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Indeed, many of those bemoaning recent trends in grade inflation in higher education though less prevalent in the sciences point to the abandonment of curved grading as a major factor Rojstaczer and Healy, Such studies often promote various forms of curving—at the level of individual courses or even at the institution as a whole—to combat inflation Johnson, , chaps. In light of the above, however, it seems strange to aspire to introduce grading systems that could further push students into competition and give rise to grades that indicate little about the mastery of knowledge or skills in a subject.

The broader distribution of grades under curve-adjusted grading could simply create the illusion of legitimacy in the grading system without any direct connection between grades and achievement of learning goals. Perhaps the more productive route is to push for stronger, criterion-referenced grading systems in which instructional goals, assessments, and course work are more intimately aligned.

In brief, curved grading creates a competitive classroom environment, alienates certain groups of talented students, and often results in grades unrelated to content mastery. Curving is therefore not the fairest way to assign grades. As evidenced by the above headline, some have criticized grading as subjective and inconsistent, meaning that the same student could receive drastically different grades for the same work, depending on who is grading the work and when it is graded.

The literature indeed indicates that some forms of assessment lend themselves to greater levels of grading subjectivity than others. Scoring multiple-choice assessments does not generally require the use of professional judgment from one paper to the next, so instructors should be able to score such assessments objectively Wainer and Thissen, ; Anderson, , p. However, despite their advantages in terms of objective grading, studies have raised concerns regarding the blanket use of multiple-choice assessments.

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Grading student writing, whether in essays, reports, or constructed-response test items, opens up greater opportunities for subjectivity. Shortly after the rise in popularity of percentage-based grading systems in the early s, researchers began examining teacher consistency in marking written work by students. Similar problems in marking reliability have been observed in higher education environments, although the degree of reliability varies dramatically, likely due to differences in instructor training, assessment type, grading system, and specific topic assessed Meadows and Billington, , pp.

Factors that occasionally influence an instructor's scoring of written work include the penmanship of the author Bull and Stevens, , sex of the author Spear, , ethnicity of the author Fajardo, , level of experience of the instructor Weigle, , order in which the papers are reviewed Farrell and Gilbert, ; Spear, , and even the attractiveness of the author Bull and Stevens, Designing and using rubrics to grade assignments or tests can reduce inconsistencies and make grading written work more objective. Sharing the rubrics with students can have the added benefit of enhancing learning by allowing for feedback and self-assessment Jonsson and Svingby, ; Reddy and Andrade, Consistency in grading tests can also be improved by writing longer tests with more narrowly focused questions, but this would tend to limit the types of questions that could appear on an exam Meadows and Billington, In summary, grades often fail to provide reliable information about student learning.

Even multiple-choice tests, which can be graded with great consistency, have the potential to provide misleading information on student knowledge. In part, grading practices in higher education have been driven by educational goals such as providing feedback to students, motivating students, comparing students, and measuring learning. However, much of the research literature on grading reviewed above suggests that these goals are often not being achieved with our current grading practices. Additionally, the expectations, time, and stress associated with grading may be distracting instructors from integrating other pedagogical practices that could create a more positive and effective classroom environment for learning.

Below we explore several changes in approaching grading that could assist instructors in minimizing its negative influences. Multiple research studies described above suggest that the evaluative aspect of grading may distract students from a focus on learning. Importantly, constructing a grading system that rewards students for participation and effort has been shown to stimulate student interest in improvement Swinton, One strategy for focusing students on the importance of effort and practice in learning is to provide students opportunities to earn credit in a course for simply doing the work, completing assigned tasks, and engaging with the material.

Assessing effort and participation can happen in a variety of ways Bean and Peterson, ; Rocca, In college biology courses, clicker questions graded on participation and not correctness of responses is one strategy. Additionally, instructors can have students turn in minute papers in response to a question posed in class and reward this effort based on submission and not scientific accuracy.

In summary, one strategy for changing grading is to balance accuracy-based grading with the awarding of some proportion of the grade based on student effort and participation. Changing grading in this way has the potential to promote student practice, incentivize in-class participation, and avoid some of the documented negative consequences of grading. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick argue that, just as teaching strategies are shifting away from an instructor-centered, transmissionist approach to a more collaborative approach between instructor and students, so too should classroom feedback and grading.

Because feedback traditionally has been given by the instructor and transmitted to students, Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick argue that students have been deprived of opportunities to become self-regulated learners who can detect their own errors in thinking. They advocate for incorporating techniques such as self-reflection and student dialogue into the assessment process. This, they hypothesize, would create feedback that is relevant to and understood by students and would release faculty members from some of the burden of writing descriptive feedback on student submissions.

Additionally, peer review and grading practices can be the basis of in-class active-learning exercises, guided by an instructor-developed rubric. With the development of a simple rubric, students can self- or peer-evaluate these diagrams during the next class activity to check for the inclusion of key processes, as determined by the instructor.

The use of in-class peer evaluation thus allows students to see other examples of biological thinking beyond their own and that of the instructor. In addition, self-evaluation of one's own work using the instructor's rubric can build metacognitive skills in assessing one's own confusions and making self-corrections. Such evaluations need not take much time, and they have the potential to provide feedback that is meaningful and integrated into the learning process.

As documented in the research literature, the practice of grade curving has had unfortunate and often unintended consequences for the culture of undergraduate science classrooms, pitting students against one another as opposed to creating a collaborative learning community Tobias, ; Seymour and Hewitt, As such, one simple adjustment to grading would be to abandon grading on a curve. Because the practice of curving is often assumed by students to be practiced in science courses, a move away from curving would likely necessitate explicit and repeated communication with students to convey that they are competing only against themselves and not one another.

Moving away from curving sets the expectation that all students have the opportunity to achieve the highest possible grade. Perhaps most importantly, a move away from curving practices in grading may remove a key remaining impediment to building a learning community in which students are expected to rely on and support one another in the learning process. In some instances, instructors may feel the need to use a curve when a large proportion of students perform poorly on a quiz or exam.

However, an alternative approach would be to identify why students performed poorly and address this more specifically. For example, if the wording of an exam question was confusing for large numbers of students, then curving would not seem to be an appropriate response. Rather, excluding that question from analysis and in computing the exam grade would appear to be a more fair approach than curving.


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Additionally, if large numbers of students performed poorly on particular exam questions, providing opportunities for students to revisit, revise, and resubmit those answers for some credit would likely achieve the goal of not having large numbers of students fail. This would maintain the criterion-referenced grading system and additionally promote learning of the material that was not originally mastered.

The research literature raises significant questions about what grades really measure. However, it is likely that grades will continue to be the currency of formal teaching and learning in most higher education settings for the near future. As such, perhaps the most important consideration for instructors about grading is to simply be skeptical about what grades mean. Some instructors will refuse to write letters of recommendation for students who have not achieved grades in a particular range in their course.

Yet, if grades are not a reliable reflection of learning and reflect other factors—including language proficiency, cultural background, or skills in test taking—this would seem a deeply biased practice. One practical strategy for making grading more equitable is to grade student work anonymously when possible, just as one would score assays in the laboratory blind to the treatment of the sample.

The use of rubrics can also help remove bias from grading Allen and Tanner, by increasing grading consistency. Perhaps most importantly, sharing grading rubrics with students can support them in identifying where their thinking has gone wrong and promote learning Jonsson and Svingby, ; Reddy and Andrade, In summary, using tools such as rubrics and blind scoring in grading can decrease the variability and bias in grading student work. Additionally, remembering that grades are likely an inaccurate reflection of student learning can decrease assumptions instructors make about students.

A review of the history and research on grading practices may appear to present a bleak outlook on the process of grading and its impacts on learning. However, underlying the less encouraging news about grades are numerous opportunities for faculty members to make assessment and evaluation more productive, better aligned with student learning, and less burdensome for faculty and students.

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Notably, many of the practices advocated in the literature would appear to involve faculty members spending less time grading. The time and energy spent on grading has been often pinpointed as a key barrier to instructors becoming more innovative in their teaching. In some cases, the demands of grading require so much instructor attention, little time remains for reflection on the structure of a course or for aspirations of pedagogical improvement. Additionally, some instructors are hesitant to develop active-learning activities—as either in-class activities or homework assignments—for fear of the onslaught of grading resulting from these new activities.

However, just because students generate work does not mean instructors need to grade that work for accuracy. In fact, we have presented evidence that accuracy-based grading may, in fact, demotivate students and impede learning. Additionally, the time-consuming process of instructors marking papers and leaving comments may achieve no gain, if comments are rarely read by students.

What if instructors spent more time planning in-class discussions of homework and simply assigned a small number of earned points to students for completing the work? What if students viewed their peers as resources and collaborators, as opposed to competitors in courses that employ grade curving? Implementing small changes like those described above might allow instructors to promote more student learning by grading less or at least differently than they have before.

National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Author information Copyright and License information Disclaimer. Corresponding author. Address correspondence to: Jeffrey Schinske ude. Schinske and K. This article is distributed by The American Society for Cell Biology under license from the author s. It is available to the public under an Attribution—Noncommercial—Share Alike 3. This article has been cited by other articles in PMC. Abstract The authors explore a history of grading and review the literature regarding the purposes and impacts of grading.

Finkelstein If your current professional position involves teaching in a formal classroom setting, you are likely familiar with the process of assigning final course grades. Early 19th Century and Before The earliest forms of grading consisted of exit exams before awarding of a degree, as seen at Harvard as early as Smallwood, Late 19th Century and 20th Century With schools growing rapidly in size and number and coordination between schools becoming more important, grades became one of the primary means of communication between institutions Schneider and Hutt, Present Day Grading systems remain controversial and hotly debated today Jaschik, Making the Move Away from Curving As documented in the research literature, the practice of grade curving has had unfortunate and often unintended consequences for the culture of undergraduate science classrooms, pitting students against one another as opposed to creating a collaborative learning community Tobias, ; Seymour and Hewitt, Becoming Skeptical about What Grades Mean The research literature raises significant questions about what grades really measure.

Rubrics: tools for making learning goals and evaluation criteria explicit for both teachers and learners.


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Cell Biol Educ. In: Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Four Years at Yale. Chatfield; Adjustments that are understood are more readily accepted. Necessary adjustments are consistent with diversity within the informed classroom. When it is considered necessary or appropriate that a student with disability should undertake a particular activity or have a particular adjustment, consider whether that activity or adjustment can be delivered as an experience that is shared with other members of the class. Further, teaching sign language to your class can dramatically increase the inclusion of a student with hearing or speech difficulties.

Sharing, by definition, makes the experience or adjustment more inclusive.

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What would the other students think? Testing your class structure, practices and the impact of any adjustments from the perspective of all of your students is an important cross-check. What is the mentality in your classroom? How do your students interact? Having students interview family members about cultural practices and traditions or write about important learning experiences that the student has experienced in his home community are just two of the many ways that students can explore their heritage.

Using a culturally-centered instructional approach can help facilitate cultural pride among diverse students. Given the current federal and state preoccupation with standardized testing in core subjects, it is particularly crucial that educators consider the impact of multiculturalism in core curricula such as math, science, reading, and writing. Providing diverse students with examples of diverse contributors to these fields and using culture-specific subject matter when teaching core topics will help them perform better in these highly scrutinized and important domains.

How do you promote a culturally responsive, accepting classroom? In this way, […]. The Edvocate. Top Menu. Request a Product Review. Rethinking School Discipline. Team Building Games are Classroom Gamechangers. How Critical is Decoding for Young Readers? Approaches for Teaching Themes in Reading. Diversity Equity Teachers. Spread the love.

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