My Philosophy of Grading

If I had to grade our grading practices in higher-ed generally, we would not get an A+... 

If I had to grade our grading practices in higher-ed generally, we would not get an A+... 

I think a lot about grading and why we -- as educators -- even do it. I've come up with some norms of grading -- a sort of "philosophy of grading" -- that I always use to come up with specific grading practices. I thought I'd post it here, since I think grading is one of the things that we, college educators, are the absolute worst at. Feel free to post thoughts or comment with your own additional norms!

  • Students should be assessed only on the performance of activities or the production of work that demonstrate growth or mastery of the skills, competencies, and objectives identified in the course objectives. For instance: it makes sense to evaluate whether or not a student’s paper includes strong arguments, since learning how to argue is a core objective of most philosophy courses. It does not make sense to assess a student’s paper for grammatical errors, since we are not focusing on making them better technical writers. If a paper is so error-riddled that it makes the argument difficult to follow, you might choose to evaluate their grammar insofar as it detracts from their argumentative skills, but you should never subtract points simply because a student’s writing style or use of grammar is not up to your own standards (or even the stands of professional writing). Likewise, you should never assign a grade to students simply for showing up (since being in a particular location at a particular time is not a skill we are aiming to cultivate in this course). However, you may assign points based on how well students participate or engage in discussion. Since students who aren’t in discussion cannot participate, they will receive no points if they fail to show up. Thus, “attendance” is counted, but only insofar as being present is a necessary condition on the performance of activities or the exercise of skills or competencies that we are actually aiming to cultivate.


  • Every assessment needs to communicate information to students that they will find useful: (a) in approaching future assignments in the course, (b) in evaluating or assessing themselves with respect to the course objectives of the course, or (c) in becoming better students, philosophers, or persons. That is to say: grades should not feel random, or be given without any explanation. Because personalizing feedback is often tedious (and tends to be ignored by students), we recommend creating detailed rubrics that you will use to guide your grading. It is most helpful to provide these rubrics to students at the same time that the assignment is given. You can then use the rubric to structure your grading, and provide it to your students along with their grade breakdown, to show them where and why they lost (or gained) points. This is what a rubric looks like:

    Your rubrics should be tailored to the objectives of the course you’re TAing for. You may choose to write more constructive descriptions than those that appear in this sample rubric. For instance: “generally unclear, unfocused” is fairly vague as a description of how a paper that “needs improvement” vis-a-vis “Structure and style.” Instead, consider more concrete descriptions, like “Support for the main claim could have been more focused and better organized,” or “The author considers some strong objections, but fails to adequately respond -- or adequately responds to several weaker objections.” Feel free to share your rubrics with others who are TAing the same course!


    • Students need to know how to receive personalized feedback on assignments if they desire it. Moreover, the process for receiving such feedback should not be complicated or difficult for the student. It must be clear when and where your office hours are -- but you should also strive to figure out whether there are more expedient and accessible ways for your students to receive personalized feedback. Can you meet for 5 minutes right after class? Can you have them submit an early draft of an assignment via email and comment on it via Google docs? Does the student need to set up an appointment at Starbucks outside of your regular meeting time?


    • Whenever possible, assessment should be framed as a way for educators and students to collaborate on their shared objectives (I.e. The objectives of the course or the particular assignment), rather than “top-down” or “expert” evaluation on students, their work, or their performance.


    • Under no circumstances should a student be evaluated on traits, characteristics, or abilities that are outside of his or her control. Grading, and assessment more generally, are meant to be ways of communicating with students about their performance in the course, and how they can improve their performance and production. Assessing a student on something she cannot control or does not have the tools to improve upon makes no sense. Such arbitrariness should be avoided at all costs.


    • Finally, self-assessment is a good way to help students internalize the course objectives, as well as standards of evaluation that will help them gauge how well they are doing with respect to those objectives. For instance, if you’re given the freedom to award “participation points” for discussions -- you might have students submit a half-sheet of paper at the end of each session on which they rate their participation from 1-5, justify their score in a sentence, and write a sentence about how they can improve next time. This assessment will give them a chance to evaluate their own performance and participation in the discussion, and start to gain a reflective awareness of their in-class performance. You’ll then want to review and adjust (if necessary) the self-assessments, in order to provide students with feedback about how well they are internalizing the standards of evaluation, how accurate their evaluation of their performance (and the performance of the group) is, etc.