Grading and feedback are important opportunities in the teaching and learning process. Not all feedback is accompanied by a grade, but effective grades provide students with feedback. These practices are complementary and should be planned in parallel.
Feedback helps learners to understand both the learning goals of the course and their relative progress toward meeting those goals. Feedback should help students answer the consecutive questions: Where am I going? How am I going? And where to next? In other words, feedback should feed-back, feed-up, and feed-forward in order to support student learning (Hattie and Timperly, 2007).
In “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback” (2012), Grant Wiggins argues that in order to affect student learning and behavioral change, feedback should be:
- Goal-referenced – Students need a clear understanding of the performance goal(s) for an assignment or task prior to working on it. Align your student feedback with those stated goals.
- Tangible and transparent – Feedback needs to be framed in understandable terms that identify clear and specific changes the student can make to improve their work.
- Actionable – Phrases like "Good Job!" might be nice to share, but they don’t help students learn. Include concrete specifics that help students understand what they should change about their performance in the future.
- User-friendly – Avoid overusing technical terms or providing more feedback than a student can realistically work with. You might gauge the effectiveness of your feedback by asking students to evaluate the quality and utility of the feedback you have given them.
- Timely – Feedback is often provided too late for a student to make use of it. Students need feedback on their performance while they are learning so that they can act on it while it is still relevant. Consider giving more feedback earlier rather than later in the term, and try using technology and peer review processes to provide students with more feedback without bearing the entire burden yourself.
- Ongoing – Students need high-quality feedback throughout an experience to support their learning. Wiggins suggests that “player tips” within video games provide examples of high-quality, ongoing feedback. Not sure what this means? Pick up any video game, board-based game, or mobile game and see how the game designers do it. Good game designs have built-in challenges to keep players motivated, and enough feedback to support players working through major roadblocks while learning the gameplay.
- Consistent – Provide feedback in similar ways for the duration of a learning experience. Establish performance criteria early on, and give students feedback on their growth towards higher levels of performance. Examine a student’s performance in relation to other work they’ve turned in, then calibrate your feedback to take that other work into account.
All grading offers a kind of feedback on student performance. Grading is the process of connecting a student’s performance with specific, and often institutionally-defined, criteria and standards. Align your grading process and approach with your personal philosophies on teaching, institutional and departmental guidelines, and the nature of the subject matter you teach. Your grading practices should reflect your stated learning goals and outcomes for your course.
Consider that grading, and grades themselves, can give rise to controversy and tension for faculty and students alike. Grading can often feel like a subjective exercise that emphasizes evaluative judgment and comparison between students rather than an objective or reliable measurement of learning. Issues of grade inflation, campus culture, student expectations, and variability across departments and courses can further complicate the matter. Keep in mind that grading systems are socially constructed in both their design and interpretation. The following guidelines, while unlikely to resolve these tensions completely, can help in managing them:
Review Dartmouth policies and norms related to grading. The Faculty Handbook outlines all faculty requirements and policies related to grading. In addition, the findings from the 2015 Faculty of Arts and Sciences ad hoc committee on grade inflation and the Dartmouth classifications for scholarship ratings are key resources for understanding the culture around grading at Dartmouth.
Explain how students will be evaluated overall in your course. Include on your syllabus any grading-related policies you plan to use in your course. Describe how you will evaluate various types of student work, and explain how characteristics of student performance will relate to assigned letter grades or point systems. Examples of grading systems include weighted-letter grades, accumulated points, definitional systems, and portfolio-based systems. Find explanations and examples of each of these systems from Illinois State’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology and chapter eight of Effective Grading (2004).
Plan the timing of grading within your course. Grades given during the course can provide timely feedback on the student’s standing and help students improve their learning strategies and performance. Providing ongoing, high-quality grading throughout the course ensures that final grades do not come as a surprise to students.
Consider using rubrics and scoring guides to assess and give feedback. Rubrics are criterion-based approaches to describe your expectations of student performance at various levels. For examples of rubrics, refer to these resources from DePaul’s Teaching Commons and University of Colorado - Denver’s Center for Faculty Development. For activities like problem sets, lab reports, and exams, consider creating scoring guides to indicate both how grading was approached and how students performed. Rubrics and scoring guides can help to provide context, consistency, and transparency in the grading process.
Explain how a student can challenge a grade. Anticipate that students will challenge their grades at times, and provide guidance on how they should approach doing so. Refer to the guidelines on Grading & Evaluation in the Faculty Handbook to understand your role, and refer students to the grading standards and criteria that you've communicated in your assignments and syllabi.
To curve or not to curve? Grading processes are either criterion-referenced or norm-referenced. Criterion-referenced systems involve a set of criteria that students are graded on independently from the performance of their peers. Norm-referenced systems involve grading students based on a combination of their individual performance and a comparison to their peers. Under norm-referenced models, grades are distributed according to a standard bell-shaped curve. Consider your decision to grade on a bell curve carefully because of the statistical implications and assumptions (i.e. that your class reflects a normal distribution) of these decisions. Additionally, grading on a curve can create undesirable dynamics, including increased competition among students, within the learning environment.