Equity-minded Assessment: Practices for Grading and Feedback
Once instructors have decided on the forms of assessment they’ll use, designed an overall course grading schema, and taught and given students practice with the skills and knowledge they’ll need in order to perform well, it’s time to give attention to the process of evaluating students’ work.
Certain practices improve our consistency and fairness and limit the effect of possible biases. In addition, they help students trust the fairness of our assessments.
To evaluate student work as fairly as possible, and to help all students learn from their assessments, consider the following strategies.
When possible, grade student work without knowing who did it
Finding a way to guarantee anonymity (e.g., students using an ID number) may add a few minutes of work at the end of the grading process, but it prevents our being influenced by stereotypes or identity-based biases. It also prevents the “halo effect” whereby knowing that an author has done strong work in the past subtly influences an instructor to interpret the work more generously than that of another student (Malouf).
Grade one question (or essay) at a time
Grading every student’s answer to one specific question (rather than grading one student’s entire exam/essay) ensures that we keep the criteria for one specific question or task in the front of our minds. It also helps avoid the “halo effect” expectation that a student who did well on one question will do well on the next, which is not necessarily true. It’s also a good idea to shuffle the papers or exams before starting to grade a new question, essay, or task, in case we tend to be slightly tougher or easier on the first or last ones we grade.
Have clear criteria in mind before beginning to evaluate student work
Rubrics are a good method for improving an instructor’s consistency (Quinn; Malouff + Thorsteinsson). If we aren’t clear about our standards before we start, it is likely that they will shift over time during the grading process. If it isn’t possible to develop a full rubric, it’s essential to have a clear idea of a handful (or less) of the most important criteria. In evaluating something like an essay, project, or presentation, it’s quite difficult to be assessing more than a handful of criteria.
Think carefully about whether those criteria are suitable for your course and the students in it, accurately reflect what you’ve taught, and are inclusive. Our context – whether we’re teaching majors or non-majors, interdisciplinary courses, and first-year or advanced students – affects our decisions. What should be the relative weight of the various aspects of the content vs. adherence to details about font, word count, and stylistic matters?
We can ponder when traditional formal academic writing is essential and when it might be wiser and more inclusive to invite students to express themselves in less formal and/or more culturally comfortable style. Valerie Balester warns that sometimes expectations of traditional academic writing can “oversimplify and standardize writing, thus failing a significant segment of our student population, namely, students of color or students whose first language is not always Edited American English.”
Use effective, research-based methods for giving feedback
Students need to understand both positive and negative aspects of their work. It’s helpful to provide a few (not too many) comments that reinforce aspects of the work that were done well. Elon’s Center for Writing Excellence’s tips on commenting and grading remind us that one of the main purposes of commenting is to guide revision and help students understand how to improve future work.
Research about stereotype threat suggests that the most effective way to convey feedback to students from historically marginalized groups is to both emphasize the high standards that were used to evaluate the work and to convey the belief that the student is capable of meeting those standards (Yeager, et.al.). Instructors should avoid over-praising or praising weak work since it can cause students, especially those from marginalized groups, to mistrust their instructors.
Because the tone of our comments also matters, writing researcher John Bean suggests we aim for the tone of a supportive reader who wants to coach the author to fulfill his/her promise.
Expect students to reflect upon the results of their performance
A short exam wrapper or a post-assignment reflection sheet can ensure that students analyze their graded work, consider the instructor’s feedback, ponder whether their preparation was effective, and consider the implications of these issues for future assessments.
Marsha Lovett argues that exam wrappers make exams “worth more than the grade” by building students’ metacognition. Wrappers often ask students three kinds of questions: How did they prepare for the exam? What kind of errors did they make on the exam? What could they do differently next time? The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation provides examples of exam wrappers for science courses.
Similarly, cognitive wrappers for essays and other assignments might ask students to write a brief response to the prompt, “Given the rubric and the feedback I received, what do I want to focus on improving on the next assignment?” Or they might ask students to reflect on a list preparation steps or tips shared by the instructor and consider which ones they did well and which they might do more carefully next time, as in this History Post Essay Exam Reflection Sheet, which is an example from Mary Jo Festle’s history course. In either case, instructors can collect the required (ungraded) responses and return them to the students before the next assignment.
Works Cited & Resources
Balester, Valerie. “How Writing Rubrics Fail: Toward a Multicultural Model.” In Asao Inoue and Mya Poe, eds., Race and Writing Assessment. Peter Lang, 2012.
Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. “Exam Wrappers.”
Elon University Center for Writing Excellence. Tips on commenting and grading.
Festle, Mary Jo. Transforming History: A Guide to Effective, Inclusive, and Evidence-Based Teaching. Wisconsin, 2020.
Lovett, Marsha. “Exam Wrappers.” Stanford University Tomorrow’s Professor Postings. See also Lovett’s chapter in Kaplan, et.al., Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning. Stylus, 2013.
Malouff, John M., et.al. “The Risk of Halo Bias as a Reason to Keep Students Anonymous During Grading.” Teaching of Psychology 40, 3 (2013).
Malouf, John M., and Einar B. Thorsteinsson. “Bias in grading: A meta-analysis of experimental research findings.” Australian Journal of Education 60, 3: 2016.
Quinn, David M. “How to Reduce Racial Bias in Grading.” Education Next 21, no. 1.
Stroessner, Steve, Catherine Good, Angela Byars-Winston, et.al. “What can be done to reduce Stereotype Threat?” Reducing Stereotype Threat site.
Yeager, David S., et.al. “Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143, No. 2 (2014)