Grading and Testing


Grading is a major problem to many new teachers and to a lot of more experienced ones too. Some of us are quite harsh at the beginning to prove that we are not pushovers. Others, who may know the students personally, are quite lenient. Grades reflect personal philosophy and human psychology as well as efforts to measure intellectual progress with standardized, objective criteria. Whatever our personal philosophy about grades, their importance to our students means that we must make a constant effort to be fair and reasonable and to maintain grading standards we can defend if challenged. Grades cause a lot of distress for undergraduates; this concern often seems to inhibit enthusiasm for learning for its own sake (“Do we have to know this for the exam?”), but grades are a fact of life. The good news is that they need not be counterproductive educationally if students know what to expect. What follows are some general suggestions that can help to maintain fairness and consistency in our grading.

Planning and Explaining

Make a plan for evaluating the students and stick to it. Evaluation procedures should be decided on when the course is in the planning stages. If we are working with teaching assistants or colleagues, we’ll need to meet with them and decide how many and what kinds of evaluation methods are to be used. Then decide how the students’ work should be graded and what proportion of the final grade each assignment, quiz, etc., will comprise. This is also the time to set out a policy for missed or failed midterms and late assignments. Once all of these things have been set out explicitly, take the earliest opportunity to make the students aware of these policies. Tell the class what’s expected of them and how their progress in achieving the goals of the course will be measured. Explain these goals and how the evaluations, marking procedures, and policies will help both to achieve these goals and allow us to evaluate their progress fairly. Good planning and clear explanations will prevent student confusion-and possibly anger-later on.

Records and Distributions

Keep accurate records of our evaluation of each student’s performance throughout the quarter. (We should also keep records for several years since students may come back later to question a grade, finish an incomplete, or ask for a recommendation.) Such records will make it easier for us to justify and/or reevaluate a student’s final grade. These records are extremely important, of course, if we base the final grade on some composite of the quarter’s work.

If we are evaluating a reasonable number of students, say twenty, it is also a good idea to make a graph of the distribution of grades on each quiz or assignment. Software grading packages now available on the market can help us, not only plot our grade distributions but manage our record-keeping. If, for instance, we are giving a numerical grade from 0 to 50 on an assignment, we can plot a graph of how many students received a grade between 1 and 10, 11 and 20, all the way to 50. This graph will tell us at a glance (and anyone we choose to show it to) how the students are doing. It will also allow us to see what the most frequent scores are and where the middle of the scoring range is. Both these statistics are informative for students who are concerned about how they are doing with respect to the rest of the class. Distributions will make it easier for us to see how good our evaluation method was. Uneven or badly skewed distributions suggest a poor testing method.

If we plot similar distributions for a number of assignments or quizzes, we can see how consistent our marking has been and also if there is (one hopes) a trend toward improvement in the students’ performances. Composite grades can also be plotted this way, making the assignment of a final letter grade an easier task. For example, if our distribution plot indicates that all the scores are bunched together, we may want to consider shifting or narrowing the range of our letter grade assignments. And it helps to attach copies of the distributions to exams for our future reference and for the use of future teachers in the course.

Of course, the grading problems we face will depend on the evaluation method we use. Here are some specific hints for different types of evaluation.


There is nothing more arbitrary to a student than a paper passed back with perfunctory comments. When grading papers, write comments judiciously and legibly. Do not obliterate the text-use the margins, the back, or append a note. Try to say enough so that the student has a reasonably good chance of doing better next time. If we find that we are saying similar things to several students, prepare a handout on whatever the students are stumbling over-how to write a review, for example, or how to develop an argument.

A paper should be judged on its content, organization, and style. Often it is useful to the student if we evaluate the paper in each of these areas and assign a grade on the basis of some combination of these factors. Also, some teachers have had good success with asking students to write papers more than once. The first draft is submitted and subjected to constructive criticism on these areas of content, organization and style. The additional draft(s) is graded and usually shows the kind of improvement that is quite satisfying to student and teacher alike.

Both formal papers and essay exams involve a lot of subjective judgment. The following suggestions may help with the problem of maintaining consistency. We are more likely to be stringent with the first few papers we read than with the rest; and we’re less likely to be careful about comments when we are tired. To avoid these problems, read a few papers before actually grading any, in order to get an idea of the range of quality, and stop grading when fatigue or boredom set in. When we start again, rereading the last couple of papers we graded can assure us that we were fair on our first reading and remind us of the qualities we’re looking for when we move to new papers.

Essay Exams

Usually the problem here is how to wade through all those booklets while remaining both consistent and sane. When there are a number of instructors assigned to a course, this is easier, because we can divide the work load . . . but how to divide it?

If each instructor has had a section of the course and all have covered the same basic material, then we may prefer to mark the entire exams of just the students in our own section. This allows us to give credit for material that we presented in our section and it gives us feedback on whether the ideas we’ve emphasized have actually registered with our students. The problem here, of course, is that objectivity may be harder to achieve since we may feel close to, or even partial toward, our own students. Grading question by question rather than student by student may help. Also, using student ID numbers on exams, rather than names, can go a long way to minimizing biases we may develop as we get to know our students. In either case, we should be guided by a grading standard that has been mutually agreed upon by all instructors.

If instructors have worked as a team with each instructor dealing with specialized topics in class, then it is probably better to split the exam questions up so that each teacher covers the area he or she taught. Dividing the exam questions in this way ensures that each question will be marked consistently across all students. However, reading 200 answers to the same question one after the other has its drawbacks; it can affect our mental health and our grading range. This is less likely to occur if we pace ourselves, grade questions that we are interested in, and switch questions every once in a while.

When the exams have been marked, get together with the other instructors and discuss and resolve any problems encountered along the way. Then add up the total scores, check addition (this saves a lot of trouble later), and plot the distribution.

Problem Sets, Short Answer Questions, and Multiple Choice

Although designing useful problem sets and unambiguous short answer/multiple choice test questions can be time consuming, they are often easier to grade than essay exams or papers. But difficulties can still arise. For the same reasons as those mentioned above, it is often a good idea to divide exam questions among the instructors teaching the course. This is more likely to maintain consistency and to make it possible for us to spot consistent deviations. For example, we may think that we have written the perfect question with only one correct answer, only to find that our students present us with reasonable (sometimes superior) alternatives to the one we anticipated. In the case of multiple choice questions, if students are doing worse than chance would predict on a particular question, it may be a signal that the question was poorly worded. In this giving credit for more than one answer or tossing the question out (by giving everyone credit), can avoid student perceptions that we’re unreasonable, unfair, or unwilling to admit to a mistake.

Grading can be a constructive process for both our students and for us. It can give them the opportunity to improve their knowledge and writing skills and it can give us feedback on our teaching and evaluation methods. By being consistent and fair, we can minimize the inevitably unpleasant aspects of passing judgment on someone’s efforts.

Responding to Grade Challenges

Occasionally students will dispute a test score or a final grade. In that case, it’s important to give the student a courteous hearing. We may have added incorrectly, or overlooked work, or not been able to decipher the writing on a test. If, on the contrary, the grade should still hold, most students appreciate an explanation of how the grade accords with the policies we set forth. Of course the clearer the records we keep, the easier it will be to reexamine and justify our grades.

We’ll find it easier to handle grade challenges, however, if we do not attempt to regrade exams with the concerned student on. Have students explain carefully whatever problem they see in the exam, and then ask them to leave the test. Not only does this give us time to look over the exam on our own to recheck our records, and sometimes to rethink our original criteria for grading, but it also gives the often times upset student a chance to calm down. TAs also need to be careful not to get caught between professor and students on regrading questions. Professors can help TAs by discussing beforehand, the expectations and policies for regrades; or TAs can initiate the discussion, finding out who is responsible for regrading issues.

Academic Honesty and Dishonesty

Academic honesty and dishonesty are both moral and administrative concerns for a teacher at UNC Charlotte. The official university position on academic honesty and the handling of dishonesty is found on the UNC Charlotte Policy Statements Website at If we work with TAs, we should discuss the Honor Code and academic honesty with them at the beginning of the semester to guarantee that our interpretations are compatible and that we agree on what to do if violations occur. This will ensure that all students in a course are treated fairly.

We can also help to prevent problems by creating learning environments that reduce, as much as possible, the temptation to cheat. Make sure students know what criteria will be used for evaluating their performance in a course are, what kinds of exams they will be given, and what materials they are responsible for knowing.

If we assign term papers, we ensure higher quality work and minimize last minute panic plagiarism if we keep a regular check on the students’ progress during the semester or quarter. We may ask them to submit portions of the paper (e.g., bibliography, outline, historical overview of the topic) or their first drafts early on. Alternatively, we can ask for rough copies of the paper along with the finished version. This also helps to avoid receiving “file” papers. The issue of plagiarism should also be discussed, since it is not always understood.

Clearly, effective learning does not occur in an atmosphere of suspicion. One of the challenges we face, therefore, is in finding the appropriate balance. While we want an environment that is intolerant of academic dishonesty, we also want an environment that is respectful of the many students who are not engaged in dishonest behaviors and one that doesn’t detract from the open intellectual exchange that we value in an academic community.

Testing in General

Tests let both us and our students know how much they have learned and provide a chance for more learning. Tests should be designed with primary course objectives in mind; they should cover what has gone on in sections (usually) and lectures. What follows are some guidelines for the types of information to consider while we are developing a course and the accompanying tests or quizzes.

  • Before making up an exam, go over the kinds of information and skills emphasized in the course. Was the memorization of facts or the application of principles more important? The exam should be constructed accordingly. Students should be told in advance, preferably at the beginning of the semester, what kinds of exams will be given in a course. If the course is a long-running one, some students may have access to old exams; thus, it is probably fairer to give all students sample copies of at least one previous exam, or use the samples for review. If we are new to the course old tests can be a useful resource to see what topics were addressed and how they were covered.
  • Frequent testing can enhance learning as well as provide information on student progress. For maximum learning from an exam, and out of respect for the students, tests should be returned as soon as possible. Unless we intend to discuss them in class, we should hand tests back at the end of a period in order to avoid students being preoccupied by them.

Exam Format and Design:

  • Explicit directions and clearly stated questions are two key ingredients in a good exam. No matter how clearly we write these beforehand, however, we should still go over them with the students at the beginning of the actual test. If a student comes up and asks us privately about a question that looks as though it could be confusing to others, share the answer with the whole class.
  • The placement of questions and answer spaces, or choices, on a page also needs consideration. Single spaced questions (and accompanying slots for answers) that fill both sides of a single page can needlessly confuse and overwhelm.
  • Keep in mind that the amount of space we leave for an answer is often interpreted by students as the length of the answer we want.
  • Determine the answers to exam questions before the first exam is corrected and preferably before the exam is given. The amount of credit each question will carry should also be determined in advance, and shared with students before the exam begins. While tests may be difficult, they shouldn’t be purposely tricky.
  • After constructing an exam, classify the questions according to what they require of the students: information recall, translation, interpretation, application of principles, analysis of concepts, synthesis of ideas, or evaluation. Small changes in questions can often elicit a higher level of thought from the student and agree more with the emphasis in the course.

Some Quick Thoughts About Different Question Formats

  • Short answer questions help test information recall and analytic skills.
  • Essay tests give students a chance to organize, evaluate, and think; as such, they often have the best educational value although they can present the greatest grading challenges.
  • Multiple-choice exams are the most difficult to construct but can measure both information recall and concept application.
  • Numerical or logical problems test understanding of material and the ability to apply it.
  • Completion questions test for recognition of key terms and concepts. When using completion questions, be willing to accept reasonable alternative answers not considered prior to giving the exam.
  • Matching questions are useful for testing recognition of the relationships between pairs of words or between words and definitions. Be sure to give enough answers so that students cannot guess simply by the process of elimination.
  • In recent years, take-home essay exams have grown in popularity. In many instances, they may seem an ideal format because students can take them in a calmer environment and have more time in which to think through answer. But they do have their drawbacks. Fortunately, some precautions can minimize these drawbacks. For example, word or time limits can be put on the exams, so that students with other tests do not have to compete unfairly against students with no other demands on their time. There should also be explicit instructions on whether or not students can talk to each other about their answers and whether they have unlimited access to materials. An alternative strategy is to give out the exam in advance and allow consultation among students, but have them write the test in class without notes.
  • Essay exams can be powerful learning experiences, rather than exercises in information recall. Because they are difficult to evaluate, criteria for their evaluation should be discussed with the students and with any fellow graders before the test is given.
  • Math and science exams generally consist of problems to be solved. Here are some guidelines for constructing these problems:
    1. Construct the problems so that they resemble the ones given in exercises during the semester.
    2. Make the problems as interesting as possible. This can be done by making them seem to have a “real” application or by combining two single concepts. The latter method gives a more interesting (but more difficult) problem than straightforward applications of one idea.
    3. Construct problems of graduated difficulty. The first problem, at least, should be one which builds confidence, so that fearful students do not get ruinously flustered at the outset. Double jeopardy-when the working of one problem depends on comprehension of a previous one-should be avoided.
    4. Always take the exam first ourself. We should be able to finish the exam in no more than a quarter of the time the students will have.
    5. Avoid long, detailed computations. Concentrate on ideas, not endurance.

After constructing any kind of exam, ask an experienced colleague or our TAs to look it over. Someone else can often point out ambiguities that we do not see. After the exam is given, place a copy of it in our files along with a note to ourselves indicating whether any parts unnecessarily confused students or brought responses that we hadn’t really meant to test.