Chapter 8. Grading and Assessment
Grading and assessment are often anxiety-producing experiences for both instructors and students. This work will take a significant amount of your time and labor as a college instructor and comes with challenges around fairness, equity, workload, and purpose. There are a wide range of approaches that can be used. This chapter is intended to help new college teachers develop strategies for responding to student work in ways that account for the various ways that students learn as well as the obstacles they often face. We offer suggestions for how to be encouraging, efficient, purposeful, and productive in your feedback. This section concludes with some contextual information on the role of assessment in the university accreditation process.
The first steps in developing a strategy for assessing student work is to figure out what you’re looking for from your students, and how you want them to receive your feedback. Examine your learning goals and think about what kinds of skills you want your students to practice and how you ultimately want them to demonstrate what they’ve learned.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of approaches to assessment: formative and summative.
Formative assessments allow 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 usually 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 set by the instructor. They generally come at the end of an instructional moment or unit. Examples include mid-term exams and final papers or projects.
Pick your assessment strategy for a specific reason.
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 has an increasing time commitment on your end, and it’s important to decide if that time is 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 students compare their other answers before you move on to the next set or will you post the solutions? If you make marginal suggestions on a student paper, will the student have a time to implement them in a revision?
Think, too, about where the assignment falls in the sequence of assignments for the course.
Is it a stand-alone assignment or one of a number assigned throughout a unit? Or perhaps it’s part of a scaffolded project? Feedback can be even more important during the course of a project than at the conclusion. If the type of assignment will be repeated, then you might want to give the students a few comments about how to adjust their response in order to meet what you hope to see next time.
If several students have made the same wrong turn, rather than writing comments to each of them (time-consuming!), 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 looking for in the next assignment. 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 next benchmark in the sequence?
Finally, consider the stakes of the assignment and adjust your grading to match.
If it’s a low-stakes task, then your assessment method should also be relatively brief and “low-stakes.” In order to manage your time, think about what you want to see the student accomplish through the assignment, and mark accordingly.
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 use that prompt as an informal or formal guide (rubric) for how you’ll respond to the work.
Accessibility Tip: Be aware of the needs of your students when you are designing an activity and a mode of assessment. For example, if you are going to administer an in-class quiz, be mindful of students who may need extra time. Similarly, if you require students to orally present their projects, be sure to think about how you will support students who struggle with speaking aloud. Allowing students input and/or choice in how they are assessed can help all students be clearer and more comfortable with how they will be evaluated.
Grading and Feedback
One of the biggest frustrations for instructors is spending hours marking papers with amazingly helpful and 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 requires students to engage with previous feedback (check out the “Speak Back/Feedback” assignment in Section III Ideas). For example, you can ask students to write a cover letter for a subsequent draft addressing how they will incorporate suggestions. 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.
Rubrics break down the assignment expectations into categories and enable students to complete an assignment with those specific categories in mind. They often resemble a grid or chart with the skill listed in one column and the success level 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.
Rubrics can save instructors grading time since they offer a way to communicate outside of marginal comments or line edits. Further, rubrics take subjects or assignments such as oral presentations and essays that are frequently seen as “overly subjective” and demonstrate the rationale behind the grade. While rubrics are commonly thought of as a tool for instructors, they can also be useful for students as they complete an assignment, and can provide clarity on criteria for peer review and group projects.
It’s often helpful to distribute the rubric alongside the assignment. For you, the process of generating a rubric will ensure you have clear expectations and targets for the assignment, and it will also give you a way to “proof” the assignment directions. For students, it not only supplements the expectations and requirements of the assignment, but also frames 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.
If you’ll use a single rubric or one that is extremely similar throughout the course of the semester, consider distributing it outside the context of an assignment and spending some time as a class or in small groups annotating the various categories. Ask students to return to their annotated rubric throughout the semester and revise or add to it as necessary.
Consider involving your students in making your rubrics (and your syllabus if you want, as discussed in Chapter 6 Conceptualizing Your Course). Students feel a sense of agency and investment when they get to 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?
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. Check them out at
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 of LaGuardia Community College:
A rubric designed by students specifically for participation shared by Kaitlin Mondello of Hunter College:
Responding to Students’ Work
Responding to students’ writing effectively and efficiently takes practice. Ideally, you want to find an approach that is both useful and generative for students and mindful of your own labor as the instructor. It is likely that you will at least occasionally find yourself needing to read and respond to a lot of student work quickly, so it is useful to develop strategies for commenting on student work that aren’t overly time-consuming.
The good news is that when it comes to providing your students with 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. Instead, 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.
In addition, there are a number of other strategies you might keep in mind when commenting on students’ work—many drawn from Chapter 16 of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas (an invaluable resource for instructors across the curriculum):
Allow students to revise the papers they submit, so that you can design your comments with an eye to prompting revision. That way, students see your feedback a step in a process—rather than a “postmortem” on a final product.
Focus on “higher-order” concerns—like a paper’s ideas and organization—before turning to “lower-order” ones, like sentence errors.
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.
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.
Remember that you don’t have to comment on (or even collect) all the writing students do. You could respond to low-stakes assignments using checks, check minuses, or check-pluses; in-class writing and freewriting exercises might be used in class, and not collected, or included as a scaffolded step in a higher-stakes project.
You will also probably see certain structural and grammatical errors that happen in multiple assignments in your class. As discussed above, consider devoting some time in class to discussing these issues as a group, which will save you time in your marking and potentially benefit all of your students.
Peer and Self-Evaluation
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, but you need to provide clear expectations and guidelines. Peer review and self-evaluation are excellent opportunities for formative assessment.
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 errors into a peer’s work). Students often confuse revision (more global rewriting) with editing (making more local, sentence-level changes), so this is also an opportunity to clarify that difference.
Tell students to treat the text or assignment they’re reviewing as they would treat any other text they encounter in your course.
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 your assignment rubric with peer review. Incorporating the 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 the assignment rubric as part of their drafting or revision process, to writing a letter detailing their experience doing the assignment, to asking students to collect, revise and arrange past assignments in 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.
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 (this one tailored to their own interests and goals for the assignment), 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.
A Note About Assessment and Accreditation
Working in a university setting, it is helpful to be aware of what accreditation entails and its implications for your classroom. In New York state, CUNY is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education which periodically requires a two-to-five year process of peer review that evaluates whether the educational standards and goals of the institution and individual programs are met.
To comply with accreditation requirements, programs and departments gather artifacts of student learning to assess the effectiveness of their curriculum. Departments and programs will 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.