This section of the toolkit provides guidelines for how to assess assignments in ways that are fair, efficient and provide meaningful feedback to students.

1. Define your expectations for student learning

First, determine what you want students to learn. Next, decide what evidence you need to gather to know they have achieved it.  This evidence will vary greatly depending on the course content, the level of students, the class size, etc., but setting this forth in clear terms is the foundation of meaningful assessment.

Here are some ideas you might consider: 

  • Talk about your expectations for student learning with a colleague – even better if this colleague is outside your discipline and asks questions that help you make explicit what you are looking for.
  • Think about specific actions you can observe to know that learning has occurred.  Will students need to provide definitions, synthesize multiple perspectives, reflect on an unexpected result, etc.? Observable actions can be integrated into a grading tool (described below).

2. Clarify your expectations to students

  • Share your rubric with students when distributing an assignment so they are aware of your expectations.
  • Provide examples of various levels of work (“A”, “B”, and “C” papers) from former students and have current students identify the ways in which each one addresses the criteria in your rubric. Alternatively, you could provide models of published work and lead a similar discussion.
    To create a bank of model assignments, consider sending a request like the following to your former students: email_request_for_model_assignments.pdf
  • Have students work in groups to rank 4-5 former student assignments, similar to the one currently assigned.  After student groups have “graded” the papers, lead a class discussion to clarify your own criteria and explain the grades you would give.

3. Choose grading tools that match the given task

Grading tools help to clarify expectations in advance and ensure consistent marking, whether you are grading alone, with co-instructors or with teaching assistants. It’s important to match the level of sophistication of the tool to the type of assignment. For example, in-class writing assignments may require a quick and simple approach while essays and research projects may require a more in-depth and complex grading scheme.

Here are some ideas you might consider:    

  • The plus/check/minus system is effective for simple tasks that are not weighted heavily. This strategy allows you to assess quickly whether students have accomplished the task or not. There are no criteria – just ask yourself, “Has the student completed the task?” The answer is yes—very well, yes—adequately, or no.
    Sample assignment graded this way
  • Use a checklist when you want to quickly determine whether a set of given criteria has been met (i.e., student provides a clear thesis statement, or student correctly cited five appropriate sources).
  • Use a rubric to provide students with feedback about where their work is on a spectrum of unacceptable to excellent. Existing rubrics are available, however instructors generally need to develop rubrics for each assignment that reflect their own priorities and concerns. Developing a rubric with clear criteria takes time but is an investment that can streamline the grading process and make it more transparent to students.

4. Provide written comments

Writing for an audience is an important concept for students to learn, and your comments can help them understand how their work is received by a reader. What’s important is that the comments are constructive and can be applied to future work, either in your course or others with the same grading criteria.

Here are some ideas you might consider:

  • Focus comments on ideas, organization, development and clarity rather than marking every mechanical error. Asking students to clarify ideas usually requires them to address writing.
  • Comment on only a fraction of a paper: a selected paragraph or page and require them to apply this feedback to the remainder of the assignment. This will identify to students their strengths and areas to work on.

5. Set up a manageable and efficient grading system

  • Tell students in advance what form your feedback will take. Clarify whether you use a rubric, a checklist, written comments, etc. so that they are prepared for the results.
  • Address only one main strength and one main area for improvement. Cover other aspects of the paper with two statements: 1. “The most effective aspect of this paper is ____," and 2. “One thing that will significantly improve this paper or ones like it in the future is ____.”
  • Have students write a cover memo to describe what they perceive as its strengths and problem areas and to request feedback on specific aspects of their work. This means that the more time and effort that they put into their questions, the more useful your feedback is likely to be.
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