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Grading and Assessment

Grading and assessment will take a significant amount of your time and labor as a college instructor. There are of course a wide range of approaches that can be deployed. What’s below is intended to help you develop strategies for responding to student work that are efficient, purposeful, and productive. We offer tips on grading and giving feedback to student writing, and guidance grading rubrics. This section concludes with some information on understanding FERPA, and accreditation.

Assessment Strategies

The first steps in developing a strategy for assessing student work is to figure out what you’re looking for from your students, and how you want them to interact with your feedback. Examine your learning goals and think about what kinds of skills you want your students to practice and how you ultimately want them demonstrate what they’ve learned.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of approaches to assessment: formative and summative.

  • Formative assessments allow the instructor to modify their teaching to better match the needs of the students. Formative assessments can be high-stakes (i.e. represent a significant portion of the grade), but they are usually low-stakes.
  • Summative assessments tend to be higher stakes, and measure student performance against a standard set by the instructor. They generally come at the end of an instructional moment or unit.

Pick your assessment strategy for a specific reason. If, for example, you assign a set of math problems, you might choose to spot check five out of twenty, or you might check all of them and simply mark them as correct or incorrect, or you might highlight the line in the work where the solution goes astray, etc. Each option has an increasing time commitment on your end, and it’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you want to mark where the problem goes astray, are you planning on asking the student to rework the problem? If you spot check five, will students compare their other answers before you move on to the next set or will you post the solutions? Are you spot checking because you want to indicate quickly to the student where she stands with the material?

Think, too, about where the assignment falls in the sequence of assignments for the course. Is it a stand-alone assignment or one of  a number assigned throughout a unit? Or perhaps it’s part of a scaffolded project? If the type of assignment will be repeated, then you might want to give the students a few comments about how she needs to adjust her response in order to meet what you hope to see next time. If several of students have made the same wrong turn, then rather than writing comments to each of them (time!), you might take a few minutes in the next class and explain the misstep, perhaps with an example, or post a model response online so that students have a template for the next assignment. If the assignment will lead directly into another one, you might offer comments to help the student bridge the two: what does she need to do in order to strengthen her next benchmark in the sequence?

Finally, consider the stakes of the assignment. If it’s a low-stakes task, then your assessment method should also be relatively brief and “low-stakes.” In order to manage your time, think about what you want to see the student accomplish through the assignment, and mark accordingly.

Ultimately, the prompts for your assignments should indicate to your students what your expectations are for the tasks you are asking them to complete. You might use that prompt as an informal or formal guide (rubric) for how you’ll respond to the work.

Accessibility Tip: Be aware of the needs of your students when you are designing an activity and a mode of assessment. For example, if you are going to administer an in-class quiz, be mindful of students who may need extra time. Similarly, if you require students to orally present their projects, be sure to think about how you will support students with speech impediments.

Grading and Feedback

One of the biggest frustrations for instructors is spending hours marking papers with amazingly helpful and detailed comments, only to see students immediately to drop them, unexamined, into the depths of an overstuffed backpack. If you want students to examine and implement the feedback you’re giving them, it might be helpful to build either an assignment or a step of an assignment that asks students to engage with previous feedback. (You could also check out the “Speak Back/Feedback” assignment in Section 3.) If it is important for students to utilize your feedback, you can ask them to write a response paper or cover letter for a subsequent draft addressing how they will incorporate suggestions.

Grading Rubrics

Rubrics break down the assignment expectations into categories and enable students to complete an assignment with those specific categories in mind. They offer instructors the opportunity to check how well students have mastered targeted skill areas. Rubrics can save instructors grading time since they offer a way to communicate outside of marginal comments or line edits. Further, rubrics take subjects or assignments such as oral presentations and essays that are frequently seen as “overly subjective” and demonstrate a the rationale behind the grade. While rubrics are commonly thought of as a tool for instructors, they can also be useful for students as they complete an assignment, and can provide clarity on criteria for peer review and group projects.

It’s often helpful to distribute the rubric alongside the assignment. For you, the process of generating a rubric will ensure you have clear expectations and targets for the assignment, and it will also give you a way to ‘proof’ the assignment directions. For students, it not only supplements the expectations and requirements of the assignment, but also frames those expectations in a different format. You can refer to the rubric during class when you’re working on a particular skill that relates directly to what students will be asked to do in the assignment.

If you’ll use a single rubric or one that is extremely similar throughout the course of the semester, consider passing it out outside the context of an assignment and spending some time as a class or in small groups annotating the various categories. Ask students to return to their annotated rubric throughout the semester and revise or add to it as necessary.

Rubrics often resemble a grid or chart with the skill listed in one column and the success level of that skill indicated in rows (or vice versa). Some rubrics include detailed descriptions of expectations for each category while others indicate level of mastery. There are many existing rubrics that you can take in full or modify for your classes.

To generate your own rubric, think about what your assignment is designed to measure and what its objectives are. Make a list of components you want to see in the assignment and arrange the list in categories.

Be sure to consider the following when designing your rubric:

  • List the skill categories on your grid in order of most to least important (heavily weighed to least heavily weighted in terms of grading).
  • Be mindful of how many categories can fit on a page.
  • Return to your learning goals and incorporate that language into your rubric.
  • Write out a description of what each evaluative category means both in terms of grade range and in terms of specific criteria. So, for example, a “proficient” thesis statement puts a student in x grade range and requires that the statement has a, b, and c elements.
  • Test your rubric against the assignment instructions. Do they mesh? Does the assignment indicate the categories that appear on the rubric?

Responding to Student Writing

Responding to students’ writing effectively and efficiently takes practice. Ideally, you want to find an approach that is both useful and generative for students and mindful of your own labor as the instructor. It is likely that you will at least occasionally find yourself needing to read and respond to a lot of student writing quickly, so it is useful to develop strategies for commenting on student work that aren’t overly time-consuming.

The good news is that when it comes to providing your students with feedback, more is not necessarily more! Research suggests that students often benefit from an approach called “minimal making,” in which instructors refrain from correcting students’ superficial errors, and direct them instead to find and correct those errors themselves. Instead, instructors focus on crafting a global comment that identifies what the paper is doing, and doing well, and then notes a few specific areas for revision. In addition, there are a number of other strategies you might keep in mind when commenting on students’ written work—many drawn from Chapter 16 of John Bean’s Engaging Ideas (an invaluable resource for instructors teaching writing across the curriculum):

  • Allow students to revise the papers they submit, so that you can design your comments with an eye to prompting revision. That way, students see your feedback a step in a writing process—rather than a “postmortem” on a final product.
  • Focus on “higher order” concerns—like a paper’s ideas and organization—before turning to “lower order” ones, like sentence errors.
  • Instead of marking students’ sentence-level errors, make check marks next to the sentences that include them—then direct students to find and fix the errors themselves. (Additionally, or alternatively, you could edit a single paragraph in the paper, as a model for the kinds of editing you are expecting students to do.)
  • Make the marginal comments you provide “readerly”—that is, use them to note where you, as a reader, get confused, or need additional examples or clarity.
  • Construct your final comment using this 3-step template: (1) strengths, (2) summary of a limited number of problems, and (3) recommendations for revision
  • Remember that you don’t have to comment on (or even collect) all the writing students do. You could respond to low-stakes assignments using checks, check minuses, or check-pluses; in-class writing and freewrites might be used in class, and not collected, or included as a scaffolded step in a higher-stakes writing project.

You will also probably see certain structural and grammatical errors that happen in multiple papers in your class. Consider devoting some time in class to discussing these issues as a group, which will save you time in your marking and potentially benefit all of your students.  

Student Peer and Self-Evaluation

You do not need to be your students’ only source of formal and informal feedback on assignments. Having students evaluate their own work or their peers’ is both a time saving strategy and extremely beneficial, but you need to install clear expectations and guidelines.

Peer Review

If you choose to make use of peer review, you can ask students to exchange papers, projects or problem sets with each other and share feedback, either during class or as a homework assignment. Peer review is typically most effective when students have specific instructions and clear expectations. For example, you might ban all evaluative language (such as “good” or “bad”) and ask them to describe what’s happening or where they get confused, etc. (See the notion of using “readerly” language, above.) You might tell students to treat the text or assignment they’re reviewing as they would treat any other text they encounter in your course. You might give them specific strategies, ideas, structures, or other elements to focus on in their feedback.

Some instructors incentivize the reviewer’s job by assigning a grade to the work, but often students are enthusiastic about helping their classmates students’ strengthen their ideas and thinking. Consider pairing your assignment rubric with peer review. Incorporating the rubric into peer review reinforces the target or focus areas for the assignment and offers students an opportunity to identify and evaluate the presence of those target success of those skills on the rubric in a peer’s writing before they return to their own. Or, you might have several students work on the same paper and compare notes so that a student can test his mastery of identifying the rubric elements and ask any questions about them and revise his own writing as necessary.

Student Self-Assessment

Self-Assessment can encompass anything from students filling in the assignment rubric as part of their drafting or revision process, to writing a letter detailing their experience doing the assignment, to asking them to collect, revise and arrange past assignments in a portfolio. If you’re asking a student to do a self-assessment of a particular assignment, it’s imperative that you know why you’re asking them to do it and what the objective of the assignment is.

One option is to ask students to generate or complete a self-assessment sheet to accompany an assignment (see for one you might adapt). You might ask students to write out the three or four points that they want feedback from you on, or, conversely, you might highlight a few points or objectives and ask students to evaluate how successfully they accomplished the task (making sure you define what would qualify as “successful”). You might ask students to think through the assignment in relation to the course objectives and identify what skills or knowledge they gained in relation to the expectations of the course.

Alternatively, you might ask students to develop a mini-rubric that works in conjunction with the one you’ve developed for the class. This rubric should be tailored to their own interests and goals for the assignment. You might prompt them by asking them to articulate what they hope to get out of the assignment, or, in addition to the stated requirements, what they hope to accomplish? These mini-rubrics can help students make additional connections between assignments and their previous learning, and encourage them to articulate their own learning goals.


The 1974 FERPA Act or Buckley Amendment is designed to give students some control over how their information is shared and amended. Universities have slightly varying policies about how to disseminate student information such as grades in compliance with FERPA. Some schools interpret the Act to mean that no grade information may be shared over email, while others allow grade information sharing through the internal school email system, and others still allow comments and scores on individual assignments but not midterm or final grades. FERPA also impacts how campuses and instructors approach the use of educational technology. The act has not been updated to account for web-connected communication, and the rules and restrictions can be quite confusing. If you’re unsure of the policy on your campus, ask your department or the campus registrar, but a rule of thumb is to try to avoid exposing student data, and to allow students who are concerned about doing work on the open web to opt out or complete requires assignments via other avenues.


Working in a university setting, it is helpful to be aware of what accreditation entails and its implications for your classroom. Post-secondary institutions periodically undergo a process of peer-review by an independent and external non-governmental body that evaluates whether the educational standards and goals of the institution and individual programs are met. Universities undergo accreditation processes that take two-to five years and, when successfully completed, ensure the university is able to continue granting degrees and certificates that are recognized by other institutions. In New York, post-secondary institutions are responsive to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a regional accreditation body that has established standards and requirements that function as a guide for the review process.

To comply with accreditation requirements, programs and departments gather artifacts of student learning to assess the effectiveness of their curriculum. Departments and programs will designate particular classes as points in the curriculum to gather data for assessment. If your course is designated as an assessment course, your students’ work may be used in programmatic assessment. As such, you might be asked to have students complete or submit a particular assignment designed by the department.