Establishing a Fair and Supportive Grading Environment

Grading serves multiple purposes. While the most obvious purpose is to evaluate students’ work — as a measure of competency, achievement, and meeting the expectations of the course — grading can also be a key to communication, motivation, organization and faculty/student reflection. It’s for that reason that Virginia Johnson Anderson, EdD, calls grading “a context-dependent, complex process.”

In the recent online video seminar Grading Strategies to Promote Student & Faculty Success, Anderson talked about some of the misconceptions that faculty and students have about grades and how faculty can establish a fair and supportive grading environment. Anderson, a professor of biological sciences at Towson University and co-author of Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College, also acknowledged that grading typically isn’t a teacher’s favorite part of the job.

To illustrate, she told the story of a faculty member from New York whose department chair called out of retirement. It seems the institution had been unable to find someone to teach a specific course that seniors needed in order to graduate, so the department chair asked whether the retired professor would be willing to teach one more semester on a part-time basis.

The professor agreed to teach the course. Then the department chair said, rather apologetically, “Well, now I hate to bring this up, but you do know this is going to be at part-time pay. What’s the least you would take for teaching this course?”

And the professor looked right at him, and said, “Oh, I’ll teach for free,” before adding, “but you’re going to have to pay me to grade.”

“I think that’s the way that most of us feel about this process,” Anderson said.

However, given the importance of grading to the teaching and learning process, faculty need to be more strategic in how grading and assignments are used. Here are a few of the strategies Anderson shared during the seminar.

1. Rethink the big question. Ask yourself “What will students be able to know and do at the end of this course?” rather than “What am I going to cover?”

2. Stop using the word “understand.” If you list as a learning objective that, for example, “Students will understand the concept of photosynthesis,” students may gain a very surface level of knowledge that it’s something plants do and then will feel they’ve met the requirement. Anderson recommends using words from Bloom’s Taxonomy that require higher levels of cognition, such as apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.

3. Identify, model and engage students in the kinds of thinking that are important to your discipline.

4. Construct a welcoming, thorough and explicit syllabus, and refer to it often. Anderson recommends printing your syllabus on colored paper so it stands out and students can find it easily throughout the semester. The tone you use is equally important.

“When I read syllabi … I have to remind myself that I’m not working for the state penal institution because they start off with threats of how students will fail, and how they will be thrown out. Those [consequences] have to be there. But first say, ‘Welcome to Biology’ or ‘Welcome to English 101.’ ‘Here are the kinds of things that you’re going to be able to do when you successfully complete this course.’”