Developing a Philosophy for Grading
First, a warm welcome to all of our new colleagues joining us at FSU this fall, and a warm welcome back to our returning colleagues. We hope your preparations for the new semester are going well and that you’re excited to meet your new students and help them grow intellectually, professionally, and personally during your time together this year.
Every week on Friday, you’ll receive an email from the Center for the Advancement of Teaching that includes a “teaching tip” and lists our upcoming events. Typically, our first message of the semester is meant to serve as a brief guide to course design, and it’s available on our website. This time, though, we wanted to put a special focus on grading. Grades are an important aspect of any course because they convey our priorities. They are like the budget of a class. They focus students’ attention and tell them where to concentrate their time and effort. Grades also cause students a great deal of anxiety, since they affect the material conditions of their lives: Their scholarships or future careers may hang upon their grades. Grades can even affect their identities: Seeing oneself as “an A student” or “a C student” can shape confidence, motivation, and identification with a discipline or with academics altogether.
After we’ve designed our courses, we convey those plans to students in syllabi and on Canvas. We all include a final grade breakdown and brief descriptions of the various components of the course represented there on our syllabi. Though we all know we’re required to provide a clear delineation of where students’ course grades come from, we may not necessarily articulate what we are trying to measure and why, or what we intend to communicate with grades, or what principles underlie our approach to grading.
Although it may not be included on a syllabus, it can be illuminating to write something like a grading philosophy. This exercise can help us unearth and examine the assumptions that shape our grading practices. For example, it’s not uncommon to unintentionally measure students’ performance in comparison to one another instead of measuring their progress toward a learning goal. Ideally, we have a clear sense of what we want students to learn in a course; to what level of mastery they should learn it at this stage in their development; and how they can provide evidence, throughout the course, that they are making progress toward those goals. Then, grades can be a form of feedback on that progress. If students do the learning and provide the appropriate evidence, they should earn commensurate grades.
Just as students who aren’t making good progress toward the learning goals shouldn’t get artificially high grades, students who do achieve the learning goals shouldn’t get artificially low grades. Policies that impose a “normal distribution” or bell curve tend to rank students’ performance in comparison to one another rather than measuring each student’s progress toward level-appropriate and challenging goals.
In general, students’ final course grade should match up with their learning. If they learned a lot but their final course grade is low, that can be a sign of course design issues. Likewise, if they didn’t accomplish important learning goals, but their grades are high, that is also a sign that you need to make adjustments to the course. When a course is well-aligned, the learning goals are clear, the assessments (projects, papers, exams, assignments, etc.) suit the goals well, and students get practice and feedback throughout the course that helps them make progress if they put in the effort. Though it may sound straightforward, alignment is one of the more complex and challenging aspects of course design. So, if you notice things are off, know that 1) you are not alone in needing to make regular adjustments, and 2) we are happy to help! You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation.
We hope that you have a wonderful fall semester, and we look forward to working with you!
If you’d like to discuss your course design, get help crafting assignments or activities, or get feedback on your syllabus, please consider attending our upcoming Syllabus Clinics. On Friday, August 25th, from 10:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. and 1:00–3:00 p.m., we’ll be available to work with you on any issue related to teaching. You can drop in to the Center for the Advancement of Teaching in 432 Diffenbaugh at any time during the clinic.