Teaching Tips

Grading for Optimal Student Learning

By Martha S. Zlokovich
Southeast Missouri State University

Most of us enjoy our roles as teaching faculty, but that does not mean every pedagogical task is enjoyable. One of the most troubling tasks, possibly second only to finding a parking place on campus, is grading. Yet the vast majority of faculty must summarize their students' knowledge and abilities - however multi-faceted and rich-into grades. This process takes time and effort, and is seldom described as fun, but more often as a job that must be done. However, there is more to grading than assigning a letter grade. Attention to grading practices can improve not only the reliability and validity of a final course grade, but equally or more importantly, faculty teaching and student learning.

So where should conscientious instructors start to improve the quality of their teaching and grading, as well as their students' learning? Faculty must recognize that grading is an integral part of the teaching and learning process, so consideration of assessment must be interwoven within careful course planning and viewed as part of teaching, not as an unpleasant "add on." Planning, teaching, and assessment are all necessary elements of instruction that must be coordinated in order for grading to be reliable, valid, appropriate and meaningful for both students and teachers.

Many faculty think of teaching as a linear process, with planning occurring first, teaching second, and grading third; however, a more complicated relationship that involves bi-directional influences is probably more accurate. "Assessment can and should be integrated with instruction and should inform both instruction and ongoing course planning" (Brookhart, 1999, p. 2). In reality, effective grading begins with a clear vision of the kinds of learning we value for students, and helps them to achieve this learning and skill development.

The first step in addressing both learning and the grading process is planning. Planning for effective grading should begin well before the syllabus has been finalized and the course starts. This means that instructors must do the following:

Articulate the Learning Goals of the Course for Themselves
Keeping in mind the level of the course and anticipating who the students will be in terms of major, year, and interest level, instructors must decide what is most important for students to know. What should they be able to do? How should students be different by the end of the course?

Make Informed Choices About Grading
Faculty should start with themselves and try to answer questions such as:

  • Why do I use the grading methods I do?
  • Are these methods accomplishing what I want them to?
  • What do I really know about grading?

Faculty can then read about grading and talk with colleagues. These discussions should avoid the trap of the typical discussion of "hard grading and standards versus easy grading and standards" which avoids important issues. Ask colleagues, especially those teaching other sections of your courses, or courses at similar levels, questions such as:

  • What grading schemes do they use and why?
  • How well do these grading schemes work?
  • Do they change their grading processes depending on the type or level of class?
  • Do they drop the lowest grade in a course or weight early tests less than later ones? Why have they adopted these grading processes and do they work?

Talk with students about grading. Find students from a course you just finished teaching. Ask questions such as:

  • What did you think and feel about the grading?
  • Did you understand the grading criteria used?
  • Was the grading fair?
  • Did you know what to do to earn a good grade?

After the first week or so of a course, ask students whether they understand your philosophy and system of grading. If you try new grading schemes, ask students for feedback during and after the course to see how well they worked. Finally, you may want to look at the grades students earned on course assignments and their final grades and see how these would change if you altered your grading. For example, would the student who started off poorly but showed great improvement have been better served by a different approach to grading? Questions about grading also could be included in course evaluations for future reference.

Choose Grading Methods Once Course Goals Are Clear
Avoid being "locked in" to one grading method for all course assignments, exams, and the final grade. Different methods that may be used for different assignments throughout the course include:

  • Criterion Referenced Grading. Student achievement is measured with respect to a specified standard of performance, and each student's grade is assigned independent of other students' grades. Advantages of this method are that it promotes success in later courses that build on the content learned in the current course, allows performance to be measured against a standard rather than other students' achievements, focuses on learning rather than relative ranking against other students, and it may motivate students because there are no limits to how many people can earn high grades.
  • Norm Referenced Grading or "Curved Grades." Each student's grade is based on her or his relative position compared to the other students. The meaning of any one score is derived from a comparison with other scores in the norm group. This method promotes a normal distribution with a small number of A and F grades and makes assigning letter grades easy for the instructor. Curving has problems, however. It creates a relative standard that varies with the performance of the particular group, and does not describe how proficient a student is with respect to the material covered, but with respect to other students' performance.
  • Mastery Learning. Every student is given access, time, varied instruction, frequent feedback, and encouragement to persist until information is mastered. This method can be time consuming for faculty because it requires extensive record keeping and students are not all on the same material at the same time, but there are advantages for the students. These include clear definitions of criteria for specified competency levels, modification of learning activities to achieve mastery, frequent feedback, and ample opportunity for students to display learning. The number of students who can succeed is unlimited since they are given multiple opportunities to achieve mastery.
  • Pass-Fail. This method is based on the assumption that students will be encouraged to explore course material if they do not have to worry about letter grades, as well as the hope that students are interested in learning for learning's sake.

Plan for Realistic and Appropriate Time Commitments for Yourself and the Students
It is important to consider time commitments in terms of faculty and student workloads, as well as the relative importance of particular assignments. A grading plan that requires onerous time burdens for the instructor or the students may not best serve learning goals. In addition, a simple assignment should not count 50 percent of a final grade nor an extensive term paper 10%. Balance a given assignment or requirement with the amount of work required both in and out of class, and with the percentage of the course grade associated with that task.

Decide Which Assignments Will Receive Formative Assessment and
Which Will Receive Summative Assessment

Formative assessment, such as students obtaining feedback on initial drafts of papers from peers or the instructor, allows students to learn from their mistakes and to improve their grade when summative assessments are made. Summative assessments allow students to demonstrate what they have learned, but without the opportunity to further affect their grade on that particular performance. Formative assessments are important for encouraging learning and skill mastery, summative for indicating previous learning.

Communicate the Method of Grading Clearly to Students
This should be done in the syllabus, on the course web site, and in initial class meetings. An important part of this information should be a clear connection between the goals of the course and the grading methods you describe. Students should be reminded of the grading methods throughout the course, especially close to due dates for assignments and exams.

Putting it All Together
Let me suggest the following:

  • As you plan a new course or think about one you have taught many times list each course module and assignment.
  • Next to each, write the goal each is supposed to meet (e.g., learn facts, improve writing skills, critical thinking).
  • In a third column write why this goal is important to you as an instructor and to the course.
  • In a fourth column enter the grading procedure you will use for each assignment and exam (e.g., letter grade, points - criterion referenced grading, curving).
  • In the last column, list how students can do well on each assignment/requirement to be graded (e.g., read the book, active learning, use of tutors, come to class for reviews, turn in paper for formative review).
  • Once this table meets the goals you have for the course share it with a colleague or two, and several students for their feedback.
  • When it is completed, add a column with due dates and include it in the materials you distribute to students at the beginning of the course. You may even want to leave a blank that can be checked off next to each assignment so students can note when they are completed, and so you can point out to students how the course is developing (e.g., we have now completed the second writing assignment, we have now completed the third of four modules emphasizing the facts, theories, and people in this subdisciplinary area).

The second step is teaching the material and skills related to the course goals you have communicated to your students, making sure that the time you spend in class corresponds to the emphasis you gave each topic in your goals and grading procedures. In addition, it is important to do the following:

Teach What Students Need to Know For the Test
This does not mean teaching the test, or handing students the test and going over the answers with them; this means that what students need to know and how they will be evaluated should not be a mystery to them. Teach to the criteria by which you will evaluate the test (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). For example, if you are giving an essay exam that you will grade based on content, organization, and critical thinking, spend time in class on all three. You could point out the relationship between different ideas, group them by common elements, and have students meet in small groups to analyze and critique. In other words, do not expect students to be able to organize and think critically if you have not taught these skills. Help them develop these skills through your teaching. The points emphasized during class time, the assigned readings, and the explanation of grading criteria should make it clear what students must know for the tests.

Choose How Class Time Will Be Used and Use Various Methods of Teaching
Choose whether class time will be devoted to initial (first) exposure to material or the processing of material. Traditional lecture frequently provides first exposure to material, unlike process-oriented teaching, which allows for face-to-face interaction between the instructor and students as they attempt sophisticated thinking (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). Keep in mind that many class activities require students to have completed a first exposure to the material, some reading or studying before class, on their own time. Class time can then be used to provide feedback on work or learning done outside of class. Active learning methods such as small or large group discussions, manipulation of materials, or interaction with the instructor, help students to approach the material they are trying to learn from multiple perspectives.

Assess Learning Regularly
Find out what students have learned before they complete exams or other graded work. Frequent learning checks allow for ongoing planning and instructional changes in response to what students are learning-or not learning. These checks need not be time or labor intensive for the instructor and might include:

  • Stopping after 20 minutes to have students summarize their notes so far and ask about anything they don't understand.
  • Having students take one or two minutes to discuss their notes with a partner.
  • Giving a quiz that can easily be graded by the instructor or other students
  • Asking students to contribute to a web discussion on the topic outside of class.

Adjust Teaching During the Course As Needed Based On Student Understanding
These adjustments are especially important when later classes build on earlier material. You may have to give up some course content if students are not learning what they need to early on. The feeling that you have to cover "x" amount of content can be the enemy of good teaching.

Be Thoughtful and Supportive With Students About Grades
Grades are important to students and affect their future plans, feelings, and motivation. Be available and supportive in talking about their course performance and grades. Be sure to have criteria to explain the assignment of grades and be patient with students who think you have made an error - we all make mistakes and the student may be correct. Be prepared to suggest how students can improve their grades in the future. With sensitive support, even a student who fails your course can learn important skills from you that can help that student succeed in later courses.

Measure Learning Several Different Ways
Students should have the opportunity to exhibit their knowledge in different ways. These might include multiple-choice tests, essay exams, papers, various forms of oral communication, portfolios, or research projects.

Provide Ongoing Feedback So Students Can Adjust Their Studying Before
it is Too Late to Affect Their Grade Significantly

In-class assessments such as those mentioned above that inform instructors about their teaching can also inform students about their comprehension of the material, and help them manage their study time most effectively.


Students deserve and appreciate prompt feedback. Such feedback provides optimal opportunities for students to learn from their successes and mistakes.

Make Testing Authentic
At least some of the time, real world performance must be attempted, especially if application of knowledge was an important goal identified in course planning (Brookhart, 1999). Real world performance may be assessed by essay or multiple choice exams, or by performance of an activity. Exams, however, must be well-written in order to ensure that students have learned underlying concepts, not just strategies to pass exams. Testing should focus on assessing whether students have met learning goals, rather than having simply figured out how to spit back information from the text or class. This can be accomplished by demonstrating how a particular concept applies to a variety of situations. Then on a test, students are better prepared to think about how the concept applies to a new situation. If a concept such as operant conditioning, for example, is only presented in the context of Skinner's pigeons, students may learn how to spit back the application of the concept only in that particular situation. If however, operant conditioning is explained in terms of Skinner's pigeons, potty training young children, lottery players, and maintenance of sustained relationships, students are more likely to develop a comprehensive understanding of operant conditioning, and therefore be better able to apply that understanding to new situations presented on exams.

Consider Retesting
The possibility of retaking a test applies especially to criterion-referenced or mastery learning grading methods. The grading policy should specify at the outset what will happen if a student fails to meet the minimal standard. Questions to consider when constructing a retest policy include:

  • If a second chance is given, how does the instructor treat students who performed satisfactorily the first time?
  • How many chances to pass should be allowed?
  • Will students start to regard the first attempt as a low-effort trial run?
  • How much more work will this entail for instructor (different versions of test/additional papers)?
  • Is the maximum possible grade on an assignment lowered on a second or third effort and if so, by how much?

Summarize Each Student's Work Into A Course Letter Grade
There are several choices for aggregating grades across the semester into one letter grade. The method of aggregation has to be communicated to students early in the semester and should influence course planning and teaching. Points to consider when choosing a method of determining the letter grade are whether students can overcome poor performance early in the course, and whether high performance in one area can make up for low performance in another.

  • Weighted letter grades. The weight of a grade refers to its proportion of the final grade. This method is based on the assumption that different performances and different kinds of excellence are differently valued (e.g., when class participation is weighted less than a term paper), and that the instructor applies a value judgment in assigning weights.
  • Accumulated points. This method defines each letter grade by the percentage of total points available. For example, an "A" might be defined as earning at least 90% of the total number of points available. This method is based on the assumption that good performance in one area can help make up for low performance in another area, that it allows for developmental progression throughout the course, and that it allows students to decide where to concentrate their effort. A potential problem is that students who did well early in the course may have accumulated enough points that they decide to put their effort into other courses.
  • Definitional assessment. This method requires students to meet or exceed particular standards for each category of assigned work, for example, requiring an "A" on tests and at least a "B" on papers for an "A" in the course. It is based on the assumption that each category is important and one category cannot make up for poor work in another. This method is less common and will need to be carefully explained from the outset.
  • Median grading. This method is useful when grades tend to fluctuate widely or when scores are based on only a few assignments. The final grade is determined by arranging the grades in order and picking the middle grade. One exceptionally low or high grade does not affect the median as much as it would the mean.
  • Holistic grading. This method involves the use of formative assessment across the semester, with the final grade determined primarily or completely by summative assessment of a final project at the end of the semester. It is particularly appropriate when the goal of the course is to produce a final product. The method may include more than one category of accomplishment, similar to definitional assessment. An advantage of this method is that it allows ongoing instructor feedback on students' work toward that final product to aid them in learning, without penalizing early errors at the end of the course.

Faculty should focus on being a teacher first and a gatekeeper second, because student learning is the primary goal of an education (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). If grading practices can encourage a learning-centered rather than a grade-centered motivation among our students, then we will have progressed toward that goal. Equally important, as faculty learn about grading, talk about it with colleagues, think about what they want it to accomplish, and talk about it with students, the number of problems related to grading should decrease, and the quality of their teaching, as well as their feelings of efficacy as teachers, should rise.

Martha Zlokovich MARTHA S. ZLOKOVICH is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Southeast Missouri State University, where she teaches Developmental Psychology courses. She has served as the faculty advisor for Southeast's Psi Chi chapter for eight years and recently finished a two-year term as Midwestern Region Vice President of Psi Chi.

References & Recommended Readings

American Association for Higher Education.(1989). Assessment forum: 9 principles of good
     practice for assessing student learning. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved June 27, 2000
     from the World Wide Web: http://www.aahe.org/assessment/principl.htm
Black, P. (1998). Testing: Friend or foe? London: Falmer Press.
Brookhart, S. M. (1999). The art and science of classroom assessment: The missing part of
     pedagogy. Washington, DC: The George Washington University.
Hammons, J. O., & Barnsley, J. R. (1992). Everything you need to know about developing a grading
     plan for your course (well almost). Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 3, 51-68.
Milton, O., Pollio, H. R., & Eison, J. A. (1986). Making sense of college grades: Why the grading
     system does not work and what can be done about it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment.
     San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Note: This article first appeared in the January 2001 (Vol. 14, No. 1) issue of the APS Observer.