Rubrics & Grading

Developing rubrics and grading assignments can vary widely across different disciplines. However, the fundamental concepts of constructive effective rubrics and grading practices can often be used across diverse academic fields. This pages offers suggestions that can be used in a variety of courses.

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Grading Tests

What does it mean to grade? Grading is a context-dependent, complex process that is at its best when teachers recognize the opportunity it offers to enhance student learning. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) identify four major roles of the grading process:

  1. It works as a means of evaluating student learning in relation to course material and goals.
  2. It can communicate the level of learning to the students, as well as to employers and others.
  3. It functions as a motivation device in that it affects what students focus on in their studies.
  4. It helps organize course components by marking transitions between topics and by bringing closure to particular segments of the class.

In order for grading to be as effective and worthwhile to yourself and your students as possible, make sure that you consider the tests you will implement when you are designing the course (see our Designing for Access page for more information). Design tests that will measure the concepts and learning that you set out to achieve in the course, allow student input when designing course goals, and be clear in your instructions. Walvoord and Anderson (1998) provide examples from professors of several disciplines:

At the end of Western Civilization [a 100-level general education course for first-year students], I want my students to be able to:

  • Describe basic historical events and people.
  • Argue as a historian does: Take a position on a debatable historical issue, use historical data as evidence for the position, raise and answer counterarguments.

At the end of this math course, I want my students to be able to:

  • Solve [certain kinds] of mathematics problems.
  • Explain what they’re doing as they solve a problem and why they are doing it.

Resources: Walvoord, B. & Anderson, V.J. (1998) (pdf). Effective Grading. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Grading Writing Assignments

When you’re grading a stack of papers, it’s easy to mark mistakes or note negative points and give a grade—nothing more. But a positive word or two might make a big difference to students. When you need to point out an error, telling students to “clarify this” is similar to telling them to “be tall;" they might not know how to do what you ask. Consider how you can help students see why they made the error, and help them focus their thinking on areas where they need the most work.

Bean (2011) offers four recommendations for grading essay exams:

  • Don’t look at students’ names when you read the exams, or have students write an ID number (not a Social Security Number) on the test instead. This way, you’ll be able to eliminate grader bias.
  • Grade the exam one question at a time, rather than reading the whole exam of each student. This will help with grading reliability.
  • Shuffle the exams after you complete each question so that you read them in a different order. Record scores in such a way that you don’t know what a student received on Question 1 when you grade Question 2.
  • Finally, if time permits, you should skim a random sample of exams before you make initial decisions about grades. Your goal is to establish anchor papers that represent prototype A, B, and C grades. Then, when you come to a difficult essay, ask yourself, “Is this better or worse than my prototype B or C?”

Instead of using anchor papers to determine grades, you may find it beneficial to use a scoring rubric to grade essays and papers through Primary Trait Analysis. The advantage of using rubrics or PTA is that, rather than writing out extensive comments, you score the essay or assignment using the rubric, making this an efficient way of grading. Students can refer to the rubric when writing the assignment, as well as use their scored rubric to examine their work’s strengths and weaknesses. This method also increases inter-grader reliability when multiple individuals grade assignments.

Four Steps to Creating a Rubric

  1. Choose a test, assignment or group of assignments that you’ll evaluate. Clarify your objectives.
  2. Identify the criteria or traits that will count in this evaluation. These are usually words or phrases such as “thesis,” “use of color,” or “use of relevant examples.”
  3. For each trait, construct a two- to five-point scale. Each point relates to a descriptive statement; e.g. “A 5 thesis is clear and appropriate for the scope of the essay; it neither repeats sources nor states the obvious.”
  4. Try out the scale with a sample of student work and revise as needed. Although all rubrics will vary according to the specific assignment they are developed for, examples rubrics (doc)  can help serve as a starting point. Please also see our Tests & Writing Assignments page for more information.