Consistency and Equity in Grading

Whenever you provide feedback on your students’ work, you should strive to do so on the basis of what your students learned in your course, and not on other factors like where they went to high school or whether or not they’ve been introduced to what is often called the “hidden curriculum” of your field, discipline, or institution. To promote consistency and equity in grading, here are some things you can do when planning your course, writing your prompts, introducing your assignment, and grading student work.

Start with the Syllabus

Consistency and equity in grading starts here. This is where you frame for yourself and your students what kind of environment your course will strive for, and what role you and your students—and the feedback you’ll be giving one another throughout the term—will play in maintaining that environment. Here you’re essentially laying out: Here’s what we’re trying to learn, and here’s how I’m asking you to give me evidence of your learning, and here’s how I’ll give you input on your progress and how to improve.

Some common elements of the syllabus that help establish norms around consistency and equity in grading:

  • Classroom climate statement(s). You may have a section on your syllabus devoted to classroom climate or you may have a series of sections and policies that speak to the type of classroom environment that you are seeking to create. What kind of classroom environment will be most conducive to students feeling that they belong in your course, that they and their contributions are valued, and that they have the best chance to learn the things you hope to teach? A wide range of issues are in play when we think about all of the explicit and implicit contracts which go into creating your classroom climate, including (but not limited to): how students obtain the floor in discussions (do you ask them to raise hands?); how you frame potentially difficult or controversial conversations (what are your expectations about mutual respect, and protocols for preparing or de-escalating discussions?); and technology policies (may students use their laptops? Why or why not?). Will you set these policies before the term starts, or generate group agreements with your students’ participation?

  • Policies on deadlines and extensions. It is important to be transparent about your assignments, how they relate to the course objectives, and what kind of policies you have about late work. We recommend providing an overview of homework and major assignments. We also suggest thinking carefully about what your extension/late work policy communicates about your relationship to your students and the degree of trust you have in them: how important to you is it, actually, to see a doctor’s note? Would you consider giving students a “bank” of, say, 48 grace hours on which they may draw at their own discretion as assignments come due? What is the rationale behind the sequencing of your assignments?

  • Policies on collaboration and academic honesty. Often, policies around academic honesty, and by association collaboration, may seem legalistic and punitive. However, these policies are an opportunity to teach students how to learn from each other and even what it means to collaborate in your field or discipline. At Harvard, the FAS policy on collaboration states that if the syllabus or website for a course does not include a policy on collaboration, students may assume that collaboration in the completion of assignments (but not exams) is permitted.  If collaboration is allowed, be specific about how it should be acknowledged and how the individual work involved in group projects will be evaluated.

Let the Prompt Be Your Guide

If feedback and grades on an assignment are an account of how well a student’s work shows progress toward learning objectives, then everyone involved in the assignment—from the course head to the TFs and TAs to the students—needs to know what those objectives are and how the assignment is a vehicle for developing and demonstrating them. The place where all of that is laid out is the prompt, and the keys to making it useful and user-friendly are making sure that (1) all of its elements are clearly communicated, and (2) everyone in the class—students and teachers—are on the same page about the prompt.

When a prompt is effective, it communicates all of the so-called “w” questions, explaining:

  • The assignment’s purpose (“why are we doing this, and why are we doing it now?”)

  • The kind of genre involved, along with what kind of evidence or analysis that might entail (“what are we doing, and what are the inputs and outputs?)

  • What are the different roles for students and instructors (“who is doing what, and for what kind of audience? Is there collaboration involved or check-ins with TFs? Is there an audience for whom the work is intended?)

  • What are the policies for completion (“when and where do we submit things? whom do we ask for an extension?)

  • What are the guidelines for style and citation, and what advice on process is available (“how should I approach stages of the assignment, and what citation format should we use?)

Clearly communicating these elements in the prompt has two important effects. It means that:

  • students aren’t being asked to “read between the lines” or otherwise rely on inferences and intuition to engage with an assignment. These intuitions are the product of access to experience with fields of knowledge and disciplinary norms, which are themselves unevenly distributed among students in any class. Prompts that are explicit about what/why/how/etc. are much more likely to generate feedback that reflects what each student is learning during the assignment, rather than how well they’re able to decode expectations and strategies that have been hinted at.

  • instructors are being given a clearer sense of purpose when it comes to teaching and giving feedback. The clearer the elements of a prompt are, the more clear the rubric will already be (since a rubric is essentially just a transposition of a prompt’s elements). This means that instructors can provide feedback that is both more consistent and more consistently aligned with the specific objectives of the assignment at hand.

Use Rubrics to Make it Explicit

Anytime we evaluate work, we are working, at least implicitly, with a rubric. That is, we have some sense of what constitutes a paper or assignment that demonstrates full mastery of the objectives versus one where maybe the student could improve on some or all of the objectives. Making, sharing, and using a rubric is an excellent way to make our assumptions transparent to our students. After all, writing a rubric presents another opportunity to check whether our assignment aligns with the goals of the course (and whether our teaching has helped prepare students with the skills and knowledge they will need in order to be tested on the things you hope to test with the assignment). It also has the added benefit of helping you and our teaching teams provide consistent feedback. For more on how to make and use a rubric, please see our guidance on creating rubrics.

Make Norming the Norm

It’s important to make sure that everyone who will be grading a given assignment is doing so consistently. In a larger class, for instance, a student’s grade on an exam or essay shouldn’t depend on which section of the course they happen to be in, and yet that kind of inconsistency is difficult to avoid in practice without some proactive steps. One of the best steps toward this end is a norming session, where teaching teams can practice applying and possibly revise the rubric they’re using for feedback and grading.

Most rubrics aren’t exhaustive, and a great way to see how different graders are handling “real-life” scenarios for an assignment is to have the entire team grade a few samples (including examples that seem more representative of an “A” or a “B”) and compare everyone’s approaches.

This process of feedback norming or grade norming is a great way to get a teaching team on the same page, which can dramatically increase consistency across sections of a course. The goal doesn’t need to be absolute convergence across sections, since different sections might have spent more time practicing certain elements and less time practicing others. A productive norming session will leave all the members of a teaching staff:

  • more conscious of how they’re applying a rubric;

  • in agreement as to which approaches the whole team will follow, as well as why certain criteria might differ across sections or need tweaking;

  • feeling confident that the weight given to the different criteria within the rubric accurately reflects (and communicates to students) the goals of the assignment; and

  • mentally prepared for the fact that some elements of the rubric are perhaps less straightforward to evaluate than others.

In the case of a rubric that emerges more inductively in response to what students have submitted, norming sessions might involve more discussion about more substantive features of the rubric (e.g., if students are asked to do “x,” and almost none of them did “x” well or at all in the assignment, then maybe it’s worth reconsidering how much weight to give “x” in the feedback). Norming sessions are a great way for theory to become practice, and a chance for the teaching team itself to take inventory of how class has gone since the start of the assignment: How much of what we were planning to grade did we actually teach? How can we make sure that we’re grading what students actually had the chance to learn and practice?

  • The Bok Center would be happy to arrange and/or facilitate a grade-norming workshop for your teaching staff; please contact Jonah Johnson, Assistant Director of Writing Pedagogy, for details