What is Grading?

Grading is a practice fraught with difficulties and challenges. The purposes, processes and effects of grading are disputed territory. A grade is fundamentally a code, icon or representation of a judgment about a student‘s assessment product as a representation of the student's learning.

Purposes of grading

A grade can represent several possible judgments, either singly or in combination, about a student's work resulting from three different processes:

  • Critique
    the analysis of an assessment product or performance for the purpose of identifying and correcting its faults or reinforce and confirm achievements. Critique as a formative process is most beneficial where usable feedback is provided and is not improved through allocating a code (grade).
  • Evaluation
    the measuring of a product or performance against an independent and objective standard of excellence to which nothing is added to education by adding a grade. The true rationale of evaluation is not educational but professional in that it indicates if a person is qualified.
  • Ranking
    the relative comparison of the performances of a number of students. This is the grading activity that produces the greatest anxiety and provokes the most opposition and is neither educational nor professional but economic.

Flinders University policy, while mainly addressing final grades for topics, makes the following important points about grading:

Academic performance should always be the primary criteria for grading work. The full range of grades should be achievable if the student demonstrates an appropriate standard of performance, except where a topic is examined on a pass/fail basis.

Within the context of a University-wide grading system, assessors will need to consider how to structure assessment exercises to meet topic objectives. Additional descriptors of expected student performance within each grade may be developed by the Topic Coordinator if these will assist students to meet specific topic objectives. In higher level topics a student should be capable of presenting work in an appropriate manner and complying with relevant academic conventions. Relevant descriptors or guidelines should be provided for students if presentation will affect grading in a topic.

Policy is clear that the critical components to grading are clear learning outcomes, criteria and standards for judging students' work. The policy clearly privileges assessment and grading as a process of critical and evaluative judgement of students' work rather than ranking of students (hence grading against the ‘normal/natural curve' is an inappropriate technique to include in grading processes).

As Boud (1998, 8) notes "Criterion referenced assessment implies that what is important is the criterion, not a symbol detached from it. The further feedback gets from the specifics of the assessment tasks and the criteria used to judge them, the more obscure and unhelpful it becomes."

Rich, detailed feedback is potentially far more useful than a grade to students as part of their learning. Rubrics provide one mechanism that can provide constructive feedback to encourage learning and support the grading process.

Precision in Judging and Grading

Boud (1998, 8) notes "We have known since classic studies in the 1930s that the error in the marking of essay-type tests is such that it is meaningless to report percentage marks, or in a manner which has such fine distinctions. Four passing grade bands are as accurate as one can get with most of the assessments procedures available. Even that may be too fine-grain for some purposes. Let us not pretend we can be more precise."

Research tells us that the following factors influence the grade assigned:

  • Graphic quality of the students' texts
    Surface features such as handwriting or word-processing and layout can contribute positively or negatively to the visual appeal of a text.
  • Readability of the text
    Features such as sentence structure and spelling can hinder or enhance the reading and detract from or enhance the quality of the ideas in the text.
  • Use of text structural conventions
    When certain components are expected, their presence or absence can impact on how the text is received e.g. essays should have an introduction, a body and a conclusion; good introductory paragraphs have been found to have a significant effect on grading.
  • Cues in students' text
    Certain features of the student work may distract the assessor from how the work addresses the assessment criteria e.g. an oral presentation that might appear polished and well-researched but does not address the content criteria could be graded higher than one that addresses the content criteria but is less well-presented.
  • Teachers' prior knowledge and expectation of students
    Prior judgements can frame the way assessment products and performances are interpreted, and assessments may tend towards the 'assumed' or usual level for that student.
  • Teacher's personality
    The desire to be perceived as "tough", to have a reputation for being rigorous, or to be liked, can influence the approach to grading.
  • Teachers' beliefs about grading and education
  • Teachers' experience in grading
    More experienced assessors look for evidence of learning by assessing for meaning, the less experienced tend to note what facts are contained in the assignment without assessing the overall meaning and coherence.
  • Quality of the other papers previously received
    The quality of the 5 preceding papers has been found to have a significant impact on the grade assigned to the subsequent paper.

Some of the concerns about grading can be addressed and the impact of some of the factors impacting on grading can be mitigated through the careful design and use of rubrics, which describe the criteria for an assessment task and levels of performance expected from students against the criteria.

To Grade or Not to Grade....

A question that may be raised in planning assessment tasks is whether students' learning products and performances ought to be graded. The Flinders University assessment policy acknowledges that there are circumstances in which it is most appropriate to use a non-graded pass (NGP) which recognises achievement of required standards. The decision to grade or not to grade should reflect the nature of the assessment task and the intended learning outcomes being assessed.

Who will judge?

Common practice often assumes that it is the teacher who will interpret and assess students' learning practices. However, a number of alternatives are possible.

  • Students
    • Self assessment
    • Peer assessment

      Particularly if assessment is intended to contribute to the ability of students to make informed judgments about their own learning, serious consideration should be given to including at least some component of self and/or peer assessment in topics. Group assessment provides an opportunity for students to practice and reflect on their ability to function effectively in group situations. This is of course part of the ability to act cooperatively which is one of the Flinders Graduate Qualities.

      Race (2001) provides an extensive discussion on self, peer and group assessment. 
  • Neutral external examiner
  • Expert professionals and community representatives
  • Computer aided assessment
  • Teachers

What will guide the grading process?

Judging and grading implies that what is being observed is being compared with something. The meaning of grades is embodied in both the criterion and the points of reference. These are selected based on the purpose of particular assessment.

Points of reference can be reduced to three types:

  1. Pre-established criteria, in which the assessor asks:
    "Did the student performance or learning product demonstrate or address the criteria for which the task was established?"
  2. Pre-determined behavioural norms, in which the assessor asks:
    "How does the student performance or learning product compare against established norms for this particular level of students?"
  3. Ideographic, in which the assessor asks:
    "How does the performance or product measure against this student's earlier performances or products?"

Designing curriculum around learning outcomes and the development of Graduate Qualities strongly suggests that assessment judgments should be made against pre-established criteria.