Grading Student Work

Above all, there is one cardinal rule about grading:

  • Grade fairly and consistently for all students.

Something that you're grading should stand on its own and be judged without consideration of who created it.

The first step to following this cardinal rule is to avoid looking at the names on the papers you're grading until you're done grading them – if you don't know whose work you're grading, it's easier to grade it impartially. Of course, this step isn't the end of the story – many of your students will have distinctive handwriting – but it is an important first step. Beyond that, it's up to you. We know that you're not going to set out to grade unfairly or inconsistently, but you can find yourself doing it (in minor ways) more easily than you might think. Stay vigilant about your own thought processes and the decisions you're making when grading.

Closed-Ended Questions

These are questions that have a finite number of possible answers: matching, fill-in-the-blank, put-in-order, multiple-choice, etc.. In theory, grading such questions should be entirely mechanical, but there can be subtleties. (For instance, for a put-in-order question, you need to plan out how you will grade partially-correct answers.)

Your students' responses to these questions are often less illuminating than their open-ended responses, but these questions are vastly easier to grade than open-ended ones. There's no shame in making your life easier by converting a somewhat-open question to a closed-ended one. For instance, when using fill-in-the-blank questions, provide your students a word bank so that you don't have to worry about your students' exact phrasing. (E.g.,, one blank might elicit the responses “red supergiant”, “red giant”, “giant”, and “star” – and you probably haven't worked out exactly which answers you'll accept.)

Open-Response Questions

Open-response questions (which include not just paragraphs but also plots or diagrams) are tougher to grade. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Try to give partial credit where you can. Always give points for correct steps even if the final answer's wrong. If the student gets the final answer right but their steps or logic to get there is wrong, give them some points, but not too many.
  • Obviously if a student screws up part (a) by a factor of 2, but carries that extra factor through parts (b) through (f) and does everything else correctly, they should only lose points on part (a). Stress this fact to your students before giving long, multi-part questions, so they don't get frustrated if they're unsure about their answer to (a). It's also encouraged to give placeholder answers (e.g., 'use L = 5km for the rest of this question if you don't get part (a)') to help out those students who can't do (a) at all.
  • In longer answers, we like to reward correct information more than we punish incorrect information. With that said, if a student says something really wrong or contradictory to the rest of their answer, they should be penalized a decent amount.
  • Stress to students that they must write legibly and explain their steps and logic clearly. If you can't read their writing or understand what's going on, you should usually assume it's wrong.

Be vigilant while grading. If you see very similar open-response answers, especially ones that are also very wrong, flag the tests and compare their responses to other questions. Hopefully you can catch cheating while the quiz/exam is actually going on, but you won't be able to see everything.

Homework Assigments

These are usually not your responsibility to grade. However, you should look over graded homeworks to check for any mistakes the grader may have made. If you feel that the grader was far too harsh or too lenient on a particular issue, you can override their grading decision, but do this sparingly as it undermines the grader's authority.

Cheating is more of an issue for homework than for quizzes and tests, so beware! The graders should be on the lookout for copying and hopefully will flag any likely instances. You can then take a closer look at the actual assignments and decide whether or not any academic dishonesty actually occurred. Of course, if you see something suspicious that the grader didn't flag, you should still look into it.

Scantron Exams

Many Ay 10 exams are multiple-choice Scantron exams. You'll grade these kinds of tests with your fellow GSIs, in the 6th floor lounge most likely. Before you start running everything through the machine, make sure you're set up correctly:

  • Have a few people people double-check the answer key Scantron for each version of the exam.
  • It's a good idea to skim over each of your students' tests to see if there were any obvious bad erasure marks or anything like that which may lead to an answer being marked wrong unfairly. However, don't feel bad if you don't catch every one of these – your students will not miss any!!

Note any questions that are missed quite frequently. Possible explanations for this are:

  • The question was too hard
  • The question was poorly written
  • The material wasn't presented well
  • There's an error on the answer key
  • Something went wrong with the machine or the answer key Scantron

Also note anyone who did really poorly. Explanations for this are:

  • They really just don't know what's going on
  • They marked the wrong test version. You might be able to re-run the test through the machine with the correct answer key or their GSI or the Head GSI might have to grade it by hand. You might penalize them for marking the wrong test version, but don't just give them the score that they get from using the inappropriate answer key.
  • They used some writing utensil that the machine doesn't like. (This would probably also call for hand-grading.)
  • Their test is too wrinkled or has coffee spilled on it or whatever. (Again, hand-grading is suggested.)

Struggling Students

Talk to (or e-mail) students in your section(s) who performed very poorly (say, grades of less than 40% or 50%). Unfortunately, many students who are clearly doing poorly in your class will not come to you on their own, so you need to go the extra mile to help them.

Section Grades

In most classes, you will get the chance to assign a few points of “section grade” for each of your students. You should come up with some relatively objective grade calculation, unless one is already provided to you by the prof and/or Head GSI. The things that contribute to your section grade should never be things that contribute to another portion of a student's course grade. Some potential choices are:

  • Attendance in section
  • Participation in section (group work, coming up in front of the class, asking the GSI questions, worksheet diligence, etc.)
  • Performance on in-section quiz(zes)
  • Star party attendance

Some of these criteria are fairly subjective, but try to grade your students on their actions rather than how you feel about them as people.

Usually the section grade isn't a huge part of the overall course grade, but it's a non-zero amount of points and you should be fair and consistent about assigning it. With that said, if someone really went above and beyond and worked really well in section, usually you have the authority (as long as it's cool with the prof and/or Head GSI) to give them a little something extra in their section grade (though you probably shouldn't give them over 100% of the section points). On the other end of things, sometimes students with borderline grades will try to wring a few extra section points out of you to push their grades up to the next letter. This is a judgment call which can typically be informed by how well you know this student.

Overall Course Grades

Usually GSIs don't have much control over this. However, you may get to help decide the course grading rubric before the semester starts.

The course grading rubric should be well-defined and a (relatively) simple calculation. It should be spelled out in detail on the syllabus. A student should be able to compute their numeric grade themselves and be confident of obtaining the same number you do.

Converting numbers to actual letters is the hardest (and usually the most mysterious and opaque to students) part of this process. Most instructors/Head GSIs will let each GSI have a small amount of discretion in final letter grades (with pluses and minuses) for their students who are right near a letter grade cutoff, though they typically will try to choose the cutoffs such that no one is close to any of the boundaries. If, however, a student of yours does land near a cutoff, you will probably get to decide his/her fate. Almost always, it's a question of choosing to bump a student's grade from just below a cutoff to just above one. Unless a student was absolutely horrific in section, you should never bump anyone down below a cutoff!