Faculty Center Electronic Workbook

Grading with Rubrics

Adapted from Effective Grading (Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson)


Grading isn’t merely marking red ink on a page, but a process of sending subtle messages to students about what you value as a teacher. Grading is “a context-dependent, complex process that serves multiple roles,” including evaluation, communication, motivation, and organization.

We evaluate student work, providing them with feedback about the quality of their work. Grading also communicates to students, as well as advisors, parents, future employers and other important groups that have a stake in student success. Grading can also motivate students, often determining the extent to which a student is participating in a course. And finally, grades can serve as organizational tools of the teacher, bringing closure to concepts or units and shifting focus from one learning module to another.

Before beginning, it’s important to dispel three commonly-held assumptions about grading: it can be totally objective, everyone is in total agreement about a grade, and grading is a “one-dimensional student motivation for learning” (Walvoord and Johnson 10). In fact, grading can be an extraordinarily messy, complex, subjective process that will ultimately be ignored by some students.

Step 1: Create Effective Assignments

As you have already discovered from earlier parts of this packet, effective course design leads to effective assignments. Making sure that assessment tools fit learning goals and objectives and are feasible in terms of workload.

Also, make sure assignment and test instructions are clear to students; if they can’t decipher the questions, they are unlikely to give you the answers you are expecting. Students may have learned the material but are unable to show you they’ve learned it.

Step 2: Teach to the test

If your assignments are created from well-constructed learning objectives and are feasible, then teaching to the test isn’t a problem, as you are in essence teaching to the objectives.

Step 3: Determine Criteria and Grading Schema

For many of you, assignment criteria and grading schemas will be determined by the professor, as you are a course grader. In some situations, you may be establishing criteria or schema in concert with a professor, or determining grading all on your own if you are the instructor of record for a course.

In the following example, one instructor struggles with why her students seem to be performing poorly on one particular test question. Her teaching story illustrates the importance of criteria when grading:

Step 4: Primary Trait Analysis

To assist you with this process, Primary Trait Analysis can be used as “a way of explicitly stating the teacher’s criteria, and it is used in the classroom to make criteria and standards clear to themselves and their students and to guide classroom teaching and learning” (67).

To construct a primary trait analysis scale, you must first identify the traits or characteristics that you are looking for in student work. Refer back to your learning objectives for that particular learning module: what expectations do you have for performance?

Next, build a scale for scoring the student’s performance on that trait. What would a more polished assignment look like? What are the gradations of performance that you expect on the assignment…simply pass-fail, or could students be assessed up to five distinct levels of performance for an assignment?

Finally, evaluate the student’s performance based on the traits and your scales. Of course, revision should be expected. You may not be comfortable with your initial results after using the scale, but just revise it until you are satisfied with its performance.

Sample PTA Scale:

Anderson asked upper-level biology students to create and conduct a scientific experiment in which they compare two products and report results on the comparison in a scientific report. Anderson employed the primary trait analysis method and began by selecting ten traits she wanted to measure:

  • Title
  • Introduction
  • Scientific format demands
  • Methods and materials section
  • Nonexperimental information
  • experimental design
  • operational definitions
  • control of variables
  • collection of data and communication of results
  • interpretation of data: conclusions and implications

She then developed her scale that describes each level’s performance. To illustrate, let’s examine her scale for Trait #4, the methods and materials section:

To construct a PTA scale, begin with the “traits” that you are evaluating for a particular assignment, such as “thesis,” “eye contact with client,” “use of color,” or “control of variables.” Next, for each trait construct a 2-5 point scale, which are descriptive statements that illustrate what performance at each level would look like. For example, a “Level 5” thesis can be described as focused enough to be an appropriate topic for the assignment, clear to the audience, written in a style that suggests the author is a member of the discipline, uses sources to support arguments, and indicates the author has synthesized this research and offers new insights.

After developing your scale, try out the scale with a sample of student work or review with colleagues and revise. You may be unhappy with the results the first time using it, so do not be afraid to make adjustments.

Calculating Grades

Calculating grades doesn’t just require math skills, but an understanding that grading schemas are expressions of a teacher’s values and beliefs about assignments, about the importance of concepts, about any number of pedagogical issues. In general, there are three models for calculating grades: weighted letter grades, accumulated points, and definitional system. Below are discussions of all three, including what subscription to each model suggests about what a teacher values in students and student performance.

Model 1:       Weighted letter grades

	Tests  average letter grade counts 40 percent of course grade
	Field project letter grade counts  30 percent of course grade
	Final exam letter grade counts 20  percent of course grade
	Class participation grade counts  10 percent of course grade

With this model, the teacher is assuming that performances are distinct and should be evaluated separately. By weighting some assignments more heavily than others, the teacher sends a message that performance on some assignments are being valued more than others.  

Model 2:      Accumulated Points

	Tests				0-40  points
	Field  Project			0-30  points
	Final  Exam			0-20  points
	Class  Participation		0-10  points
	Class grade  determined		92-100 points = A
	By  accumulated points		85-91 points = B
					76-84  points = C
					69-75  points = D
					Less  than 69 = F

This model suggests to students that poor performance in one area can be offset in another. It allows students, essentially, to put more effort into one area than another with an opportunity to improve their grades.

Model 3:      Definitional System





A average

Pass for 90 percent
or more of assignments


B average

Pass for 83 percent
or more of assignments


C average

Pass for 76 percent
or more of assignments


D average

Pass for 69 percent
or more of assignments

With this model, different categories are equally important. If a student gets an A average on her graded work but earns a pass for only 65 percent of the pass-fail work, she receives a D for her course grade, because D is the highest level at which she meets or exceeds the standards for both graded and pass-fail work. With this system, there is no compensation for low performances in one area.

This system is much less common than the other two, so be sure to explain it well to students so there is no confusion later in the semester.

Other Important Grading Issues to Consider

  • Penalties

Penalties (such as points deducted for late work, etcetera) when grading can call attention to seriousness, but is best used for situations in which teacher feels strongly about an issue. Because penalties can be demoralizing to students, use them with care and consistency. Do not penalize some students for some tasks while not penalizing others.

  • Extra Credit

Extra Credit can often be used to allow students to compensate for their performance on other assignments. Know that if used liberally, extra credit can become expected from some students.

  • Contract Grading and Learning:

Having students sign a “contract” has several potential benefits: it emphasizes student responsibility rather than culpability; it often encourages students to participate in determining the goals and standards for the course; and it provides psychological effects that encourage obligation by the student. Contracts, however, can take more teacher time.

  • Grading Curves?

Curving grades can be harmful to learning overall. By curving student grades, teachers suggest that “grades, and the learning they supposedly represent, are a limited commodity dispensed by the teacher according to a statistical formula.” Curving grades can facilitate competition among students, which can be destructive to the learning process.

Helpful Hints

The two most time-consuming, and thus stressful, aspects of grading can be finding ways to make grading a more efficient process and then communicating grades in such a way to encourage reflection and further learning by the student. Below are hints for both:

Making Grading More Time-Efficient

  1. Separate commenting from grading, and use them singly or in combination according to your purpose.
  2. Don’t give all students what only some need.
  3. Use only as many grade levels as you need.
  4. Frame comments to your students’ use.
  5. Do not waste time on careless student work.
  6. Use what the student knows.
  7. Ask students to organize their work for your efficiency.
  8. Delegate the work.
  9. Use technology to save time and enhance results.

Communication with Students about Their Grades

  1. Assume students want to learn.
  2. Embed grading in a course that sets high expectations and helps students meet them.
  3. Use the syllabus to show students how tests and assignments serve course goals.
  4. Inquire, reinforce, and remind students about course goals.
  5. Discuss the role of grades.
  6. Discuss fairness.
  7. Explain what each grade represents.
  8. Speak to the learning, not the error.
  9. Save your comments for the teachable moment.
  10. Communicate priorities.
  11. Avoid surprises.

Sample Essay Grading Rubric

Letter Grade Conceptual Thesis Development and Support Structuring Language
A has cogent analysis, shows command of interpretive and conceptual tasks required by assignment and course materials: ideas original, often insightful, going beyond ideas discussed in lecture and class essay controlled by clear, precise, well-defined thesis: is sophisticated in both statement and insight well-chosen examples; persuasive reasoning used to develop and support thesis consistently: uses quotations and citations effectively; causal connections between ideas are evident appropriate, clear and smooth transitions; arrangement of paragraphs seems particularly apt uses sophisticated sentences effectively; usually chooses words aptly; observes conventions of written English and manuscript format; makes few minor or technical errors
B shows a good understanding of the texts, ideas and methods of the assignment; goes beyond the obvious; may have one minor factual or conceptual inconsistency clear, specific, argumentative thesis central to the essay; may have left minor terms undefined pursues thesis consistently: develops a main argument with clear major points and appropriate textual evidence and supporting detail; makes an effort to organize paragraphs topically distinct units of thought in paragraphs controlled by specific and detailed topic sentences; clear transitions between developed, cohering, and logically arranged paragraphs that are internally cohesive some mechanical difficulties or stylistic problems; may make occasional problematic word choices or awkward syntax errors; a few spelling or punctuation errors or cliché; usually presents quotations effectively
C shows an understanding of the basic ideas and information involved in the assignment; may have some factual, interpretive, or conceptual errors general thesis or controlling idea; may not define several central terms only partially develops the argument; shallow analysis; some ideas and generalizations undeveloped or unsupported; makes limited use of textual evidence; fails to integrate quotations appropriately some awkward transitions; some brief, weakly unified or undeveloped paragraphs; arrangement may not appear entirely natural; contains extraneous information more frequent wordiness; several unclear or awkward sentences; imprecise use of words or over-reliance on passive voice; one or two major grammatical errors (subject-verb agreement, comma splice, etc.); effort to present quotations accurately
Letter Grade Conceptual Thesis Development and Support Structuring Language
D shows inadequate command of course materials or has significant factual and conceptual errors; does not respond directly to the demands of the assignment; confuses some significant ideas thesis vague or not central to argument; central terms not defined frequently only narrates; digresses from one topic to another without developing ideas or terms; makes insufficient or awkward use of textual evidence simplistic, tends to narrate or merely summarize; wanders from one topic to another; illogical arrangement of ideas some major grammatical or proofreading errors (subject-verb agreement; sentence fragments); language marred by clichés, colloquialisms, repeated inexact word choices; inappropriate quotations or citations format
F writer has not understood lectures, readings, discussion, or assignment no discernible thesis little or no development; may list facts or misinformation; uses no quotations or fails to cite sources or plagiarizes no transitions; incoherent paragraphs; suggests poor planning or no serious revision numerous grammatical errors and stylistic problems seriously distract from the argument