Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 8. the g-word (grading)

Ah yes, the g-word: grading. I don't want to talk too much about the g-word since how you set up grading for your course is a very personal decision. Here are some high-level thoughts.

What do grades mean to you? First you should ask yourself what signal you want grades to give. This is a very personal question that I can't answer for you. For instance, would you be OK with everyone who put in a solid effort getting an A? Or do you want to give A's only to people who did exceptionally well? Do you want a curve so that the class's grade distribution fits a certain pattern? Do you want to be known as an easy or hard grader? Or does that not matter to you? All questions for you to consider!

Grades incentivize behaviors: Grades are the most direct way for you to incentive certain behaviors. For instance, if you want to incentivize class attendance, then make attendance a significant part of the grade and enforce it strictly. Or if you want to incentivize collaboration, then codify that in a grading rubric. But be aware that effectively using grades to manage incentives is easier said than done and can backfire if not implemented well.

What to grade: Every piece of graded content in your course is a source of stress, friction, conflict, and disputes. So think hard about how detailed your grading needs to be, given your course's learning goals. At one extreme, you can choose to do zero grading. At the other extreme, you can give mini-quizzes and in-class assignments during every single class meeting to check for fine-grained understanding. As an intermediate data point, Professor Dave Evans describes a minimal grading approach for his computer science course, along with a more general philosophy in the How to Grade section of his teaching guide. In the end, only you can decide what's right for your course.

Return grades quickly: It's the staff's responsibility to grade assignments and exams in a timely manner, ideally finishing 3 to 4 days after each due date. It's unfair for students if grades are returned too slowly, especially if latter assignments build off of earlier ones. You need to constantly remind your TAs to do grading on time each week, since they're also busy with other work so it's easy for grading times to slip. (If you allow slack days, TAs will need more time to finish grading assignments from students who used slack days.)

Make grades visible: Use a web application or spreadsheet to let students see all their grades throughout the term. This gives them peace of mind that their grades were entered properly and lets them alert the staff when there's been a data entry error. If you use a spreadsheet that the entire class can see, be careful not to reveal private student information; create a unique code to identify each student. Put one of your TAs in charge of keeping this app or spreadsheet freshly updated.

Prepare for grade disputes: Write a clear policy for grade disputes. See the Regrade requests section of the appendix for a policy from one of my courses. At the end of the term after students see final grades, you will inevitably get a few emailing you to dispute their grade. These are likely students who are a few points away from the next higher letter grade (e.g., from a B+ to an A-). Again, have a clearly-written policy so that you can simply point students to it instead of trying to respond on a case-by-case basis. That's the most fair for everyone. It also prevents you from overreacting and sending a badly-worded response.

Next part: Logistics of Teaching Large Courses: Part 9. end-of-term wrap-up and closure

(see all parts)

Appendix: Example Grading Policy

(Note that this is from my HCI course, which contains a team-based design/programming project. Not all parts of this policy will apply to your course.)

Grading rubrics

Each assignment comes with a rubric explaining how the course staff will grade your submission. These rubrics have been refined over many years to clearly describe what we think mastery of each assignment entails. For this course, "mastery" means performing at the level described in the rubric. Review the entire assignment description, especially the rubric, before starting your assignment.

Grade composition and scale

Your course grade is out of 165 total points, comprising: [details]

At the end of the quarter, raw point scores are translated into letter grades using the standard letter grade scale:

  • 97% to 100%: A+
  • 93% to 96.99%: A
  • 90% to 92.99%: A-
  • 87% to 89.99%: B+
  • 83% to 86.99%: B
  • 80% to 82.99%: B-
  • 77% to 79.99%: C+
  • 73% to 76.99%: C
  • 70% to 72.99%: C-
  • 67% to 69.99%: D+
  • 63% to 66.99%: D
  • 60% to 62.99%: D-
  • 0% to 59.99%: F

Note that this is a minimum guaranteed grade that you will get. In rare cases when a student is near the borderline, we will consider raising their grade if there are exceptional circumstances (but see the next section).

For example (149/165) is 90%, so that would earn an A-. In this class, as with any, the grade you earn reflects your performance. There is no curve, so you are not competing with your classmates for a limited number of letter grades.

Do not ask the professor about grades

Please do not email, send forum messages, or ask the professor about your grades. Everyone follows the same set of grading rules.

At the end of the quarter, the entire staff meets at length to go over everyone's performance on the project and to take into account any special circumstances that may warrant minor grade adjustments. Please do not email or message us at the end of the term to dispute your grades. In the end, we will make final grading decisions that are the most fair for all students in the class. We will not respond to such messages.

(The only exception is if there is a numerical error when computing your final grade from raw scores; in those cases, feel free to email and we will fix the numerical error.)

Teammate assessments

For each assignment, you will privately assess your own and your teammates' performance (called a "teammate assessment"). In general, everyone on the team will earn the same grade. However, if a majority of the team reports on their teammate assessments that an individual was more/less successful in achieving their goals, that individual's grade will be adjusted accordingly when we hold our final end-of-quarter staff meeting to discuss everyone's project performance.

Regrade requests

The teaching staff works extremely hard to grade fairly and return assignments quickly. We know you work hard, and want you to receive the grade you earned. Occasionally, grading mistakes do happen, and it's important to us to correct them.

If you believe there is an error in your assignment or exam grading, submit an explanation in writing to your section TA within 7 days of receiving the grade. This explanation should list the score that you think is most accurate for each rubric item, and explain why that score is more accurate than the one you received. A second staff member will regrade the entire assignment to ensure quality, and their grade will be your final score (you cannot make any further appeals). Note that they do not simply regrade the items that you want; they regrade the entire assignment from scratch. This may mean that you will receive a lower grade than before, and you cannot appeal again for another re-grade.

There is no regrade procedure for the final assignment of the quarter due to lack of time at the end of the quarter before grades are due. (Note that in classes with final exams, you do not have an opportunity to ask for a regrade on the final exam either, so this policy is consistent with that fact.) But rest assured that we have a final in-person grading meeting where the entire staff meets to discuss each group's performance and takes that into consideration when assigning final grades.