The ideal grading scenario is one in which the instructor’s feedback mostly confirms what a student already knows about what they’ve learned and how well they’ve performed, while augmenting the student’s perspective at certain points and offering actionable guidance on how to build upon what’s working and implement changes where things need work. This kind of convergence of instructor and student expectations is ideal in two respects. First, students aren’t disappointed (or relieved, for that matter) by the sudden revelation of big discrepancies between how they perceive their performance and how their instructor perceives it, meaning that they are more able to trust and to absorb the feedback their instructor is offering and the grade that accompanies it with an open mind. Second, instructors can spend less time agonizing or dithering over the extent to which they ought to hedge, water down, or even suppress the feedback they’d like to give lest it surprise, discourage, or confuse their students.

Unfortunately, the ideal scenario described above is just that: an ideal, and one that we do not always achieve in practice. Even leaving aside, for the moment, what we hear from students about the ways in which our current culture of grading and feedback does not always serve them well, we have ample evidence from the questions that instructors frequently ask that they, too, experience grading as being more mysterious, subjective, exhausting, and just downright unpleasant than it ever needs to be. Among the most common instructor questions are these:

  1. When/why/how should I give feedback? Should the feedback always be written, or can it be less formal? How do different registers of feedback relate to one another? How can I sequence and scaffold feedback effectively? How can I give feedback on less familiar or more creative kinds of assignments? How can I write prompts and rubrics that take the mystery out of grading?
  2. How can I ensure consistency / fairness? How can I avoid grading as a form of simply “ranking” students? Or ranking them based on where they went to high school? How do concerns over “equality” and “equity” work together? How can we grade students fairly in a large class with several sections and a large teaching team? How can we offer meaningful feedback on“misfires” where a student’s work doesn’t seem at all representative or offer any evidence of their learning (though maybe evidence of other things in their life)? How can I apply one rubric or set of policies to every student consistently and/but fairly?
  3. How can I help my students learn from my comments and grades? How can I normalize the act of getting constructive feedback, and give students practice giving, receiving, and using it? How can I align my prompts, rubrics, and feedback with one another?

In the pages below, you’ll find our attempt to answer these questions with advice on best practices for grading and feedback, as well as practical teaching strategies and resources you can implement in your courses.

When/Why/How: Some General Principles of Responding to Student Work

Four principles of “grading as feedback” can ensure that grading is more meaningful, for instructors and students alike:

  • Grading is the final act of teaching in a given phase of a course—not something that's left to do after we’re finished teaching.
  • Grading is “our turn” in a dialogue with students. Their previous “turn” was working on an assignment we designed as a way to get evidence of their learning (and our teaching). Their next turn will be applying our feedback to what comes next, whether it’s a revision, the next unit, or their next course.
  • “The grade” isn’t static judgment in light of which to assess success or failure. It’s an additional “something” that accompanies summative feedback, corresponding to a broader conversation about learning objectives and ongoing student work.
  • Simply telling students not to focus on grades is magical thinking; situating grades within an ecosystem of ongoing feedback and showing them it doesn’t need to be—and ideally isn’t—their main focus is a strategy.

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Consistency and Equity in Grading

Whenever you provide feedback on your students’ work, you should strive to do your best 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.

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No one would dispute that grading and feedback should be based “on something,” but there’s plenty of room for debate about the role and usefulness of rubrics in laying out what that “something” is. On the one hand, rubrics help us specify and describe the criteria that feedback will be based on, and that makes things more transparent and—especially in larger courses, more consistent. On the other hand, they don’t just magically create and apply themselves. Here’s a familiar dilemma:

Too Vague

Sometimes rubrics end up vague, which can make it hard for instructors to decide what counts for what, which can in turn make them feel subjective to students. Maybe the rubric has criteria, e.g., “thesis,”  but doesn’t have any guidance about how an “A” thesis compares to a “B” thesis, or the overall weight “thesis” carries in the final grade. But is more specificity always better?

Too specific

Well, as many teachers know, more “rigorous” rubrics can end up being so specific that students and instructors lose the forest for the trees; assignments become mechanical, lifeless checklists. Things add up just fine, but they don’t feel like they “add up.”

These concerns are real, but they aren’t about rubrics per se, exactly—they’re about rubrics that aren’t working. So how do we make rubrics we can use, and how do we use them?

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Assessing Class Participation

Participation is an important part of a student’s grade in virtually all Harvard College courses; often, it counts for as much as 20% of a student’s final grade. And yet, when it comes to assessing their students' class participation, we frequently see instructors fall back on what amounts to a highly impressionistic approach, assigning grades at the end of the term based on a vague sense of how much or how meaningfully a student intervened in several months of class discussions. In recognition of the fact that assessing participation may be more complicated than is often assumed, we suggest that instructors employ several strategies.

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Assessing Non-Traditional Assignments

Essays, problem sets, exams, and other traditional assessments all have conventional criteria for evaluation. But multimedia and other forms of creative or "non-traditional" assignments can often seem like uncharted territory. Should students be graded on technical proficiency? What does a visual argument look like? How do you compare the effort and thought that some students put into a video with the effort and thought other students put into papers?

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Beyond “the Grade”: Teaching Students to Assess Themselves

Feedback for students can—and ideally does—come from several directions at several stages of an assignment, rather than “from above” and “at the end” and “as a grade.” Here are a handful of pedagogically sound and practical strategies for diversifying feedback and grading in your course. For instructors, they provide opportunities to “look under the hood” and see how students are learning before “the exam,” when, to some degree, it’s too late to make changes or help students who are struggling. For students, they bake “failure/revision” into the process of learning and normalize it by taking a more iterative approach to bigger, higher-stakes assignments.

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