Grading is among the most meaningful tasks we undertake as teachers, and it’s one that—even when things are going smoothly—can require what feels like outsized amounts of time and energy. To be sure, we use a lot of that time and energy simply carrying out the intrinsically difficult job of grading, but a lot of time, and probably even more energy, can get taken up weighing the factors that—when things are going less smoothly—can make the job feel discouragingly fraught. To name a few:
- How do we assess process versus product? (How do we recognize “A-level” effort—or even improvement—that results in work that still doesn’t end up at the “A-level”?)
- How do we weigh equity against equality? (How do we avoid merely sorting our students based on the high school they went to without having to tailor our grading approach to each individual student—based on information we don’t have in the first place?)
- How do we specify our learning goals without boxing ourselves into a corner or stifling creativity? (How do we make sure that the constraints of an assignment, e.g., page length, are enabling, rather than limiting, and how do we allow ourselves to reward approaches to an assignment that we hadn’t predicted? What do we do when faced with one paper that stays unremarkably on track and arrives safely at its modest destination, and another that goes absolutely fabulously off the rails?)
- How do we adapt—and according to what rationale—our approach to grading over the course of a semester? (How do we support struggling students and challenge thriving students early in the term without “losing” them or misleading them?)
- How do we recognize numerous distinct tiers of student success in an environment of grade compression?
These are questions that arise nearly every time we sit down to grade a pile of papers or exams, and in fact they’re exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves: they reflect the complexity we would expect from so many overlapping and intersecting feedback loops taking shape over a period of weeks or months. With that in mind, our goal shouldn’t be to avoid the questions or iron out their fraughtness or hope for one-size-fits-all solutions to grading. In the end, those fixes just create bigger problems that lead us away from the meaningfulness of grading. What we can aim for, however, are general principles that will make grading as useful, fair, and efficient as possible.