The Mechanics of Grading & Grading Systems

The subject of grading is rarely discussed among faculty members, except perhaps for the occasional debate about grade inflation. But many teachers privately confess that grading is one of the most difficult and least understood elements of their job. Often, professors have little confidence that their grading systems accurately discriminate between different levels of achievement and they differ widely on the components that should constitute a final grade. As a result, grading standards and criteria are so idiosyncratic that an “A” from one teacher may be the equivalent of a “C” from another.

Part of the problem with grading arises from the fallibility of the tests and assignments used to measure student performance. The three previous FYC’s focused on ways to improve assessment techniques; in this article, we will survey several different methods for calculating final grades and point out their strengths and weaknesses.

Grading and Feedback
First, it helps to make a distinction between grading and other forms of feedback. A grade is a “certification of competence” that should reflect, as accurately as possible, a student’s performance in a course. If this goal is achieved, then grades will have the same value from semester to semester and from year to year.

Trouble arises when we include grading components that are difficult to measure accurately (such as effort or participation) because these elements reduce the strength of the relationship between grades and academic achievement. Furthermore, when we use grades for reward or punishment, give extra credit for additional work, or grade on attendance, we contaminate the meaning of grades and reinforce the students’ belief that a course grade has less to do with academic performance than with fulfillment of arbitrary requirements.

Of course, we must give students feedback in many of these areas of behavior, but using the grading system to convey this assessment is inappropriate. Moreover, we often complain that students are excessively grade-oriented, but by attaching a grade value to every aspect of student performance we actually reinforce our students’ preoccupation with grades. Teachers should avoid using grades as incentives for performance and seek out non-graded methods for motivating students. For example, verbal “rewards” in class, individual conferences, and written critiques can provide positive and negative feedback without contaminating the grading system.

Elements of a Grading System
A good grading system must meet three criteria: (1) it should accurately reflect differences in student performance, (2) it should be clear to students so they can chart their own progress, and (3) it should be fair. Performance can be defined either in relative or absolute terms (comparing students with each other or measuring their achievement against a set scale), and each system has its defenders. But whichever grading scheme you use, students should be able to calculate (at least roughly) how they are doing in the course at any point in the semester. Some relative grading schemes make it impossible for students to estimate their final grades because the cutoff points in the final distribution
are not determined until the end of the course.

A complete description of the grading system should appear in the course syllabus, including the amount of credit for each assignment, how the final grades will be calculated, and the grade equivalents for the final scores. Also, students should perceive the grading system as fair and equitable, rewarding them proportionately for their achievements. From the standpoint of measurement, many different kinds of assignments, spread over the entire semester provide a fairer estimate of student learning than one or two large tests or papers.