Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students complain about grades.

The performance criteria that are used to distinguish among different grades are not clear.

Students, especially those new to the field, may have difficulty understanding what distinguishes different levels of performance. When this is the case, their work may reflect their misunderstanding of what was required and not accurately reflect their actual abilities. As a result, they may complain that they didn't know they had to include things, or that you expected more or better than they thought to provide.


Explicitly identify what distinguishes basic performance from exemplary on the assignment statement.

When presenting tasks to students, clearly state the qualities of “A” work. For example, a paper may need to have a clearly articulated thesis, valid sources of supporting evidence, coherent structure, examples, be free from spelling, grammatical or typographical errors and provide documented references.

Provide rubrics that clearly describe the criteria for different levels of performance.

Having a clear performance standard makes it easier for students to see in advance what aspects of an assignment you are emphasizing. Performance rubrics list the various dimensions on which you are evaluating their work and can highlight how these dimensions are combined to produce a final grade for the given project. For example, a rubric could identify four dimensions of grading and specify that the first two are critical (i.e., one cannot garner an A without high quality on both) and that the second two are less so. 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 what is valued. As a result, students tend to work more effectively because they know the target they are aiming for. Also, students learn where their grade will be coming from, so they are less likely to be surprised.

Give students practice assessing their own or a peer’s work using a rubric.

For each component on the rubric, require students to underline or highlight where the component appears in the work, and map it to the appropriate standard of performance. This will force students to explicitly monitor and evaluate work using your criteria and give them a better sense of where their grade comes from.

Provide annotated examples that contrast samples of student work with a “model” solution.

Post multiple samples of students work (or examples that you create yourself) that represent different levels of performance. Include comments that highlight why a component or the piece in general deserved the score it received. For each level or grade of work, try to provide multiple examples to help students see how the criteria can be met in various ways and help them generalize the criteria to their own work.

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