August 26th, 2015

Using Grading Policies to Promote Learning


Using Grading Policies to Promote Learning

I just finished putting together some materials on grading policies for a series of Magna 20-Minute Mentor programs, and I am left with several important take-aways on the powerful role of grading policies. I’m not talking here about the grades themselves, but instead the policies we choose as teachers.

We take our grading responsibilities seriously, although most of us wouldn’t rank grading among our favorite teaching tasks. Grades matter—to students, their parents, those who award scholarships, employers, and graduate and professional schools. Who doesn’t think they’re important? But our focus is on the grades, not the policies that govern what’s graded, how much a certain activity counts, or those mechanisms used to calculate the grades.

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When students talk about the grades we’ve “given” them, we are quick to point out that we don’t “give” grades, students “earn” them. And that’s correct. It’s what the student does that determines the grade. But that statement sort of implies that we don’t have much of a role in the process—that we’re simply executing what the grading policy prescribes. We shouldn’t let that response cloud our thinking. Who sets up the course grading policy? Who controls it? Who has the power to change it or to refuse to change it? It’s these policies that involve us up to our eyeballs.

Humphreys and Pollio write of grading, “Nowhere is the power that resides in the hands of faculty so apparent, or so open to abuse.” (p. 96) We all aspire to be fair and objective in our assessment of student work, but there’s so much to grade. We grade when we’re tired and when we know whose work we’re evaluating, and we don’t stop being human when we’re grading. Good grading policies have features that promote fair and objective assessment of student learning. The criteria that differentiate the grade levels should be clear and relevant to the goals we have set for that test or assignment. Whether it is checklists or rubrics, we need to use them religiously in the grading process, and I think they’re rightfully and profitably shared with students, ideally before they start work on an assignment rather than once their work has been graded.

I also hadn’t thought very thoroughly about how grading policies affect learning. What counts (papers, quizzes, tests, projects, participation, attendance, etc.) and how much it counts directs what students do in a course. The more an assignment counts, the harder students work on it. Yes, I know, we all have students who don’t work on the tests and assignments worth the most, but for those students who are trying to succeed in the course, what counts and how much it counts directs where they focus their efforts, and that in large measure determines both what and how they learn.

How Can Grading Policy Options Influence Student Learning?

Can grading policies motivate learning? Too often they motivate getting the grade, not necessarily the learning. Diane Pike, a sociology professor, objects to our overly detailed point systems that place a value on even the smallest activities. That ends up being a grading policy feature that reinforces the notion that unless there are points in play, the activity isn’t worth doing. Detailed point systems also encourage grade grubbing—students in relentless pursuit of every possible point.

We have professional responsibilities to certify the extent to which students have mastered content, but we also have students do assignments and take tests because those activities promote learning. Students work with the content to complete an assignment. They study the material to prepare for exams. And our grading policies set the parameters within which that learning occurs.

Are there grading policy features that promote learning? What about the chance to use teacher, maybe peer, feedback to improve an assignment before it gets a final grade? Or extra credit possibilities that allow a student to dig deeper into an aspect of course content that seems interesting? Or credit for course engagement, as in regularly attending class and being there prepared, actively participating in group activities, meeting deadlines, and listening attentively to others?

I’m just suggesting possibilities here, which is to say, I’m still exploring ways to craft grading policies that enhance the fair and objective assessment of student learning at the same time they motivate learning. As we face a new academic year and are assembling course syllabi, it’s good to review grading policies, freshly appreciating their powerful role.

Pollio, H. R. and Humphreys, W. L. Grading students in J. H. McMillian, ed., Assessing Student Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 33. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988.

Pike, D. L. (2011). The tyranny of dead ideas in teaching and learning: Midwest Sociological Society Presidential Address 2010. The Sociological Quarterly, 52, 1-12.

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  • Andy Rundquist

    A few years ago the issues you raise here came to a head for me. I was crabby about conversations with students the day after an exam where I'd find their knowledge didn't match their performance (either way made me crabby). So I investigated standards-based grading that a lot of my K12 teacher friends were embracing. Since then I've refined my implementation of that general idea, but my core philosophy is to let students demonstrate mastery as often as is practical and to let only the last assessment stand. Attendance and other things that don't strictly measure learning (but are rather good ideas to promote learning) aren't given points.

  • I always find these two perspectives in tension: students need to understand that learning is valuable for its own sake vs students will only attend to those things that are valued. And the way academia places value on something is by assigning marks/grades. I think part of it, and what I have observed, is that where students sit on this continuum is reflected in their own development as a self-regulated learner. In first year they are looking for external validation of their learning and thus are overly focused on marks. Later in their education (by 4th year hopefully) they have internalized what needs to be validated and are no longer as focused on the grade instead seeking those experiences that will prepare them for what they wish to do.

    I think our grading policies need to be cognizant of students' place on this continuum on their path to becoming a self-regulated learner. So, my question is, is there a way to develop grading polices over the arc of the undergraduate degree that promotes students' development as a learner? I think there is, I am just not sure what the best practice is.

  • She Knows

    The core issues are not grading – the core issues are (1) research universities do not give a d** about teaching and (2) mediocrity prevails in many institutions that praise students for 'showing up' – this is why we are having discussions about 'grading' – yea grading matter unless you are a philosophy professor at Oxford where top tier students line up to hear her speak. So yes, grades matter because students need 'goals' as much as any employee would need to understand how she can achieve excellence, and get promoted. What you could do to help students is set standards – meaning show them what a C work means (and yes they must earn it and it is not a sympathy grade) – and what an A means as in "excellence" – but if you are in a research institution, don't bother. Let your TA lead the class, let your TA do the grading, because no matter how much you care about students, you should stop caring about students and care about NIH and USAID grants if you want tenure. Your colleagues will not support your teaching efforts, and your chair will tell you "you are spending too much time on teaching" – and we wonder why we score behind Portugal in educational attainment?

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  • Patrick Morriss

    Fairness I can get behind, but I've come to see striving for objectivity in grading as a fool's errand. Do we really believe that we can somehow measure learning, a multifaceted psychological process that takes place in a social context, on a one-dimensional quantitative scale? Striving for objectivity has given us (or driven us to) points, and points are the problem.

    We make the policies, we set the standards, we write the rubrics, we decide how student work measures up, we adjust when presented with unanticipated evidence. I like Andy Rundquist's take on that: let students demonstrate mastery as often as possible. Point is, every step of the grading process requires the subjective action of an expert in the field. Grading is inescapably subjective by its nature. Please let's call it what it is.

    Five years ago, I embraced the inherent subjectivity of grading and moved to a purely qualitative system. No points, no percentages, just a series of tasks that receive qualitative feedback (letter grades with comments). There were problems at first, but I haven't heard a student complain about a grade in over three years. I've even given professional development seminars on qualitative assessment, and I think it could address Neil_Haave's question about developing student-learners. But as soon as I convince one more colleague to adopt it, I'll be up to two.

    My field is math. It was hard for me to ditch numbers. But with qualitative assessment, I finally (after two decades) feel as though my grading policies no longer inhibit learning. In the next two decades, I hope to discover policies that actually inspire learning.

  • Perry Shaw

    Thanks Maryellen.

    As pointed out in your article and in the blog responses the problem we face is that grades are not necessarily reflective of genuine learning. I would go so far as to suggest that the easier something is to assess the less important that something is likely to be. The easiest thing to measure is raw factual knowledge. Critical skills of analysis, synthesis, and creativity are more difficult to assess. Often the most important learning is attitudinal in character, and attitudinal change is notoriously difficult to assess. When we become fixated with grades we can lead students to major on the minors and miss the important learning.

    In as much as we are able we do well to de-emphasise grades. I have found a shift to multidimensional learning rubrics is often a good start. I appreciated Patrick Morriss' attempts to do this in mathematics. How much more appropriate in the humanities, the social sciences, and training for the "people" professions (medicine, education, social work, theological training).

  • Linda Aragoni

    I teach writing. Whenever I can away with it, I set up my classes so that no work students do before they reach competence counts in their final score. And I guarantee that once they reach competence—I call it "C level"—they won't get a grade lower than a C even if they never do another bit of work. I've never had anyone stop turning in work after they earned their C. And I've had semesters when no student earned less than a B — and I'm a tough grader.

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  • Steve Markoff

    A tough realization for teachers is that students learn according to how they are tested. Period. Too many professors walking around with this fantasy that they can test memorization and expect understanding. That they can test one way, yet have the students understand more or deeper. Poppycock. If you have a mismatch between your exam grades and your student knowledge – it’s because you aren’t testing right. Ask yourself if you are really testing the things that you want the students to know, and test like that. The knowledge will follow. Or, maybe it won’t, but then you won’t have to feel like a sap giving A’s and B’s to students with low levels of knowledge in your field.

    Also, giving exam solutions and allowing students to keep their exams has been proven to aid in learning. Too many people just feel that exams are merely an assessment tool and don’t realize the learning power of a well-written, well administrated exam.

    I teach Accounting, and I can tell you that the use of computerized homework and test-banks has created a whole generation of students who can only memorize exactly what was in the notes and the homework. That is why I refuse to use them.

  • Marae

    I teach college English classes, and I have discovered that students learn better with ungraded activities. I like to lecture for maybe 45 minutes on a new concept, then give in-class exercises to practice what we were just talking about. These exercises are not graded; 100 means exercise was turned in (as long as student makes a reasonable effort), and 0 means exercise was not turned in. Then we go over anything in the exercise that gave people trouble. Just to make sure they understand the concepts, I give quizzes each day on what we went over the day before. With writing assignments, I have them turn in a rough draft, graded like an in-class exercise, where we can identify problems before they get to the (graded) final draft. People who come to class and do the work rarely end up with less than a B, and they leave the class as competent writers and researchers.