Good Grading, Good Grades

Several colleges and universities have changed spring semester grading processes in response to the pandemic and our collective shifts to distance learning. The debates and decisions about grading prompted me to return to one of my all-time favorite higher education books, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment, by Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson. I’m enough of a higher education nerd that sheltering in place or not, I have a copy nearby. It was a pleasure to return to this 1998 classic. It is one of the most practical and helpful academic books I have ever encountered. Designed for teachers, the book also has a place for administrators and institutions in thinking through grades, grading, and grading policies and practices.

I know – you’re thinking a book about grading? How could it be worthy of such effusive praise? Effective Grading takes something we all know about but is often overlooked, something woven into our academic lives that is rarely examined, and gives it thorough and serious consideration. The authors are akin engineers with an exploded-view schematic. They provide us clear explanations and make sense of a complicated component, with many parts, that sits within a larger even more complicated system.

English and Biology professors, Walvoord and Anderson are up front about why they wrote the book: “we’ve spent nearly every day of our teaching lives wrestling with the problems, the power, and the paradoxes of the grading system.” They know that there can be no one best answer. Grading is complicated and dependent up on context and many other factors. The authors have a goal. They want grading to be “more fair, more time-efficient, and more conducive to learning.” I think that Effective Grading goes far in advancing those worthwhile aims.

The authors lay out some basic premises, first establishing that grading is a process that includes many different sorts of activities. They argue that professors should acknowledge the complexities of grading up front, think them through, and make decisions within the framework of classroom research. In other words, grading can be of great help if it’s thought of as a key component in learning-centered activities.

The book moves briskly, with clearly written suggestions, templates and examples. It has a collegial tone and is never didactic or peremptory. The authors very much believe that faculty working together can offer the best solutions. Importantly, Walvoord and Anderson take care to explain that while traditional grading is not the same as assessment for regional accreditors, faculty are always assessing student learning. Grading done well can serve programmatic, departmental and institutional needs. Supporting the effort are twelve rock-solid principles to guide the reader – here, the teacher – along the way:

  • Appreciate the Complexity of Grading; Use it as a Tool for Learning
  • Substitute Judgment for Objectivity
  • Distribute Time Effectively
  • Be Open to Change
  • Listen and Observe
  • Communicate and Collaborate with Students
  • Integrate Grading with Other Key Processes
  • Seize the Teachable Moment
  • Make Student Learning the Primary Goal
  • Be a Teacher First, a Gatekeeper Last
  • Encourage Learning-Centered Motivation
  • Emphasize Student Involvement

The book makes practical suggestions about how to incorporate these goals into effective grading processes. It is discipline agnostic. It does not advocate for any particular schemata. What it does emphasize is the value of planning, up-front investment in a system, and a clear understanding of why a particular kind of grading with particular kinds of assignments in certain types of courses.

Towards that end, the authors advocate for a method call Primary Trait Analysis. PTA is assignment specific, requiring teachers to explicit think through a rubric of that moves along a continuum of unstated to criterion specific scoring. As a teacher, what do you want students to demonstrate that they have learned in a particular assignment? How do you make that scale? The authors walk us through the process. It’s great – and all those years ago when I taught history – I found it extraordinarily helpful.

I highly recommend Effective Grading. If you don’t want to purchase it or read it all, a quick search on the web can provide you with many examples gleaned from the book. Over the years I’ve given out many copies – and I am grateful that I kept at least one on hand.

David Potash

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