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Center for Teaching Excellence

  • Professor Grading

What is a Grade?

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 departments in which students are enrolled, and students themselves.

To ensure that grades are fair and to motivate students to improve their performance, instructors should 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.

It helps to consider grading as a process. It is not simply a matter of assigning number or letter grades. As a process, grading may involve some or all of these activities:

  • Setting expectations with students through a grading policy
  • Designing assignments and exams that promote the course objectives
  • Establishing standards and criteria
  • Calibrating the application of a grading standard for consistency and fairness
  • Making decisions about effort and improvement
  • Deciding which comments would be the most useful in guiding each student’s learning
  • Returning assignments and helping students understand their grades

What Purpose Do Grades Serve?

Grades are essentially a way to measure or quantify learning and intellectual progress using objective criteria. They can serve many purposes:

  1. As an evaluation of student work, effort, understanding of course content, skill development, and progress;
  2. As a source of self-motivation to students for continued learning and improvement;
  3. As a means of communicating feedback to students on their performance;
  4. As a means of communicating to students, parents, graduate schools, professional schools, and future employers about a student’s potential in college and predictor for further success;
  5. As a means of organizing a lesson, a unit, or a semester in that grades mark transitions in a course and bring closure to it (i.e. a summative assessment).

As feedback, grades can also inform:

  • Students as to their own learning, clarifying for them what they understand, what they don’t understand, and where they can improve.
  • Instructors on their students’ learning to help inform future teaching decisions.

Grades vs. Learning Assessment

Grades on assignments, tests, and activities communicate feedback to students.  How do grades differ from assessment?  Essentially grades are symbols of relative achievement among students in a class section and reflect teacher’s pedagogy and their class’s unique array of student abilities. Whereas, the fundamental purpose of assessment is to determine how effective a course’s assignments and tests are in meeting specific learning goals to understand and improve student learning, the quality of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that students have acquired, most often as the result of learning in their courses. While assessment is at certain levels a process that involves goal setting and evidence gathering (at an institution-, college-, or department-level), when viewed in a separate context it can also mean actions undertaken by teachers and students to document student learning in a given course.

Differences Between Grades and Assessment

Grades … 

Assessment …

Focus on an individual student

Focuses on a cohort of students

Symbolic representations

Attempts to pinpoint more precisely what learning was achieved

May reflect class management goals related to student behavior that are separate from learning (attendance, participation, and on-time submission of assignments)

Emphasizes achievement of specified learning goals


May be the result of vague or inconsistent standards 

Aims for exactness

Reflect student performance in individual courses or course assignments                                              

May measure learning from ungraded co- curricular activities or look for skill development beyond course content, such as critical thinking


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