Grading Methods and Strategies

Planning a manageable approach to grading that enhances student learning makes teaching much more enjoyable.

Grading is every instructor’s most dreaded task. For some, it raises anxieties that lead to procrastination and more problems, including lateness in completing grading or making promises you can’t keep. In comparison to their peers, Montclair State undergraduate students report dissatisfaction with faculty’s “timely feedback” about their academic progress (Noel Levitz Student Satisfaction Inventory). This is a disappointing finding, but one that we can change by developing realistic plans for evaluation and communicating clearly to students about our feedback timeline and methods.

Summary of best practices for grading

  • Provide clear criteria for how work will be assessed, including an explanation of graded components and their weights. Make the dimensions of high-quality work clear through a rubric or other statement of the important features of the assignment.
  • Provide specific, actionable, and timely feedback and help students understand the purpose of that feedback.
  • Instructor feedback can consist of:
    • Brief written or audio/video-recorded comments to highlight strengths and weaknesses,
    • A rubric with annotations for speed,
    • Comments on written assignments when students are expected to revise.
  • Use peer feedback: feedback on content does not necessarily need to come from the instructor; students may also offer feedback to each other or reflect on their own work in light of a rubric or course learning goals.
  • Provide models of high-quality student work, especially with annotations that make its high-quality features visible, to help students understand how to meet expectations.

Useful, timely feedback

Provide timely feedback of students’ performance to assess and facilitate learning, and to allow students to identify gaps in their understanding before it is too late, i.e. they cannot revise and deepen learning before receiving a grade.

Manage student expectations around receiving grades by explicitly telling them when you intend to return assignments with feedback. For example, an auto-scored Canvas quiz will be returned very quickly but you may need a week to return comments on drafts. Let students know this and their perceptions and misperceptions about the speed of feedback can be addressed.
Focus on feedback for improvement on similar tasks – Effective feedback should be goal and task-oriented. Always think of the learner’s capacity to make improvements: what is the next step in this learner’s growth? Thus, “Provide more details and a direct quote” is actionable feedback whereas “This summary is unacceptable” is not. Avoid feedback that is really about grade justification. Not necessary or helpful.

Fixing isn’t Learning – Avoiding the fix-it trap. Be efficient and focus on the link between comments and student learning: “We waste our students’ time and our own if students can’t learn from our comments” – “fixing isn’t learning” – “don’t comment on everything [you] notice” (Sommers, 2013). As readers, what is easiest to notice and address is error. Errors glare at us and ask for fixing. Instructors need to resist that urge both because it’s very time-consuming and because it’s not helpful. Sit on your hands and focus on one or two global comments you can make about errors. For example: “Spellcheck would have identified many of your errors and improved your communication and grade.” Or “ I highlighted confusing sentences in paragraphs 2 and 3 to illustrate how not taking time to re-read and edit your prose negatively affected the expression of your ideas.”


Rubrics help instructors grade consistently and quickly, and they provide students with specific feedback on strengths and weaknesses. They can be tricky, however, because it’s easy to make an overly complicated rubric that neither saves you time nor provides scores that make sense to instructors or students.

Evaluating Student Writing

Evaluating student writing is not just a way to assess a student’s knowledge and abilities but also a form of teaching.

Deploy Time-Saving Techniques
  • Read student work purposefully, not comprehensively. Read for what you will do — assign a grade or provide formative assessment — and look within the text for what it is you need to read to do your job.
  • Use completion grading. If it’s done, it’s complete; if it’s not, it’s not. Explain the process to students.
  • Try lottery grading. Randomly select student assignments, with a small set receiving close reading with feedback, and the majority receiving completion grades. Explain the process to students.
  • Use group conferencing for feedback on student work.
  • Use peer review groups to provide some feedback, with a rubric to support strong feedback.
  • Use rubrics found in Canvas for faster grading.
  • Try Screencastify or other audio feedback methods.
  • For paper submissions, ask students to signpost by bolding key elements such as their thesis, word count, or reference to required terms.
  • Limit page numbers or word count. There is critical thinking value to concise writing.
  • For grammatical, usage, and editing issues:
    • Try end-of-paper general notations about types of errors: i.e., run-ons, subject-verb agreement, etc.
    • Correct just one paragraph to demonstrate editing problems. Explain that these errors occur throughout the essay and that students need to identify and correct the entire essay.
    • Capture individual sentence problems that occur frequently across the class, and share several of these with the whole class to raise awareness for everyone. Discuss writing problems and brainstorm solutions.
    • Use Canvas Quizzes if you don’t already for assignments that are designed to assess reading or other required tasks; these quizzes can be automated so that the instructor’s work is front-loaded to designing the quiz, but the assessment is automatic.

Finishing the job: tips for the end of the semester final grades

  • Focus on student learning objectives as defined by your course syllabus.
  • Do not comment on papers or tests. If students are interested in receiving your feedback, make an appointment and then you can mark the paper. Most students do not come back to pick up or review papers to read instructor comments, so it’s silly to write comments that most likely will never be read.
  • Review assignment directions before you begin grading. That is, remind yourself of what you have asked students to do.
  • Move quickly. Come up with a reasonable time for each assessment, and set a timer.

Labor-Based Contract Grading

Contract grading is an assessment approach that asks students to identify and commit to a set of instructor-defined tasks and achievements to earn a specific grade. Contract grading relies on an understanding of achievement as primarily defined by time spent on tasks and task completion. Contract grading underscores a popular idea: you get out of a course what you put into it.

Asao Inoue (2019) defines this as “essentially a set of social agreements with the entire class about how final course grades will be determined for everyone. These agreements … [are] negotiated at the beginning of the term or semester, then reexamined at midpoint. … If a student meets the basic guidelines of the contract, which means they do the labor asked of everyone in the spirit it is asked, and submit all work in the manner asked, then they will get a B final grade no matter what I or anyone else thinks of any of their work” (p. 130). Inoue (2019) and others in the field have come to labor-based contract grading because “[t]he scholarship on grading writing . . . . is unanimous about the unreliability or inconsistency and the idiosyncratic nature of grades. Just as much research shows how grades and other kinds of rewards and punishments actually de-motivate and harm students and their abilities to learn anything” (p. 209).

The contract-grading approach can also be applied to specific assignments rather than the whole course. Instructors and students can negotiate the labor that goes into a paper assignment (considering word count, source requirements, use of style and formatting guides, etc.). This can especially work well for a longer project, like a research paper, and thus the labor can include all the assignments leading up to the final project (proposals, annotated bibliographies, literature review, etc.). Another way to keep track of a student’s labor could be assigning labor journals with assignments, in which a student writes out their process and the labor that went into each created text. Overall, labor-based grading assesses the work that students put into their writing for a more equitable assessment. To read more about application of this from an MSU Writing Studies professor, go here.

Resources and References

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass. [link]

Broad, B. (2003). What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing. Utah State University Press. [link]

Elbow, P. (1993). Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment. College English, 55, 187-206. [link]

Huot, B. (2002). (Re)Articulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning. Utah State University Press. [link]

Inoue, Asao B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado.

Sommers, N. (1982). Responding to Student Writing. College Composition and Communication, 33(2), 148–156.

Young, V. A. (2018). Should Writers Use They Own English? Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, 12, 110–117.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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