partial credit answers consistent; I always make notes on my key about what sort of things I give partial credit for," he says.

  • Avoid bias. Grading rubrics and answer keys help instructors avoid unfairly giving good grades to students they like personally. But even with such safeguards, bias can creep in, notes Burnes.

To avoid this, many instructors steer clear of associating students' names with papers or assignments until after they have finished grading. Burnes asks students to put their name only on the title page of their papers, and he then flips that page over before beginning to grade.

Another source of bias is the order in which an instructor reads essays or short answers to exam questions. An average essay that follows a brilliant one may receive lower marks than it deserves, notes Ory. When grading a stack of exams, Ory suggests graduate students grade all the answers to a particular essay question, then shuffle the stack before beginning the next question, randomizing the effects of any implicit comparisons.

  • Grade early and often. Grades tell students how well they are learning the course material and what they need to put more work into, says Linnenbrink. If you wait until the middle of the semester to give students their first grade, some of your students may discover they are discouragingly far behind, she says.

That said, avoid excessively burdening yourself with stacks of papers, homework and tests to grade.

  • Provide detailed and timely feedback. By returning work quickly, instructors can help students learn from their mistakes while the material is still fresh in their minds, says Spatz. For that reason, Spatz returns his quizzes by the next class.

When appropriate-especially on open-ended answers-Linnenbrink suggests that instructors provide detailed comments along with letter or point grades.

"Students find it very frustrating to get a paper back that just has a letter grade on it and nothing else," she says.

  • Offer occasional makeup opportunities. Giving all students the opportunity to rewrite a particular exam question, for example, can help students improve both their grade and their understanding of course material, says Burnes. "If you tell them you want them to rewrite it, it exemplifies that you are willing to stay with the topic until they get it," says Burnes. "If you say 'better luck next time,' it sends the message that you don't care if they learn it or not."

Also, consider providing different kinds of graded assignments, such as group projects, presentations and research papers, says Lawley.

"Students should have the opportunity if they don't test well to show they learned the material in other ways, by doing other types of projects," he says.

  • Keep grades confidential. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, educational records, including grades, cannot be released publicly without a student's written permission. That means that an instructor cannot hand a class a pile of graded quizzes and ask students to find their own, says Ory. Instructors also cannot post grades on a Web site or a door, even if Social Security numbers are used in place of names, he notes.

Arash Sepehri, a fifth-year neuropsychology graduate student at Spalding University in Louisville, Ken., has hit on a way to protect confidentiality while learning his student's names: He hands back his student's tests individually in class.

"If you tell [students] you want them to rewrite [an exam question], it exemplifies that you are willing to stay with the topic until they get it. If you say 'better luck next time,' it sends the message that you don’t care if they learn it or not."

Theodore Burnes
University of California, Santa Barbara