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Assigning Grades

Assigning grades is one of the most difficult and emotion-laden tasks for an instructor. It is also a task for which instructors have had little professional preparation. You can spend less time assigning grades and have more confidence in them if you have a well-conceived system for grading. Students appreciate a grading system that is impartial, understandable and justifiable.

There are at least six functions of grades. Grades:

  • Provide feedback to students and keep them apprised of their progress.
  • Help students evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Motivate students to learn. Grades can be overemphasized, but when used properly they serve as a positive motivating factor by rewarding students for their progress.
  • Provide information to help students make decisions about future courses and career choices.
  • Communicate student achievement to others — potential employers, graduate schools, etc.
  • Select students for special programs (such as remedial or advanced) or allow them to waive requirements.

Factors that may be used to determine grades

Factors that contribute to course grades should reflect the student's competence in meeting course objectives. Instructors can assess and give feedback to students on many traits, but only academic performance factors (such as the ones listed below) should be used in determining course grades:

  • Paper and pencil tests covering the content (objectives). These are most commonly used in determining grades.
  • Projects and reports that allow students to demonstrate their competence and to submit materials for instructor evaluation.
  • Demonstration and performance by students that can be observed and evaluated (using a rubric) to measure competence.
  • Oral quizzes. These can be used with individuals or small groups of students.
  • Group discussions of course content, which can allow individual students to demonstrate their ability to discuss the course content. Discussions are especially appropriate for higher levels of learning.
  • Class participation may be a factor in grading, particularly for large classes.
  • Make sure students understand what criteria you will apply to assign their grade. For example, if neatness is important to you in a student's written report, let them know that it is and clarify to them what neatness means to you (e.g., pages of a report need to be stapled).
  • Help students understand how your criteria for grading relate to your course goals/objectives.

Questionable factors used to determine grades

Class attendance should be encouraged because it is assumed that it will facilitate learning. If students miss several classes, their performance on exams and projects may suffer. If their grade is further reduced because of absence, the instructor is subjecting such students to "double jeopardy."

Personality factors should not influence a student's grade. If a student's personality traits interfere with class performance or may affect his or her future employment opportunities, the instructor may wish to provide appropriate feedback through conferences or written evaluations.

Types of Grade Reports

At Purdue, as at most colleges and universities, grades must be reported to the registrar as A, B, C, D or F. In some cases, Satisfactory (S), Unsatisfactory (U), Pass (P) or Fail (F) is used.

  • Letter grades (A, B, C, D and F) are most commonly used to report students' performance, particularly at the end of the course.
  • Number grades (or percentages) are often used to report and record performance on individual tests and projects.
  • Written comments are effective on student papers, projects and laboratory reports. The comments can indicate particular strengths or weaknesses of the paper. Overall performance is usually summarized by a letter or number grade.
  • Rubrics are appropriate for evaluating a student project or performance.
  • Pass/Fail or Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory is best used for individual pieces of work such as a class project or laboratory activity that uses a set of standards to determine minimal acceptable performance.

Semester Grades — Two Types of Grading Philosophies

Before you begin teaching a class, you should know your grading philosophy. Are you attempting to sort your students from the one who knows the most to the one who knows the least, or are you trying to see how each student compares to a standard you have set prior to the instruction? These two grading philosophies are called "norm-referenced" and "criterion-referenced," respectively. Both are valid approaches depending on what you're trying to do.

In a norm-referenced system, each student's performance is compared with the other students' performance in the class (or perhaps with some other normative group). Norm-referencing is appropriate when the normative group is large enough (35 or more) to be representative of students who enroll in the course. Under this grading system, 38% of your students will earn a "C," 24% will earn a "B," 24% will earn a "D," 7% will earn an "A" and 7% will earn an "F." This is commonly called "grading on the curve."

In a criterion-referenced system, the instructor compares each student"s performance with a criterion or standard. This method of assigning grades is often used with mastery learning where students are given a chance to redo assignments if they do not master them the first time. Under this system, each of your students could potentially earn an "A" in the course — especially if they have the chance to redo assignments until they learn the necessary skills.

Criterion-referenced evaluation is often favored because it describes exactly what a student is capable of regardless of the performance of others. One of the easiest and most common ways to measure a student's performance in this method is simply to measure the "percentage correct," that is, to report the total percentage of items answered correctly on any test or exam.

In a hybrid system, norm-referenced grading and criterion-referenced grading are combined. For example, in a criterion-referenced system, cutoffs may be based on 90%, 80%, etc., of a perfect score on a test or assignment. On a 50-point exam, an "A" would be given to those who scored 45 or above (90% of 50 is 45). Suppose the highest student score on this exam was 43. Using a criterion-referenced system, this student would receive a "B" and no student would receive an "A." However, some instructors base their cutoffs on the highest student score rather than a perfect score. So, in this case, 90% of 43 (i.e., 39) would be the cutoff for an "A." In this approach, both students' performance (as in norm-referenced grading) and percentages of a criterion score (as in criterion-referenced grading) are used to assign grades.


Walvoord, B.E., & Anderson, V.J. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Words of Wisdom

  • Remind students about the expectations (or objectives) in your class
    Continue to remind your students about expectations throughout the semester. If done at the same time as handing back an assignment, it helps to clarify for students why they received a certain grade.
  • Avoid excessive competition
    A certain degree of competition is healthy, but grading schemes that put students in direct competition with one another should be avoided because they usually end up discouraging students rather than encouraging them.
  • Impose a grading timeline
    • All graded material should be handed back in a timely manner. The rule of thumb is to return graded assignments within a week of when they were handed in. If it will take you longer to grade some assignments, be open with your students, notifying them of your progress and giving them an estimated completion date.
    • Turn back the first graded assignment before the add/drop date. This gives students an idea of the expectations in your class while they are still able to change their schedule.
    • Notify students of their grades around the middle of the term. This should help motivate them and also prevent unpleasant surprises when they learn their final grade.
  • Avoid grade appeals
    • Be sure all grading expectations and calculations are clearly outlined in your syllabus.
    • Keep good records.
    • Be sure to talk to your students in person. In response to an email grade query, suggest that you meet to discuss their grade. Emphasize that you would like to talk about specific issues, such as low attendance, missed assignments, low participation, etc.