Grading is complicated. Teachers continue to grapple with how to save time, ensure fair grading policies, and use points fairly. Despite the fact that grading is meant to be objective, perception and bias actually play a huge role in the grading process.
Students and teachers often have different perceptions of the purpose and importance of grading and how grades ought to be assigned, and teachers also have implicit biases that affect the grades they assign to different students.
The strategies described here can help teachers confront their own biases and engage in a productive dialogue with students about grades.
Help Students Understand the Implications of Grades
At the beginning of the semester, it can be helpful to discuss not only the grading scheme for a particular course, but also the role of evaluations outside of the classroom. Here are a few ways to structure those conversations:
- Teachers can explain that grades are just one kind of evaluation that students will encounter throughout their lives. For example, positive employment evaluations can lead to benefits such as promotions and raises, and low evaluations can have negative impacts on employee careers.
- Evaluations influence the way that people spend time and money. One common type of evaluation is a movie review. Ask students how a friend’s movie review may influence their decision whether to buy a movie ticket or stream a movie online. Discuss how a review may help students form expectations.
Once students understand the role that evaluations in general play in our society, teachers can broach the importance of grades.
- Students can learn about the importance of grades in terms of their college goals. Teachers can work with a school counselor or admissions representative to examine data on grades and college acceptance rates, merit scholarship offers, and college completion rates.
- When students earn low grades, they may face a variety of consequences, including disappointment from teachers, the loss of extracurricular privileges, and even being required to attend summer school. Helping them understand what the implications are might underscore the importance of maintaining a higher GPA and of working hard, even in difficult classes.
Help Students Develop a Realistic Vision of Effort
Although teachers tend to believe that grades should be based on a student’s ability to demonstrate how they meet a standard, students consistently point to their effort and participation as an important determinant of final grades. According to a 2012 study, students reported that effort should comprise almost half of the overall grade. And some students have argued that with significant effort, a C should be assigned regardless of performance.
It seems students and teachers do acknowledge different levels of effort (such as low versus high effort) but disagree about how effort should ultimately contribute to final grades, based on the type of class (such as a core class versus elective) and if the student is in danger of failing the course.
Teachers should acknowledge the importance of student effort, which can help build motivation, self-esteem, and work ethic. Here are a few ideas to address students’ focus on effort in grading:
- There may be circumstances where effort will matter. If effort will be factored into a grade, describe it in detail (such as the percentage or weight of the influence).
- Demystify the concept. Describe how much effort (time) is expected to complete individual assignments and projects. Identify strategies that may increase the likelihood that effort results in academic success (such as retrieval practice, interleaving practice, and spacing practice).
- Teachers can use assignment feedback, classroom newsletters, and parent conferences to distinguish between effort and achievement. It is important to highlight how effort involves practice and preparation (the process), while achievement focuses on the outcome (the product).
Strive for Equity in Grading
Just like everyone else, teachers hold biases, and these influence their perception of student work and achievement. Teacher bias may be associated with lower expectations and harsher disciplinary practices for students from minoritized backgrounds. These can also influence grading practices. In a 2021 study, teachers assessed Black and White students’ writing assignments differently (when viewing identical content, Black students’ writing was more likely to be rated below grade level). Implicit bias also has implications for differences between male and female students. In a 2020 study, researchers determined that male students requested (and received) more grade changes, while female students reported more fear of rejection.
Although bias may not be completely eliminated, it’s important to analyze whether the grading systems in place are fair and transparent. It’s also important to analyze communication about grading. Which students receive encouragement to resubmit work? How is anxiety addressed for students too fearful to initiate grade-change discussions?
Here are a few ideas to limit grading-related bias:
- Consider completing an implicit association test to learn more about your attitudes/ preferences regarding race and gender. These tests will identify if your implicit biases are slight, moderate, or strong.
- Use specific grading criteria such as rubrics and checklists to fight bias. You can share the criteria in advance with students so that expectations are transparent. There are built-in digital rubric tools included in learning management systems (LMSs) such as Canvas.
- Use a blinding system when grading so that the student’s name is hidden. There are available tools on most LMSs.
- Create a system for discussing and responding to grade-change requests. This may include asking students, “What can I do to help you feel more comfortable?” or establishing procedures to assist with the discussion process (such as the use of a designated time period to address grade concerns or the use of prepared talking points or question stems).
Talking about grading perceptions is valuable. Taking time to explore grading implications, examine the role of effort, and address grading fairness is a commitment that every teacher can make.