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Grading and Communicating about Grades: Tips for TAs

Course instructors often rely on their TAs to help them grade the homework, papers, lab reports, exams, and projects that students complete during a course. When grading as a TA, it is important to approach the job understanding that your role is to grade “by proxy.” In other words, you should diligently follow the grading criteria, procedures, and policies developed by the faculty member you are assisting. In addition, you should keep in mind that you will be on the “front line” for student questions and concerns about grading. Therefore, it is essential that you communicate early and often with the course instructor about all aspects of the grading process, so that you can answer questions and concerns that are likely to be posed by students.

Grading Efficiently and Consistently

·   Read each assignment or exam, and the grading criteria, before you start to grade, so that you have time to ask the instructor any questions you may have.

·   When grading as part of a team (either yourself and the instructor, or a group of TAs and the instructor), it is essential that you strive to apply the grading criteria consistently “across graders.” To increase consistency, the instructor may ask you to participate in a grading “calibration” session, in which all members of the grading team evaluate assignments or exams from a previous year, then discuss the results. Such opportunities will help you to identify aspects of the grading criteria that are not yet clear to you, as well as to make adjustments to more closely align your own grading with that of the other TAs and the instructor.

·   Set aside time to grade in large enough chunks to maintain concentration and consistency. In addition, try not to grade while you are tired and thus more likely to make mistakes. Plan to complete the grading with enough time for you to seek input or guidance from the instructor, if necessary.

·   If you are grading a set of essay exams, consider grading the entire set one question at a time. This strategy will make it easier to grade each question in the same way for each exam.

·   When grading papers, reports, or exams, it is also a good idea to quickly read through the entire set before you grade. Doing so will allow you to avoid being either “too harsh” or “too lax” at the start of the process, when you haven’t yet seen the range of student achievement.  

Giving Students Helpful Feedback on Their Work

Grading student work is about more than just assigning points and evaluating the students’ performance. It also involves giving feedback that can help students develop a better sense of how they can improve their learning.

·   When possible, refer students to an answer key or grading rubric to help them understand why their worked earned a particular grade or score. If a key or rubric is not available to students, use your comments to identify the specific aspects of the work that determined the grade or score (e.g. “incomplete equation,” “logic hard to follow,” or “incorrect calculation”)

·   Give students clear, concise comments that identify specific strengths and weaknesses. Examples of specific feedback are questions such as “what evidence did the authors use to support this conclusion?” or comments such as “well-written transition that logically connects these two arguments.” 

Discussing Grades and Grading with Students

Students often perceive their TAs to be more “approachable” than the faculty in charge of the course. Therefore, it is likely that they will come to their TAs with questions and concerns about grading. Some faculty will ask you to send all student questions about grades back to the faculty member. Others will ask you to field initial grading questions, sending the student to the faculty member only if necessary. When discussing grading questions with students, keep in mind the following guidelines:

·   Give students a chance to speak and listen to what they have to say. After this initial discussion, however, try to redirect the conversation from the grade to the student’s learning.

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

o  Make it clear that the grade reflects the student’s achievement on the assignment or exam; it is not a judgment of the student as a person. In addition, the grade does not measure (directly) the amount of time spent studying or revising a paper, or a student’s potential for achievement. 

o  Furthermore, to ensure fairness for all students, 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-.

o  Ask the student about what she or he 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 i) reading notes or the textbook, then closing notebook or text and writing down as many of the concepts or facts as the student can remember, ii) going to help-sessions with pre-written questions about the material, iii) forming study-groups in which students work with others to solve problems together or explain key concepts in their own words, or iv) 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.

·   If possible, avoid discussing grades with a student who is extremely angry or upset. Have the student make an appointment with you in a day or two. The delay may give the student a chance to calm down and think about the errors or shortcomings that led to the grade. It will also allow you time to prepare by refreshing your memory of the grading criteria and the student’s graded work. Ask the student to bring to the appointment any relevant materials, such as notes, quizzes, and drafts of their writing.

·   Be careful not to question—or to appear to question—the instructor’s grading criteria or policies when talking with students. Doing so will confuse the student and may create conflict by leading the student to tell the instructor, “My TA says I should get more points on this answer.”

·   Do not feel pressured to answer difficult questions “on the spot,” and do not make decisions regarding potential grade adjustments in the presence of the student. If you do have the authority to change a grade, take notes during the meeting and make your final decision afterward. This strategy is important to free you of any explicit or implicit pressure from the student and allows you to make decisions that are fair to the entire class.

·   Reach out to the faculty member in charge of the course when you need assistance. If you are uncomfortable for any reason—for example, because you are unsure whether or not to adjust a student’s grade or you have concerns about a student’s attitude or conduct—it is important to contact the instructor. When you talk to the instructor, clearly describe the conversation with the student, including the student’s concerns and your responses. The instructor will be in the best position to evaluate the situation and determine any “next steps.”

Sources and Recommended Reading

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.

© 2013, The Teaching Center, Washington University in St. Louis​