December 10th, 2015

Grading with Grace


happy to be grading papers

It was just a passing comment in a student’s email reply to me concerning some questions I had raised on her most recent paper. She answered my inquiries and then basically thanked me for “grading with such grace.” This is not a word that I have ever associated with my grading. Tough—yes; thorough—you bet, but grace? Doesn’t that imply my being too easy? Had I given more credit than the student deserved?

As a result, I paused to ponder my current grading practices. Was I too lenient? Had I lowered my standards? Have I softened over the years? Maybe. Or, was I misunderstanding her use of the word, “grace?” Perhaps she meant finesse, ease, or fluidity. Indeed I had provided the assessment results within 48 hours of the paper’s submission. But no, I think the reference to “grace” was something else.

This innocent student comment caused me to consider how we should go about grading. Ought we not to grade with concentration, with deliberation, with persistence, with objectivity, with fairness, and even with anticipation? Do we ever consciously think about our mindset as we begin the assessment task each time? Does grading with dread more accurately describe our typical approach? Or worse, do we sometimes even grade with a grudge?

One of the reasons that I try to grade as quickly as I can manage is to stay within the same frame of mind and to use the same criteria for a stack of papers. Rubrics certainly do help. However, the one thing I learned best from my own testing and evaluation professor was that all measurement contains error. This truth has afforded my students the benefit of the doubt when things aren’t as clearly evident and are more subjective in nature.

I have no major insights or answers to offer here. After 38 years of teaching, grading is still a struggle for me. While I wasn’t sure whether to take the student’s comment as a compliment, my initial reaction has changed. Grading with grace? I’ll take it.

  • David Balch

    What a great attitude.

  • Laura S

    By "grace" perhaps this student meant you were kind and helpful in your critique of her work (asking questions vs simply giving a grade with no explanation and no option for dialogue about her work).
    I too finding grading to be the biggest issue I have with teaching. I wish we could teach (and perhaps students would love learning more) without concern for grades. But, in the end, administration requires a final grade and how else to determine that than by an average of grades earned on a variety of assignments throughout the semester?
    But grading can often be subjective. Being aware of that, one way I try to take that subjectivity into consideration is, once all grades are in and final grades calculated, any grade average within 1% of the next letter grade up, I automatically bump up (though I don't tell students I do this because then they would beg me to make it 1.1% etc.)

    • Patty Phelps

      Thank you so much for your comments. Happy grading as the semester ends!


      My mother does that! She's been teaching 4th-6th grade for over 30 years. Having assisted her in various ways over the years — grading, preparing her room, stapling handouts, transferring her students' grades from out of her pen-and-paper grade book and in to the database on the district intrananet — I've been present to observe her performing that very same ritual on many occasions.She cracks me up, though, because she can't bring herself to just go ahead and change a grade; No, instead she'll actually rifle through a few stacks of turned in papers, pulling out those of the students whose scores are so close to the next grade up, then skim through those until she finds something that she had previously marked down, and decides whether she could have realistically been more lenient on different day, Of course, she nearly always concludes that yes, she could certainly have been more lenient. She then proceeds with making the revision; thereby, raising that student's total average. All this so her calculations remain mathematically accurate.
      She amazes me, sometimes (and, hey, I love her for it). I only wish that all my teachers had "graded with as much grace" as she.
      Great article, thank you for posting.

  • Doug S.

    Laura, an excellent practice regarding bumping students up who are on the bubble between grades. I've been doing this for some time but with a slight caveat. I have something called an ACA factor–Attendance, Contribution and Attitude. I tell students up front and remind them throughout the term that a strong ACA factor will be taken into consideration at the end of the semester. If a student has a strong ACA factor and and is within 1-2% of the next higher grade, then I will bump them up. It sounds subjective but consider that the world is quite subjective. Two professionals may have similar qualifications but the one who goes the extra mile beyond expectation most likely gets the promotion. Students may complete assignments for a grade but shouldn't their learning also include a moral lesson that shoddy attendance, minimal contributions and a lazy attitude will also affect their professional and personal lives? Ironically, I'm giving students their own choice–engage in strong ACA practices and, should they be on the bubble at the end, they can free themselves of any subjective grading on my part. A negative ACA factor means that they have chosen not to empower themselves. Such is the world they are preparing themselves for. By the way, I find that the ACA factor also motivates participation of many–not all–international students where English is not their native language.

  • Stephen Tracy

    Thanks, Patty, for your thoughtful comments on a very important classroom issue.

    I find it helpful to think of grading — like anything else we do in the classroom — from the perspective of its impact on student engagement and effort. "Is what I am doing likely to encourage more students to work harder to do well in my class?"

    From that perspective, I have found the teaching of William Glasser to be particularly useful. Glasser (the father of Choice Theory) advocates a "success oriented" approach to grading that boils down to a "B" for work that meets the teacher's definition of a "quality job" for the assignment; an "A" for work that substantially exceeds that standard; and "Incomplete" for work that does not meet the standard. The assumption here is that the teacher assigned the work because it is a important for the student to learn, and because it is within the student's capability to master it. The message in the "Incomplete" is that "you haven't met the standard – yet. But I believe you are capable of doing so. I'm not going to give you a D and move on. You and I are going to continue to work at the assignment until you have truly succeeded at it."

    Whatever time might need to be invested in reteaching and relearning, this approach places a value on "quality work" and tells the student that I believe she is capable of achieving it. Once the formerly "D student" begins to see herself as someone who, with effort, and produce quality work, the need for rework tends to diminish. And once one has a classroom of students who believe that they achieve at higher levels, teaching becomes a more vibrant and rewarding experience.

    • speechteach

      Looking up Glasser right now! I have never heard of it, but this past semester made me realize how much I need to focus on increasing learning not increasing "performance". I was talking to my Chair about one of our classes that is a prerequisite for other classes and saying that I just didn't feel like a large number of students really improved – there weren't many failing, but there also weren't many who were making major improvements. It made me realize that my other classes are often the same. It isn't that I'm not teaching things to my students, it is just that they don't have enough real practical application of the material to make improvements. I like this idea of incompletes though. Thanks for the inspiration Patty and thanks for the reference Stephen!