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  • Professor Grading

Techniques for Making Grading Efficient While Remaining Objective

Grading challenges instructors. We want to be sure we are evaluating student work fairly, in the sense that our judgment is not subjective or inconsistent. Because grades are used as evaluations of student work, it’s important that grades accurately reflect the quality of student work and that student work is graded fairly. Students deserve fairness and instructors work hard to deliver this. Instructors must therefore make a constant effort to be fair, objective, and maintain grading standards, producing the same results for the same student, across time and assignments. But grading with accuracy and fairness can consume a lot of time as we evaluate sometimes subtle differences of accomplishment in assessments and as we decide how to comment on students’ work.  Thus, instructors need to make their efforts at grading efficient as well as fair.

  • Make sure that you are grading work that is important to and aligned with your course objectives.
  • Create assignments that have clear goals and criteria for assessment. The better students understand what you’re asking them to do the more likely they’ll do it.
  • Share and discuss annotated samples of exemplary and average (anonymous or volunteer) student work.
  • One and Done: Mention the error and explain how to correct it once. If the error occurs subsequent times, highlight the word(s) or sentence and/or use a comment balloon to draw attention to the error succinctly.
  • Comment Banks: Keep a Word document bank of comments about frequent errors students make, the comments you typically provide, and organize them in groups for easy access. Consider grouping comments according to module, assignment, and chapter, or grammar, content, and organization.
  • Use different grading scales for different assignments. Consider whether the assignment is low-stakes or at a basic or factual level that can be graded quickly with quizzes or a pass/fail or check/plus/minus system. Grading scales include:
    • letter grades with pluses and minuses (for papers, essays, essay exams, etc.)
    • 100-point numerical scale (for exams, certain types of projects, etc.)
    • check plus, check, check minus (for quizzes, homework, response papers, quick reports or presentations, etc.)
    • pass-fail or credit-no-credit (for preparatory work)
  • Think about the timing of when you are assigning things that must be graded.
    • For those especially time-consuming grading tasks, consider what will be happening in class the day after it is due and design tasks in advance or which require less preparation on your part so that you have built in time to grade.
    • Consider when assignments in your other courses are due, and how you’ll manage the workload, as well as how grading while tired, stressed or under a cognitive load can make it more likely for implicit biases to affect grading.
  • Consider some time-saving strategies:
    • Consider methods for making your grading standard and efficient, such as using rubrics that communicate your grading criteria.
    • Avoid the temptation to respond to everything that calls for adjustments or corrections. Struggling students need to focus on just a few areas or even one item at a time. It is better to target two or three areas that need to be addressed for the student’s success on future papers.
    • Are there pieces of work that can be done in groups so that students learn but there are fewer papers for you to grade? You’ll need to think through how to help students work together effectively and decide which elements are graded individually or collectively.
    • Can you grade samples of student work, rather than every piece of homework? The idea is that every small piece of work needn’t be graded in order for instructors to get an accurate sense of student preparation and comprehension, and for students to get helpful feedback on their work. Not knowing which work will be graded also encourages students to develop consistent habits.

Although designing useful problem sets and unambiguous short answer/multiple-choice test questions can be time consuming, they are often easier to grade than essay exams or papers. But difficulties can still arise. You may think you have written the perfect question with only one correct answer, but you must always be prepared for alternative answers.  It is often a good idea to divide exam questions among the instructors teaching the course, to maintain consistency and spot consistent deviations. In the case of multiple-choice questions, if students are doing worse than chance would predict on a particular question, it is likely that the question was poorly worded. In this In this case you must either give credit for more than one answer or toss the question out (by giving everyone credit).

These are easy to grade but can be challenging to write. Look for common student misconceptions and misunderstandings you can use to construct answer choices for your multiple-choice questions, perhaps by looking for patterns in student responses to past open-ended questions. And while multiple-choice questions are great for assessing recall of factual information, they can also work well to assess conceptual understanding and applications.

In an exam situation, students perform under pressure for a predetermined length of time, without much opportunity to review and revise their work. Thus, the standards you impose on student writing under the circumstances of an essay exam must be different than those you impose on writing done over a course of several days or even weeks. The scoring of essays can be unreliable; scores not only vary across different graders, they vary with the individual grader at different times. Graders can be influenced by a number of extraneous factors, such as handwriting, color of ink, even word spacing. To ensure that you achieve as much consistency in your grading as possible, and that you mark the first test by the same standards as the last, here are some suggestions for grading practices that will increase the overall reliability of your essay tests.

Grade Anonymously
Individual instructors in multi-instructor courses often prefer to mark exams of the students in their own section. This allows them to give credit for material that presented in their section and provides feedback on whether the ideas they emphasized have actually registered with their students. The problem is that objectivity may be harder to achieve because if you know the identity of the student, your overall impressions of that student's work will inevitably influence the scoring of the test. Use student ID numbers on exams, rather than names, or fold side of the paper with the names over so they are not visible.

Grading with Team Teaching
If instructors have worked as a team with each instructor dealing with specialized topics in class, then split the exam questions so that each teacher assesses the content they taught. Dividing the exam questions in this way ensures that each question will be marked consistently across all students. However, reading answers to the same question one after the other has its drawbacks, affecting instructors’ mental health and grading range. This can be reduced by pacing and time blocking, and switching questions every once in a while.

Prepare Model Answers to All Questions in Advance
The model provides a key that clarifies the major points students should cover in their responses. It helps to first skim over several essays to determine if the model answer needs to be modified. If students have misinterpreted your intent, an anomaly in teaching the material becomes obvious, or if your standards are unrealistically high or low, you can alter the key. Be open to reasonable interpretations different from your own.

Grade Each Essay Question Separately
Reading everyone’s answers to Question 1, then reading all answers to Question 2 is preferable to grading a single student's entire test at once. It's easier to keep in mind expectations for one answer at a time.

Write Comments on the Test Papers as You Grade Them
Comments do not have to be extensive to be effective. Point out specific elements of the answer that were missing or incorrect and the number of points lost as a result. Students have a right to know why they receive the grades they do, and need specific guidance to maintain or improve performance. Strive for a few analytical comments on the good and bad aspects of the essay rather than a detailed critique — writing too many comments tends to overwhelm students, and they may miss the main points of your critique.

Decide If You Will Grade Grammar, Syntax, Spelling, and Punctuation
Are these aspects what you really want to assess?  Decisions of this nature should not be arbitrary. What counts for one student should count for all students.

Distribute Model Answers With the Corrected Essays
This alleviates some of the burden of writing comments on exams. Further, students learn more when they compare their answers with the model, and develop a clearer picture of why they received the grade they did, thereby reducing the number of re-grade requests.

A paper should be judged on its content, organization, and style. Often it is useful to the student if we evaluate the paper in each of these areas and assign a grade on the basis of some combination of these factors.  However, there is nothing more frustrating to a student than a paper returned with just a grade on it, accompanied by no comments or only perfunctory ones. The feedback you provide to students should help them improve their writing as well as explain why you graded the work the way you did. The following suggestions may help with the problem of maintaining consistency.

Write a Summary Comment
Address the writer and their thesis directly, as though the writing counted for something valuable. Focus on two or three things the writer could do to most improve the work.

Make Selective Marginal Comments
Don’t obliterate the text — use the margins, the back of the page, or an appended note. Try to say enough so the student has a reasonably good chance of doing better next time. Focus your comments on issues of accuracy and completeness of information, logic and appropriateness of style. Point the student in the direction of significant improvements in thinking and analysis

Make Specific, Concrete Recommendations
Writing "confusing" in the margin isn't helpful. The student probably knows it's confusing but doesn't know how to write it more clearly. Instead, write something like "unclear—it would help to define inertia first."

Mark Only Significant Mechanical Errors or Grammatical Problems
Unless you're a writing instructor, resist the urge to edit the student's writing (but do point out instances when grammatical or mechanical errors interfere with your understanding of their ideas).

Treat All Papers Equally
Scoring papers involves a great deal of subjective judgment. It’s easy to be more careful and stringent with the first few papers, becoming more efficient and lax as you tire of grading. To avoid this pitfall, try the following:

  • Skim a few papers before you actually start grading to get an idea of the range of quality.
  • Segment your grading session into more manageable chunks of time. This strategy will help you avoid grading fatigue. Stop grading when you get tired, bored, or frustrated.
  • When you return to grading, skim the last couple of papers you graded—and your comments on them—to help you remain fair.

Address Common Problems As a Whole Instead of Commenting Individually
Before you hand papers back, it's a good idea to discuss the common problems you encountered. It is useful to distribute a sheet of general comments for the students' reference. 

Ask Students to Write Papers Twice
Students submit the first draft and you provide constructive criticism on both content and style. Students then revise the paper and you grade the second draft, assigning a grade based on a scoring rubric you have previously discussed with students.

Spend time explaining, both verbally and in writing, why you are doing group work, what are the academic (and other) goals and objectives of the group work, and why it is important for the students. Acknowledge and discuss with students some of the problems with group work. You may want to consider whether you will grade the group work at all; it may make sense for group work to be ungraded or self-assessed. Here are some strategies for grading and assessing group work:

Specify the Grading Criteria
Specify in writing the grading criteria you'll use and discuss it with your students. Consider letting students have some input into these criteria before they are finalized. Student control increases the sense of ownership and responsibility the students will have for the group activities.

Consider Peer Input When Assigning Grades
Determine what portion of the grade (say, 20 percent) is determined by peer ratings. Students can rate other group members on specific or global items. Students can rate other groups on presentations.

Adjust Individual Grades According to Contributed Effort
You can use the division of labor report, peer ratings, and completed homework "tickets" to determine the individual grade portion.

Require a Division of Labor Report
Reports can cover a variety of topics, addressing how often they met, who was present, who did what parts of the group project or assignment, etc. This reminds the students who is and isn't doing their share and gives you information to use when grading.

  • Communicate your grading policies, standards, and criteria to teaching assistants, graders, and students in your course.
  • Discuss your expectations about all facets of grading (criteria, timeliness, consistency, grade disputes, etc.) with your teaching assistants and graders.
  • Encourage teaching assistants and graders to share grading concerns and questions with you.
  • Use an appropriate group grading strategy:
    • have teaching assistants grade assignments for students not in their section or lab to curb favoritism
    • have each section of an exam graded by only one teaching assistant or grader to ensure consistency across the board;
    • have teaching assistants and graders grade student work at the same time in the same place so they can compare their grades on certain sections and arrive at consensus.

Grading can be a constructive process for both our students and for us. It can give them the opportunity to improve their knowledge and writing skills and it can give us feedback on our teaching and evaluation methods. By being consistent and fair, we can minimize the inevitably unpleasant aspects of passing judgment on someone's efforts.


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