Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Grades and Grading

The Problem with Grades

Grading is a perpetually thorny issue. No one likes to assign grades, but virtually everyone acknowledges the necessity of doing so. Grading can be the cause of sleepless nights for students and teachers alike, as well as the source of frustration and dispute when two parties disagree over the appropriateness of a grade. Why this strife?

Grading is about standards, and standards imply judgment. Quantitative disciplines are somewhat advantaged in this area because people who teach these subjects use judgments like “right and wrong,” while people in the humanities and other argument-oriented disciplines are stuck with “better and worse.” No one gets off easy in this grading game. Many students will flee quantitative subjects convinced that such disciplines are tyrannical and uncreative. Those same students run back after a semester in the humanities, hissing all the way that grading is subjective, personal, and unfair. Scylla, meet Charybdis. Rock, meet hard place.

But maybe this predicament is caused not by the standards but by the way we apply them—or fail to apply them—throughout the semester. In quantitative subjects, running through a series of problems without giving students the opportunity to consider the whence, whither, and wherefore doesn’t exactly inspire them to think, excite their curiosity, or make them feel like they’re part of the game. No wonder they’re peeved when the questions on the test require original or high-level thought. Conversely, we may be setting students up for disappointment and frustration in the humanities when their contributions in section—no matter how far afield, poorly argued, or lacking in evidence—are greeted with a smile of approval, only to be skewered when that same level of thought appears in a paper.

The point is, standards aren’t just for tests. They’re for learning, thinking, discussing, the whole shebang. View grades not solely as big red letters written atop each assignment and quiz, but within the larger context of feedback. So explain the standards to your students, apply the standards (nicely) during discussion and problem solving, and show your students that you, your section, and their hard work are the ticket to meeting them. You’ll be a lot better off at grading time.

But your students are not the only ones who should be getting feedback in the classroom. A person’s teaching, as with any other activity, only improves with practice and constructive criticism. The practice will come with time; The Tables Turn! Students Evaluating You will suggest ways to elicit that constructive criticism.

Why Grading is So Hard: The Jekyll and Hyde Effect

Most TFs begin their semester with the hope that they will be great teachers: their students will be inspired, they will learn the material, they will do the work, and they will get good grades — all because we, as teachers, will guide them through. But eventually they hand in an assignment and we are suddenly transformed into the merciless arbiter of an impersonal standard. No longer are we the friendly, helpful TFs that we once were.

We are the Grim Grader, slashing at the fields of undergraduate effort with the sharp scythes of A- and B+. We change hats; we shift loyalties. No wonder there’s some emotional fallout.

Easing the Pain

The best way to alleviate some of the tension between your roles as helper and evaluator is to set clear expectations and standards at the outset, preferably in writing. Students need to know what constitutes an A paper, what constitutes a B paper, and, heaven forbid, what constitutes an F (yes, Virginia, there are grades lower than C). Are students graded on attendance? Class participation? Will papers be graded on style as well as content? You don’t necessarily have to come up with these guidelines on your own, though: check with the supervising faculty member to see if any standards or grading strategies have already been set.

With such explicit expectations in place, students will be far more understanding when you make the leap from Joe Smiley the TF to judge, jury, and executioner. (Don’t worry, there haven’t been any real executions at Yale since the 1950s.) By setting clear standards at the outset, you’ll avoid a lot of student complaints about your grading. Here are some suggestions for making those standards clear.

Have All the Answers

In grading exams, lab reports, and problem sets, consider preparing an answer key (or some clear indication of what made for an average/better/excellent answer) and making it available to your students—perhaps posted outside your office or on the class web site. Provide the correct answer to each question and indicate which responses earned partial credit and how many points you’ve deducted for certain errors. You can then have students compare their work to this model before coming to you with complaints or questions about grading.

Samples of Brilliance

Weaker writers often have no idea what a strong paper looks like, and they will have great difficulty improving their writing if they don’t see what to change. Consider distributing sample papers to let students know what you consider to be worthy of a high grade. You might also find that a few of your best writers will be willing to have their papers made available (anonymously, of course) for future students to read and learn from.

Put That Preaching into Practice

Make reference to the written guidelines you give students when you comment on their work so that they can see where their performance does or does not measure up to your expectations. In the course of your first semester of teaching, you may find that you develop a new set of instructions (written or unwritten) for preparing a good term paper, problem set, or lab report. The next time you teach, write up these standards and discuss them with students before the first assignment is due.

Approaches to, and Techniques for, Grading Fairly

Clear expectations serve a useful purpose only if they’re fairly and consistently enforced. In other words, you can’t run a classroom in which attendance counts against you only if you’re a registered Republican. In a course where all students complete identical problem sets, papers, or exams, the same criteria must be applied in grading each student’s work. Here are some suggestions for increasing consistency, which can be applied in many different situations.

Grade the Question, Not the Student

When grading an exam or assignment with multiple sections, grade all responses to the same question (or set of related questions) together. This makes it less likely that a student’s overall level of performance on the exam or assignment will cause you to give a grade for a particular section that is undeservedly high or low. Naturally, this approach is about as exciting as an evening with C-SPAN, but the good and poor performances will stand out much more clearly this way than if you alternate among topics or question formats, and it will be easier for you to develop and adhere to consistent scoring criteria.

The item-by-item approach also works well if there are multiple TFs for the same course. If each of you grades a particular question or group of questions on every exam, you’ll be in a better position to assure students that everyone’s work has been evaluated in the same way.

Waiting for Godot

As you begin grading a particular assignment or exam question, read through several students’ answers without marking grades. At the very least, restrict yourself to tentative marks in pencil. This will give you a sense of the overall range of students’ responses before you start inscribing final grades in indelible red ink.

Although you’ll probably think about the components of a good answer before reading any exams at all, students will occasionally surprise you by interpreting the question very differently from what you or the professor had in mind. Similarly, a question will sometimes prove to be much more difficult than you anticipated. Because such problems are often the fault of the testing instrument rather than of the student, it’s important that you understand how students are actually approaching the question before you begin to grade.

Take Two

After you finish grading, review the first few assignments you graded. You will often find that you were much nastier with the red ink at the beginning of the grading process than at the end, and you may be pleasantly surprised to find that some of the first assignments you graded made points other students failed to mention. You will also have developed a more refined sense of a “good” as opposed to an “average” or “weak” performance over the course of your grading, and you may realize that the first assignments you read were better (or worse) than you initially thought. For these reasons, you may not want to mark any grades in pen until you’ve finished with the whole set of exams or papers and are happy with the distribution of grades as a whole.

Grade Blind

If you’ve come to know your students well in section or lab, you may have definite expectations, hopes, or fears about their performance on major assignments. In order to avoid being influenced by what you know or anticipate about a student’s work, you might want to keep the grading as anonymous as possible: just fold back the cover sheet of each paper or exam so that you can’t see the student’s name. (If you want to do this with papers, you should make a point of asking students to include their name only on the cover page.)

Grading without regard to students’ identities does not prevent you from commenting on how students’ work has progressed (or degenerated) over the course of the semester. Once the actual assigning of letter grades is complete, you can always go back to your written comments and praise students who have made notable improvements (or caution students who have done the reverse).

Partners in Crime

No TF is an island. Cooperation with other TFs can take different forms, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Assuming your supervising faculty member does not hold a practice grading session, one possibility is for the TFs in a course to grade an exam or other assignment together, dividing the questions among themselves and conferring in unusual or borderline cases.
  • A second alternative is to exchange exams or papers with other TFs, ensuring that nobody grades their own students’ work.
  • Third, TFs in the same course may seek to standardize their grade distributions even if they do the grading individually. This might involve attempting to equalize (roughly) the percentage of students in each TF’s sections who receive a particular grade, or having TFs share student work they feel exemplifies each grade category with the others (an A paper, a B paper), or some combination of these strategies. After conferring with your fellow TFs, you might then need to go back and adjust borderline students’ grades up or down to ensure balance across sections.
  • Finally, the professor may have instructed all TFs to adhere to a certain grade distribution. This can bring problems of its own, but it does eliminate the issue of consistency across sections.

What to Do When Students Challenge Your Grade

A common scenario: you return students’ papers and, after the usual period of sighing and moaning, a student approaches you with the dreaded “I’d like to talk to you about my grade.” What then?

Wait a Minute

The first thing to do is stall for time. No joke. Don’t be pressured into hearing a case and making a decision on the spot. There will probably be other students around, and you might be in a rush to get out of the classroom. Unless the grade change is truly minor and unquestionable, set up another time when you can give the student your full consideration (within a few days, to be fair). Then, before you meet the student, take some time to remind yourself what your grading standards are. Also, if you have the student’s paper available, reconsider how the paper fits those standards (it’s always a good idea to make copies of your comments for future reference).

Another option is to have the student write out his or her side of the story and turn it in with a copy of the exam or paper. That way, you’ll have time to review the case before meeting to discuss it. If the case really is clear-cut and simple, it won’t take long to explain it, and it won’t take you long to make a decision on the merits of the student’s case.

Let students talk during such conferences. In fact, let them talk a lot. Resist the temptation to jump in with your defense. Shouting, “Zip it! You failed!” will only exacerbate the situation. Many students take getting a bad grade very personally, so don’t escalate things by making the grading process personal as well.

Why do students complain about a grade? There are several possibilities.

  • The student is embarrassed about getting a low grade and is trying to win your approval as a person, or perhaps trying to show you that she is smarter than the grade reflects.
  • The student is genuinely trying to learn how to write better papers or do better on exams.
  • The student is trying to figure out how to get a better grade in the future.
  • The student is just trying to get a higher grade right now.

Dealing with the last possibility can be frustrating, but don’t assume that that’s the reason when in fact any of the other possibilities might be the case. (We don’t have to tell you what happens when you assume, do we?) Always imagine that your student has higher motives, and aim your conversation at that level. You can always give the student the option of having the supervising professor read and re-evaluate the paper or exam. Just be sure to remind the student that the grade could go down even further.

One last thing: if you allow a student to rewrite a paper, make sure that you allow every student that opportunity. In this case, it can’t be only the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. You gotta grease ’em all.

“Grade Compression” (Or, Grading from A to…C?)

Once upon a time, in universities far, far away, getting a C meant that your performance was average. A was at the top, F was at the bottom, and C was cleverly placed right in the middle (don’t ask what happened to E). But now we live in the world of Upward Grade Homogenization (UGH, commonly called Grade Inflation or — as Yale prefers it, “grade compression”), where most students, TFs, and professors consider C to be a bad grade—not the worst possible grade, mind you, but certainly less than average. So, the question is, what are the possible effects of UGH on your grading procedures?

  • If you reserve A’s for truly excellent work and give out C’s only for truly terrible work, you might end up cramming all of your students into an over-crowded B/B+ range that doesn’t really differentiate between their levels of work.
  • You might start throwing out A’s like a clown with a bag of candy—everybody gets one. The truly exceptional work is mixed in with the mediocre.
  • Because C is considered a bad grade, you might be reluctant to give out D’s and F’s even if the student truly deserves it
  • You might get crazy and start inventing new grades like “Super A+++.” These grades, while eye catching, will not be recognized by the Registrar.

There are divergent, strongly-held beliefs about grades and grade inflation, and the grading policies of individual TFs are unlikely to be the catalyst for any institutional change. In short, there’s not a lot to be said about UGH except that it exists. Bummer, babe. About the only thing we can say is that there is still a distinct spectrum of grades. If a student is blowing off the class or handing in terrible work, don’t be afraid to give out D’s or F’s. If a student hands in a term paper three pages long, poorly written, and smelling suspiciously like cheap beer, give it the grade it deserves: B-, of course.

When a Student Is Failing

Before midterm, the Registrar sends each faculty instructor or PTAI copies of a form that requests information about students doing unsatisfactory work, particularly those who are in danger of failing the course. However, it’s not always clear by midterm whether a student is on track to fail the course. Nevertheless, if you suspect that a student is in danger of failing, or even in danger of getting a D, let your supervising faculty know; if you’re a PTAI, you can use the form to alert the student’s residential college dean or you can contact the dean directly.

Unsatisfactory grades—D’s and F’s—are taken very seriously. If you give a student a D or an F for a final grade, there is a chance that the grade will be challenged. This is another reason to have crystal clear standards for how you plan to grade student papers, exams, and assignments. It’s also a reason to keep copies of assignments and exams and detailed records of each student’s performance for future reference.

Grading Student Writing

Grading student writing, especially for a first-time TF, can be a nerve-wracking experience. Let’s face it, some of us have gotten to the point where we don’t never think about the mechanics of writing papers no more.

Here are some suggestions that might help you get gooder at dealing with student writing.

Check in with Others

If you’re concerned about grading written work, share a few student papers with the instructor or other TFs in order to compare their responses with your own. TFs in some courses routinely exchange essays they feel are particularly good examples of each grade level. These can be accompanied by stale gum to give them a real collector’s feel: “I’ll give you a B+ from my Shakespeare course if you give me an A- from Contemporary Lit.”

Read Me, Please

Getting students to read your comments is one of the most difficult challenges in the grading process. Almost all students turn first to the grade, and some barely glance at the marginal comments, much less re-read the essay and reflect on how it might have been improved. This is less of a problem if every paper assignment includes the opportunity for consultation and revision, but that process can be very time-consuming and impractical.

One partial solution is to require small revisions for every paper. You might ask students to rewrite an introduction or conclusion, or to rework a key paragraph, which they would hand in at the next meeting. Students are more responsive to feedback when it is ongoing, focused, and clear.

Another solution is to summarize your margin notes or pick up on one or two big issues in a discursive comment (2-4 sentences) at the end of the assignment. This gives you a chance to refer back to previous work (“This concluding paragraph is stronger that last week’s”), give suggestions (“Review the passé simple!”), or even slip in an old chestnut or two (“Try harder!” or “Keep up the good work!”).

Don’t Overdo It

It’s usually a massive waste of time to overhaul a paper until it works well. Most TFs do want to point out basic grammatical and stylistic mistakes but don’t feel obliged to cover every last detail in the paper. You don’t want a situation in which you hand back a paper with more red ink on it than black (not that you should necessarily use red ink, but you get the point). In most cases there is a limit to the amount of constructive criticism a student can absorb. Consider choosing a few major points to emphasize instead of trying to be comprehensive. Also, be sure to respond to some positive aspects of the writer’s work (however much of a stretch this is) rather than only pointing out negatives.

Splitting the Atom

If it’s appropriate for your class, you might consider using split grades (e.g., B/A-) to indicate separate evaluations for style and content. Students who make great arguments but write their papers like VCR instructions might get an A for content and a C for style (averaging out to a B for the final grade). On the other hand, students who write beautifully but with an argument so obvious that it doesn’t need arguing (“Metallica rocks hard”) might get an A for style and a C for content.

Other Grading Issues Not to Be Dealt with in This Section

There are certain Yale policies and procedures that have a significant influence on grading that are not discussed in this section. These include issues such as “cut restriction,” dean’s excuses, withdrawals from a course, temporary incompletes, reading week, and Credit/D/Fail. For more on these fascinating topics, see Chapter 7.