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Giving the “Right” Grade: Advice on A vs. B vs. C vs. D Work

One of the most challenges aspects of being a college professor is assigning grades. As instructors, we do our best to establish “freedom in a framework” and guide students by using a thorough course outline and assignment criteria,  full transparency in our grading schema, and fairness in regards to student effort. But at the end of the day, no matter how carefully we’ve tried to help ALL of our students, some will perform better than others. Since grading can often be somewhat subjective (except for you Math instructors), instructors may look for guidance on what exactly is “A work” vs. “B work” or even “C vs, D work” really looks like.

  1. Lock Down the Basics

To start,  college instructors can create some grading guardrails before the course even begins.

  • Course Outline As A Contract

Leverage the course outline to set clear grading expectations. The course outline is the contract between students and the instructor. Write it so that it clearly and specifically outlines the course objectives, grading scale (with points!), and learning outcomes. This will help students understand the coursework and assignment intentions, and what they will come away with learning by the end of the term.

  • Craft Clear Assignment Criteria

Communicate assignment criteria as clear and specific as possible. This information serves as the roadmap for assignment completion and grading. Consider taking the extra step of using formatting like headers, bolding, underlining, etc. to draw students’ attention to the criteria.

  • Establish A Rubric

Use a rubric to help students understand how their grades will be determined for assignments and the course. A rubric is a popular way to articulate grading expectations in a way that describes evaluation criteria and work product quality levels. Instructors use rubrics in student discussions about assignment expectations, work-in-progress and even final grades. What does a rubric look like? A very basic example is creating a rating scale with an X and Y-axis. List the performance criteria on the rows of the Y-axis and list the letter grades A-F as column headers on the X-axis. Be deliberate in showing students the rubric and assignment directions. Let them know you will line-up the assignment criteria with the rubric while grading assignments.

  1. Get Creative

Integrating some creativity with grading can help challenge students.

  • Eliminate the “D”

Consider doing away with the “D” grade in the grading scale. Technically this is a passing grade and conveys the work is below average. This may seem a radical departure from common practice. But, if we think of the “C” grade as the minimum a student can achieve with an “F” as a failing grade, what is the real significance of the “D” grade? Consider setting a grading scale that students meet the minimum to pass – a “C” grade.

  • Use Examples

One of the most practical ways instructors can illustrate how assignments will be graded is to show examples. Hand out examples of what an “A” assignment looks like versus a “C” assignment and discuss them in class. This is also a good opportunity to showcase how a rubric and assignment criterion align with the examples.

  • Peer Grading

A creative way to get a head start on determining the appropriate grade is to have students grade each other’s papers prior to turning into the instructor for review. Ask students to send their finished assignment first to another student for review, feedback and grading. Allow students to update their assignment based on this process prior to turning into the instructor. This builds in peer feedback and another way to align students with assignment expectations.

  1. Curve, Checkpoints, and Commentary

Instructors can leverage a variety of other techniques to hone-in on the right grade to assign.

  • Establish A Bell Curve

Grading on a curve is a way for instructors to assign or adjust scores. In a normal distribution of grades, most will reflect the mean with a few outlying on the low or high end of the grading scale. Instructors use this common technique to analyze course assignment grades. It’s called a “bell” because once grade results are placed on a graph it typically looks like the shape of a bell. Instructors can grade on a curve in a few different ways, such as increasing each student grade with the same number of points.

For example, if most of the students got a particular question wrong on an exam, the instructor may decide the question was confusing or not well taught and adds the score of that question to each student’s final assignment/exam score. Another technique that is useful if no one in the class received 100% on an assignment involves taking the highest scoring student’s grade and make it 100% and grading all the other exams/papers to this new standard.

  • Consider Commentary

What if instructors evaluate assignments without assigning a letter grade? While this may seem extreme and not a practical replacement for traditional grading methods, the essence of the idea can serve as a valuable resource for instructors seeking creative ways to assign a grade. For example, instructors can give students useful commentary throughout the course, like feedback and constructive criticism, to supplement the process of assigning a letter grade. This approach encourages growth and encouragement with their individual needs, putting the student in a situation to reflect on their effort and live up to assignment standards rather than simply judging their work as a final result. Offer to sit with students and discuss assignments, their concerns and review their draft work.

  • Check Progress

Set review checkpoints for assignments before students turn in their work for grading. Ask them to share work-in-progress with you before turning in the finished assignments. For example, if a student is writing a paper that is trending towards a “C” grade, having a scheduled progress check-in with their instructor can course-correct the work and steer them towards “B” or “A” work. Having these conversations before an assignment is finished and a grade is assigned can align instructors and students on expectations, with the added benefit that instructors will have increased visibility into the student’s thinking and effort.

Assigning grades in higher education isn’t always “black and white.” Instructors can gain grading clarity by considering the of some practical and creative techniques to make grading fair, transparent and a positive part of the student learning experience.

About the Author

Christopher G. Bona is adjunct faculty at Purdue University’s Brian Lamb School of Communication and the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He teaches a mix of business and communications courses.

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