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Grading and Communicating about Grades: Tips for TAs

Grading Policies

In order to ensure fairness and avoid conflicts, it is essential that you know all grading policies and follow them consistently. If you are assisting a faculty member who is the course instructor or course supervisor, communicate with him or her at the start of the semester concerning grading issues such as the following:

  • How each kind of assignment or exam will be graded (e.g., criteria; holistic grading vs. point systems; using a “curve” vs. absolute grades; and penalties for lateness, failure to cite sources, etc.).
  • General guidelines for writing comments on the students’ work.
  • The procedure for responding to students’ concerns about grades. Typically, the course instructor handles all complaints about grades.
  • Course policies on “re-grading” exams and re-writing papers.

Do not contradict the information that the professor gives the students or suggest to students that you do not agree with the grade assigned by the professor.

If you are the course instructor, establish all grading criteria and policies before the semester begins. Inform students of these criteria and policies and follow them closely. The more straightforward, consistent, and fair you are about grading, the fewer complaints you will hear.

Ask experienced instructors about their grading criteria and policies, as well as strategies for dealing with the most common difficulties posed by grading.

Discussing Grades with Students

If your responsibilities include discussing grades and complaints about grades with students, the following guidelines can help you be effective in this role:

Keep in mind that discussing grades with students should be a teaching and learning opportunity. 

You should give students a chance to speak and listen to what they have to say. After this initial discussion, however, you should try to redirect the conversation from the grade itself to a discussion of where the paper or exam fell short and how the student can improve her or his performance the next time around.

Use neutral language to describe the successful aspects of the student’s work as well as those that were incomplete, incorrect, or inadequately developed. 

Make it clear that the grade refers to the student’s achievement on a particular assignment or exam; it is not a judgment of the student as a person.

If possible, avoid discussing grades with a student who is extremely angry or upset. 

Have the student make an appointment with you. This delay will give the student an opportunity to calm down and think about the errors or shortcomings that led to the grade. Ask the student to bring to the appointment any relevant materials, such as notes, quizzes, and drafts of their writing, so that you can discuss ways she or he can improve study skills or develop a more effective writing process.

Help students develop a mature understanding of grades.

Here are some suggestions of things to say that might help students develop such an understanding:

  • Grades reflect different levels of achievement and mastery; grades do not measure (directly) the amount of time spent studying or revising a paper, or a student’s potential for achievement. If students have not excelled, it is because they have not yet mastered key skills or demonstrated an adequate grasp of course concepts.
  • In order to be fair and accurate, it is essential to use the full range of the grading scale to indicate differences in achievement and mastery of skills. In other words, there IS a meaningful difference between a B+ and an A-.
  • Improved performance often requires changes in the way a student studies, seeks and responds to feedback, writes and revises a paper, or approaches an assignment. Ask the student about what they did to study for an exam or to prepare the assignment, then suggest new ways to approach these tasks. For example, students who study for an exam by completing problem-sets and reading over notes during the few days before an exam might benefit by 1) reviewing notes and composing questions about them on a daily or weekly basis, 2) going to help-sessions with the questions they have formulated, 3) forming study-groups in which they work with others to solve problems together or explain key concepts in their own words, or 4) composing potential exam questions. Often, you will need to demonstrate these study skills, or give students specific examples of the kinds of work that study groups can do together to learn the material.

Sources and Recommended Reading

Ory, John C. and Katherine E. Ryan, Tips for Improving Testing and Grading. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993.

Woolvard, Barbara E. and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

© 2009, The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis