Thoughts on Grading

From a Chronicle blog post about a B student.


Finally it’s shorter to say, “Let me explain what the best students in the class did that you didn’t.” Then describe the best student you’ve ever had or wish you had. At least they’ll leave with the sense that more work is required for higher grades. That in itself is breakthrough enough.


While I take no stand on the specific grade in question, I hope we would all agree that the instructor assumes a socio-moral obligation to explain grades in several ways. Among the considerations:

1. Grading criteria should be explicit and fully defined on or before the first day of class.

2. If an instructor lacks the ability (or will) to make all facets of the grading system explicit, and logically coherent and congruent, the student is under no obligation to believe that the instructor has the ability to do so when the time comes to determine his grade.

3. The validity of every assessment instrument used to determine a grade must be determined before, or by the time, the assessment is used to determine an official grade. To do less is professionally, and possibly legally, negligent. As far as validity goes, the required level should be at least minimum professional standards applicable to the type of instrument.

a. If the assessment consists of a multiple-choice instrument, the items should have demonstrated their validity in the assessment context (validity is a property of the item/context, not an abstract property of the item).

b. If the assessment consists of a writing or other performance-based instrument, rubrics must be developed and tested for the specific kinds of validity that apply to them, before or concurrent to their being allowed to determine a grade.

Why go to this trouble? Because every time it has been studied objectively, we find that half or more of instructor’s grading systems produce grades and distributions of grades based on instruments that do not possess such fundamental properties as adequate inter-rater reliability or item discrimination coefficients, etc. In other words, the grades produced are irrational, unsound, even chimerical. Many instructors who assign letter grades to essays, cannot achieve better than chance level correlations when they grade the same essays a year later, with the students’ names blocked out.


Meeting the minimum requirements is a D. The very lowest level of passing grade. Doing an average job is a C.


When you are the student of a subject it may often be the case that you do not have the expertise to distinguish between good and excellent work. As a result of this, and other similar experiences as a fifty-year-old student, I have come to think that some teachers should try to have more empathy for their students. Now I do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge