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Center for Teaching Excellence

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Grading as a Fair Teaching Tool

Sometimes a student’s view of your course is more about their grade than what they learn. Fairness is foremost on the students’ minds when it comes to grading. Students will feel less anxious about grades if they feel from the first day of class that the system is fair and if they understand it. Maybe then they can focus on learning. There are several things to consider as you work toward fairness and maximum learning in grading.


Establish guidelines for the course grade, clearly presented in writing, at the beginning of the semester. Students should understand the basics of what quality and quantity of work is necessary for each grade. Remember that first-year students may need more detailed explanations of grading practices than advanced students.

Remind students that there are certain standards of written English which you expect them to reflect in any written work. Students might argue that it isn't fair to penalize them for writing in classes other than English. Explain that they need to communicate their knowledge to you clearly and effectively and you expect them to employ acceptable written standards.

Use rubrics and provide copies to students. You will be more consistent and efficient when grading if you develop a set of assignment-specific criteria and designate their relative importance in relation to the overall grade. These grading standards, or rubrics, help students focus their efforts. They know what to do. Rubrics also emphasize that you grade in a manner that minimizes subjectivity and is thus, more fair. About rubrics:

  • Design your rubric around the learning outcomes of the assignment. The weight of various components should reflect the learning outcomes.
  • Decide and communicate the weight of writing conventions.
  • Prepare model answers before you begin grading based on the rubric variables

Set a maximum time limit for grading each answer, section or paper. This way no response gets more consideration or scrutiny than another.

Comment on student work. Make your comments legible. Note errors but don't necessarily fix them. Instead respond with comments that encourage the student to think through the process of revision. Acknowledge strengths and offer positive feedback, referring to specific examples. If possible, mention improvement from previous work. 

Provide grades and feedback as quickly as possible. Give students a time-frame when they submit work as to when it should be returned and how. Stick to the time-frame.

If a grade is challenged, offer to discuss the grade during office hours. Listen to the student's question or concern. Reread student work if necessary. Although it may not result in a changed grade, you might discover a way to ask a question more clearly in future classes. If you cannot resolve a grade challenge, do not allow yourself to get into an argument. Know how your department handles these things ahead of time. 


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