Grading Strategies

Effective Grading Strategies

Assigning grades is one of the most important tasks of college teaching.  The high stakes of students' grades combined with the challenge of devising a grading system in which final course grades reflect the desired students' performance makes effective grading very difficult.  A grading system should fairly and accurately differentiate between different levels of student performance.  In addition, a good grading system must be understood by all students and must allow students to monitor their own progress throughout the term.

A course grade is a certification of competence; thus, it is important that each grade accurately reflects a student's mastery of course material.  Effective grades provide a stable indication of how well students understand course material, so factors used to determine grades should be directly related to academic performance.  With this in mind, instructors need to carefully examine how grades are calculated; factors such as effort, participation, attendance, or extra credit should not be included in the final course grade as they may contaminate the accuracy of a grade.  In general, instructors are encouraged to integrate other forms of feedback (verbal praise, student conferences, written feedback, etc.) to motivate student performance and avoid using grades as incentive for behaviors such as attendance, discussion, etc.

To facilitate students' success in your course, your grading system should be clearly communicated in writing at the beginning of the term.  Students should understand how grades will be determined, what factors are used to calculate grades, and what level of performance is required to achieve each grade level.  A clear grading structure will guide student performance while reducing the number of grade disputes and student complaints.

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Points to remember when selecting a grading system:

  • Impact of grading system on students - The type of grading system you utilize will have important implications for student motivation, anxiety, satisfaction, etc.  In addition, the clarity of your grading system will guide and direct student progress in the course.  Not surprisingly, students direct their time and energy toward activities that impact their grade; thus grading systems need to accurately reflect course goals.

  • Instructor workload - Some grading systems take more time than others.  When selecting your grading system you will want to examine your workload in relation to the number of students in the class.

  • Relationship between grading and feedback - While grades are one form of feedback, they are not the only one.  Be sure that your grades are directly related to academic performance; utilize alternative forms of feedback to reward other types of behavior.

  • External use of assigned grade - Grades are used by a variety of external entities including employers, accreditation agencies, graduate schools, certification agencies, etc.  As such, it is very important that your grades are a consistent indicator of how well students have mastered course material.

  • Course goals and objectives - Course goals and objectives should guide the grading system.  Grades should provide an indication of how well students have achieved relevant goals.

  • Relationship between learning and grading - If student learning is the primary goal, instructors need to consider factors such as make-up tests, retesting, and use of graded drafts.

There are two basic types of grading systems: criterion-referenced and norm-referenced.


In a criterion-referenced system (also called absolute or competency-based grading), grades are based on objective, predetermined standards of performance.  The assumption of criterion-referenced systems is that grades represent students' achievement of specific knowledge and skills.  The goal of criterion-referenced grading is to evaluate how well each individual student has learned course material.  In this type of system, instructors set specific standards that must be met to achieve each grade level; all students who reach the standard receive the designated grade.  Thus, it is possible that all students may pass or all students may fail the course, there is no predetermined standard distribution of scores.

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Generally, criterion-referenced grades are based on a fixed numeric scale.  The numeric scale is then converted into either percentages or letter grades to conform to standard academic grading.  For example:

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Hierarchical grading - In hierarchical grading, the instructor lists specific learning objectives that must be met to achieve each grade level.  Each successive grade level requires a greater degree of student understanding or more advanced skill level.

Contract grading - To utilizing contract grading, the instructor must first list all relevant course activities and specify a number of points that may be earned for completing each activity.  Students then complete the activities that will earn them enough points to achieve the desired grade.

Pass-fail grading - A pass-fail grading system sets a specific criteria that must be met to pass the course, but there is no differentiation of grades beyond the passing standard.  Generally, a pass-fail system is utilized when the grading is very subjective and there is no standard gradation.


In a norm-referenced system (also called relative or curve grading), grades are based on students' performance in relation to each other.  Norm-referenced grading relies on a standard score distribution in which there is a predetermined number of students receiving each grade level.  As such, students are in competition with each other to earn the predetermined grade slots.  Generally, norm-referenced grading is utilized when the purpose of grading is to screen out or identify the best students within a specific cohort (such as graduate school admission or job placement).

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Norm-referenced grading systems are based on a preset distribution of scores.  For example:

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Anchoring - Anchoring allows instructors to reduce the influence of class caliber by adjusting grades in relation to a known standard of performance.  When using anchoring, instructors modify the distribution of scores based on past experience or external standards.

Ideas to improve the relationship between learning and grades:

Weighted assignments - To give credit for acquisition of knowledge or skills, you may want assignments at the end of the term to count more toward the final grade than assignments completed at the beginning of the term.

Redo assignments - Allowing students to earn credit for redo assignments promotes the use of feedback and encourages students to truly learn course material.

Multiple test opportunities - Giving students the opportunity to retake a different version of an exam allows you to monitor whether or not students have mastered material.  If the goal is to promote learning, students should not be penalized for learning information at a slower rate than other students in the course.

Assignment challenges - Permit students to challenge questions or items that they feel are unfair assessments of their knowledge.  Provide credit if a student is able to effectively demonstrate their understanding.

Resource Links:

Improving Classroom Grading Procedures


Baiocco, S. A., & DeWaters, J. N. (1998). Successful college teaching: Problem-solving strategies of distinguished professors. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Davis, B. G. (2001). Tools for teaching. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass.

Gronlund, N. (2003). Assessment of student achievement. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, D. W., & Johnson, R. T. (2002). Meaningful assessment: A manageable and cooperative process. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Popham, W. J. (2000). Modern educational measurement: Practical guidelines for educational leaders. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Trice, A. (2000). A handbook of classroom assessment. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.



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