Students do not get credit for classes until they are assigned a passing grade. The process of grading can be anxiety-provoking for instructors and students alike. This aspect of teaching comes with challenges around fairness, equity, workload, and purpose. There are a wide range of methods that can be used, including a set of practices known as “ungrading,” which critically approach the question of grading and evaluation in our educational system.
This chapter is intended to help you develop your own strategies for responding to student work in ways that account for diversity in how students learn, as well as the obstacles they often face. We offer suggestions for how to be encouraging, efficient, purposeful, and constructive in your feedback.
- Getting Started with Evaluating Student Work
- Being Practical
- Peer and Self-Evaluation
- Grading Rubrics
- Getting Students to Engage With Feedback
Assessment. Grading. Evaluation. Feedback. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings when we teach. Understanding these terms and the practices associated with them is an important first step in constructing your own approach to this central part of being a college instructor.
“Assessment” is sometimes used as a synonym for grading or evaluation, but in education it often has a more formal meaning that connects what happens in classes and curricula to processes of accreditation and institutional review. In this more formal framing, assessment requires a systematic collection and review by faculty and administrators of artifacts and other sources. Departments and programs may designate particular classes as points in the curriculum to gather data for assessment. If your course is designated as an assessment course, your students’ work may be used in programmatic assessment. As such, you might be asked to have students complete or submit a particular assignment designed by the department.
In its broader, less formal meaning, it’s useful to think of two categories of assessments: formative and summative.
Formative assessments help the instructor to modify their teaching to better match the needs of the students. Formative assessments can be high-stakes (i.e. represent a significant portion of the grade), but they are often low-stakes. Examples include quizzes, self-assessments, and first drafts of writing assignments.
Summative assessments tend to have higher stakes, and measure student performance against a standard. They generally come at the end of an instructional unit or the course as a whole. Examples include mid-term exams and final papers or projects.
Grading is the act of quantifying your evaluation of student work. Individual assignments can be graded, and at the end of the semester, you give your students a grade by entering it into your roster on CUNYFirst.
For “CUNY’s Uniform Grade Glossary, Policies, and Guidelines,” see this document from the University Registrar’s office.
Evaluation is the process of measuring work against a standard, whether that standard is determined externally, collectively within the community of the class, or somewhere in-between. Evaluation can be quantitative in nature—a letter or a number grade—or it can be qualitative. It is most often, though not always, connected to acts of summative assessment.
Feedback is the qualitative evaluation given on work that’s either in progress or has been completed. The most effective feedback is formative, as it helps the evaluated reflect upon their work and to imagine ways to continue to improve or refine it going forward
Understanding the different modes available to you as a college teacher when you evaluate work is necessary in order to grade and to give purposeful feedback. It’s important to understand and to articulate what you’re looking for from your students, and also how you want them to interact with your feedback. In some academic programs—such as nursing, pre-med, or accountancy— courses tend to prepare students for external certifications, during which they will be measured against standards over which faculty and students do not have much say (if any at all). In other courses—such as creative writing, or seminar or capstone courses—you and your students may have complete autonomy to define how grading happens. And many courses exist between those ends of the spectrum, combining pursuit of standards articulated by the program or department with those identified by the faculty member, perhaps in dialogue with their students.
Some faculty begin with the learning goals that they’ve designed or inherited for their course, consider what kinds of skills students might practice to pursue those goals, and then ask how students will ultimately demonstrate what they’ve learned. Others grade the way that they were graded as students, presuming that’s just the way it’s done. Some ask their students to determine how they would prefer to be evaluated, and enter into contracts with students over how grades for the course will ultimately be determined.
Whatever your approach, it’s important to determine what agency you have within the process, and how you want to use that privilege and authority to further your goals as an educator. It’s important to account for the various contexts in which we teach—as laid out by this Handbook’s Principles—and to make our choices with intentionality.
Good teaching takes time, and giving students grades and feedback constitutes a significant percentage of that time. Below are some strategies that you can take to both contain the time you spend on student work and to maximize how that time helps your students grow as learners. Ideally, you want to find an approach that is useful and generative for students and mindful of your own labor as the instructor.
Sometimes students’ work suffers from their lack of understanding about the assignment. Perhaps our prompts have asked too much, or failed to explain clearly enough how we want students to complete the assignment. Ultimately, the prompts for your assignments should indicate to your students what your expectations are for the tasks you are asking them to complete. You might even use the prompt as an informal or formal guide—a rubric —for how you’ll respond to the work.
If the project is scaffolded, or built gradually, feedback may be more useful during the course of a project than at the conclusion. If the kind of assignment will be repeated, then you might want to give the students a few comments about how to adjust their initial approach to the assignment in order to more directly align with what you hope to see the next time.
If several students are facing similar challenges on an assignment, rather than writing comments to each of them, you might take a few minutes in the next class to explain common missteps, perhaps with an example, or post a model response online so that students have a better idea of what you are seeking. If the assignment will lead directly into another one, you might offer comments to help the student bridge the two: what do they need to do in order to strengthen their work for the next benchmark in the sequence?
Consider the stakes of the assignment and adjust the effort you spend grading to match.
If it’s a low-stakes task, then your assessment method should also be relatively brief and “low-stakes.” Consider a check +/- approach, and record that the student has completed the work. Ultimately, foreground what you want to see the student accomplish through the assignment, and mark accordingly.
When it comes to feedback, more is not necessarily better. Research suggests that students often benefit from an approach called “minimal marking,” in which instructors refrain from correcting students’ superficial errors, and direct them instead to find and correct those errors themselves. Instructors focus on crafting a global comment that identifies what the students’ work is doing, and doing well, and then notes a few specific areas for revision.
Allow students to revise the papers they submit, so that you can design your comments with a specific purpose in mind. That way, students see your feedback as a step in a process—rather than a “postmortem” on a final product which they may never have an opportunity to revisit.
When giving feedback on writing, focus on “higher-order” concerns—like a paper’s ideas and organization—before turning to “lower-order” ones, like sentence errors. It’s often the case that lower-order issues improve once higher-order concerns are addressed.
Instead of marking students’ sentence-level errors, make check marks next to the sentences that include them—then direct students to find and fix the errors themselves. Additionally, or alternatively, you could edit a single paragraph in the paper, as a model for the kinds of editing you are expecting students to do before they submit their work for review.
If, for example, you assign a set of math problems, you might choose to spot-check five out of twenty, or you might check all of them and simply mark them as correct or incorrect, or you might highlight the line in the work where the solution goes astray, etc. Each option requires a time commitment on your end, and it’s important to determine if that time will be well spent. If you want to mark where the problem goes astray, are you planning on asking the student to rework the problem? If you spot-check five questions, will you ask students to check their other answers against solutions you post?
Make the marginal comments you provide “readerly”—that is, use them to note where you, as a reader, get confused, or need additional examples or clarity.
Construct your final comment using this 3-step template: (1) strengths, (2) summary of a limited number of problems, and (3) recommendations for revision.
You do not need to be your students’ only source of formal and informal feedback on assignments. Having students evaluate their own work or their peers’ is both a time-saving strategy and beneficial to their learning, as effective peer and self-evaluation are skills that carry across multiple disciplines and are also often applicable in professional settings. To facilitate peer and self evaluation, it’s important to provide clear expectations and guidelines. Helping students give each other formative feedback can be a great way to distribute the process while also deepening and broadening student engagement with each other and with course material.
If you choose to make use of peer review, you can ask students to exchange papers, projects, or problem sets with each other and offer feedback, either during class or as a homework assignment.
Peer review is typically most effective when students have specific instructions and clear expectations. To this end, you might try the following strategies:
- Instruct students to avoid evaluative language (such as “good” or “bad”) and ask them to describe what’s happening or where they get confused, etc. (See the notion of using “readerly” language above.)
- Similarly, you might direct students not to correct grammar (this will reassure students who feel unsure about their own grasp of grammar, and prevent overly-zealous students from introducing unneeded complexity into a peer’s work). Students often confuse revision (more global rewriting) with editing (making more local, sentence-level changes), so this approach provides an opportunity to clarify that difference.
- Ask students to treat the text or assignment they’re reviewing as they would treat any other text they encounter in your course, reading critically to identify its argument, understand how it uses evidence, and evaluate its clarity.
- Give students specific elements to focus on in their feedback. For instance, ask them just to focus on a paper’s use of evidence, or its thesis statement, or its organization.
- Consider pairing an assignment rubric with peer review. Incorporating a rubric into peer review reinforces the target or focus areas for the assignment and offers students an opportunity to identify and evaluate the presence of those skills on the rubric in a peer’s writing before they return to their own.
- Share a worksheet with students which prompts them to do certain things with their peer’s draft (for instance, underline and restate the thesis statement as they understand it). This sheet can then be returned to the writer and used during revision.
- Have several students work on the same paper and compare notes so that they practice identifying rubric elements, and can ask any questions about them before revising.
- Incentivize the reviewer’s job by assigning points or a grade to the work. That said, students are often enthusiastic about helping their classmates strengthen their ideas and thinking without the pressure of a grade.
Self-Assessment can encompass anything from filling in an assignment rubric as part of the drafting or revision process, to writing a letter reflecting upon the experience of completing the assignment, to asking students to collect, revise and arrange past assignments into a portfolio. If you’re asking students to evaluate their own work on a particular assignment, make sure you explain why you’re asking them to do so, and to what end. Structured self-assessment from students also helps make one-on-one meetings successful by helping students determine the areas where they want the most assistance. Effective self-assessment is one of several skills that span disciplines, and is also applicable in a wide range of jobs students might hold outside of or beyond school.
In particular, you might ask students to:
- Generate or complete a self-assessment sheet to accompany an assignment (see http://cuny.is/assignmentassess for one you might adapt).
- Write out the three or four points that they want feedback on from you.
- Highlight a few objectives and ask students to evaluate how successfully they accomplished the task (making sure you define what would qualify as “successful”).
- Think through the assignment in relation to the course objectives and identify what skills or knowledge they gained in relation to the expectations of the course.
- Develop a “mini-rubric” that works in conjunction with other rubrics for the class which articulates what they hope to get out of the assignment, or what they hope to accomplish beyond the stated requirements. These mini-rubrics can help students make additional connections between assignments and their previous learning, and encourage them to articulate their own learning goals.
Rubrics can break down the expectations and aspirations for an assignment into categories and help students complete it with those specific categories in mind. They often resemble a grid or a chart with the skill listed in one column, and a qualitative evaluation of that skill indicated in rows (or vice versa). Some rubrics include detailed descriptions of expectations for each category, while others indicate level of mastery. They offer instructors the opportunity to check how well students have mastered targeted skill areas, and can be helpful to students as they plan their approach to an assignment.
Rubrics can save instructors grading time since they offer a way to communicate beyond the prompt, marginal comments, and line edits. Further, rubrics take subjects or assignments such as oral presentations and essays that are frequently seen as “overly subjective” and make visible the rationale behind a grade. Rubrics also support effective evaluation in that they help the instructor point to specific elements or skills for the student to work on. They can help debunk a student's potential feeling that "I'm not good at this" or "I can't do this."
For instructors, the process of generating a rubric will help you articulate clear expectations and targets for the assignment, and will also give you a way to “proof” your review of the prompt. For students, rubrics not only supplement the expectations and requirements of the assignment, but also frame those expectations in a different format. You can refer to the rubric during class when you’re working on a particular skill that relates directly to what students will be asked to do in the assignment.
You might consider involving your students in co-designing a rubric for an assignment. Students feel a sense of agency and investment when they participate in creating course policies and assessment criteria. Ask them what they see as the most important criteria for the assignment. How much agreement or disagreement is there among the class? You can decide how much you will arbitrate this process, but asking for input from your students can be a good strategy to ensure they understand and are comfortable with how they will be assessed.
To generate your own rubric, think about what your assignment is designed to measure and what its objectives are. Make a list of components you want to see in the assignment and arrange the list in categories. Some things to consider when designing your rubric:
- List the skill categories in order of most to least important (heavily weighted to least in terms of grading).
- Be mindful of how many criteria both you and your students can keep track of.
- Return to your learning goals and incorporate that language into your rubric.
- Write out a description of what each evaluative category means both in terms of grade range and in terms of specific criteria. So, for example, a “proficient” thesis statement puts a student in x grade range and requires that the statement has certain elements.
- Test your rubric against the assignment instructions. Do they mesh? Does the assignment indicate the categories that appear on the rubric?
- Discourage your students from letting the rubric overdetermine their approach. You don’t want them to “write to the rubric,” but rather to use the rubric as a reference point for self-evaluation during the process of completing an assignment.
There are many existing rubrics that you can take in full or modify for your classes; below are a few we find especially helpful:
- Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center has collected rubrics for a range of assignments including papers, projects and oral presentations.
- UC Berkeley’s Graduate Division’s Teaching and Resource Center has a list of sample rubrics for a range of disciplines.
- DePaul’s Teaching Commons gives examples and breaks down the advantages and disadvantages of different rubrics.
- This essay rubric was shared by Jade Davis, formerly of LaGuardia Community College and Columbia University, now at the University of Pennsylvania.
- A rubric designed by students specifically for participation was shared by Kaitlin Mondello, formerly of the Teaching and Learning Center, and now at Millersville University.
- The University of Southern Maine has collected a series of rubrics - organized by type of assignment.:
- University of North Carolina-Wilmington has a list of rubrics organized by discipline.
One of the biggest frustrations for instructors is spending hours marking papers with detailed comments, only to see students immediately drop them, unexamined, into the depths of an overstuffed backpack. If you want students to review and implement the feedback you’re giving them, it’s helpful to build a step into the assignment that asks students to engage with previous feedback (check out the “Speak Back/Feedback” assignment in Chapter 10). For example, you can ask students to write a cover letter for a subsequent draft addressing how they incorporated prior feedback. Another strategy you might try is giving your formative feedback and the grade for the assignment separately so that students focus less on the outcome, and more on the process of learning.
Many scholars feel that grades play a negative role in our efforts to help students grow as learners, and eschew issuing grades or participating in formal assessment altogether. Some feel that efforts to rank students or to measure them against each other or external standards condition both teacher and students to feel that learning is fixed, unidirectional, or competitive rather than messy, complex, and supported by social contexts. Efforts to imagine alternative approaches to assessment fall under the broad category of “ungrading,” and date back nearly half a century. These approaches have been explored recently in the collection of essays Ungrading, by Susan Bloom, including essays by multiple scholars with connections to CUNY.
At CUNY, all students must receive a grade in order to receive credit for the class. But faculty can explore ungrading approaches by limiting the number of high stakes assignments they give and/or offering students multiple opportunities for revising what they’ve done and improving their grade. Inviting students into the process of determining how they will be assessed, either by contract grading or by co-constructing the grading policy for the class, is another way to limit some of the potentially deleterious effects of grading.
It’s important for young faculty to know, however, that more senior faculty at your campus may be skeptical of such approaches, since they challenge existing orthodoxy about schooling in the United States. If you decide to explore ungrading, make sure you have a sound rationale and explanation for doing so, one accessible both to your students and to administrators in your program. The TLC can help you think through how to do this wisely, given your specific teaching context.