Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain about grades.

Students’ perspective on what grades are for and how they are determined  may mismatch your perspective on these issues.

For example, for some students grades have become divorced from their function as an assessment of performance. This is not surprising given the important consequences that grades often have in other aspects of students’ current and future lives (e.g., scholarship, medical school admittance, maintenance of international student visa). These other roles that grades play lead students to see grades as a means to garner tangible benefits rather than as evaluations of their performance. It is also the case that some instructors unintentionally promote the notion that grades are not linked to performance by adjusting grades to fit a “curve” or some other distribution. Students often interpret such procedures to mean that grades are somewhat arbitrarily determined and not derived from absolute qualities of their performance. Finally, students may have a different view from yours of what should factor into their grades (e.g., effort vs. achievement, process vs. product, creativity vs. clarity). This mismatch may stem from students’ prior experiences and assumptions or from assignment descriptions that do not clearly articulate what is important or valued in the student work. Whatever the source of the mismatch, it can lead to problems if students have a mistaken view of what is more versus less valued in an assignment.


Use rubrics.

Having a clear performance standard makes it easier to justify how students’ grades were derived. Performance rubrics help students understand your expectations for performance (i.e., what qualities you value and what levels of performance are required to go beyond your basic expectations). While creating a high-quality rubric can involve an initial investment of time, instructors who have developed good rubrics generally find that they expedite the grading process and communicate to students how their grade was derived. When using a performance rubric to grade students’ work, it is also important to share the rubric with students, so they can see the descriptions of different levels of performance (i.e., performance at and above their level).

In addition to using performance rubrics to grade students’ work, some instructors have given students an assignment of applying the rubric to their own (or their peers’) work. This way the students not only see and reflect on the rubric more deeply, they also have to work through and interpret it relative to a piece of work. Students may need help with this at first (identifying how a piece of work matches a particular level of performance in the rubric). But in giving students this kind of practice, they (and you) can learn where they have misinterpreted what is high quality work.

Use grade “curving” sparingly and with intention.

If you do decide to “curve” the grades for a particular assignment, be sure to have a rationale for doing so and explain this explicitly to students. For example, you could explain that a question was inadvertently phrased in a confusing manner, so you are adjusting for this fact. Or, perhaps you are adjusting exam scores because you overestimated students’ incoming knowledge or made the exam too long.

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