Among the trickiest decisions teachers make is whether to round up the final grade for a student who is just a few points shy of a passing score. Although some students need a “second lap” to master academic skills needed for later coursework, repeating courses makes it harder for students to progress toward a degree. Time is money (literally, in higher education), and when students are asked to spend more of both on a class they already took, they may get discouraged or drop out. This is a consequence we need to take seriously, as nearly half of students do not complete a bachelor’s degree in four years.
Graduate students frequently get the chance to meet one-on-one with their professors. Yet at the undergraduate level, especially during the first year, students rarely get that chance, unless they take the initiative to come to office hours or schedule a meeting. This is unfortunate. I teach first-year writing, and at least once every semester, I meet one-on-one with each of my students, usually to review a draft of their first paper. My students love these conferences, partly because they offer a chance for personal contact with their instructor, and partly because the conferences provide them with uniquely meaningful feedback.
As a new teacher, one of the resources I found most helpful in shaping my grading practices was Grant Wiggins’s advice on feedback and assessment. Meaningful feedback, he suggests, is much more than assigning a grade or even offering recommendations for improvement. Rather, meaningful feedback is descriptive, “play[ing] back” the student’s performance and connecting it to the learning outcomes of the course.