Grading Students Work

Two students and faculty discussing design project.

Ever wonder how effectively you are evaluating student learning?

Grades can be critically important for students, particularly if they plan to further their education beyond a college certificate or diploma. At the same time, designing course evaluation systems and grading students’ work is a challenging, complex and time-consuming process for teachers.

This guide provides an overview of the process with tips and tools to make it a less daunting task and ensure students are evaluated consistently and fairly. It is a starting point to help teachers meet both student and faculty needs.

A female student is sitting on the floor of the library and reading a book and smiling. In the background there is a man pulling out a book from the shelves.

Know the terms

Giving Students Feedback: a teacher’s guide, distinguished between:

  • Evaluation – always includes a mark or grade.
  • Feedback – provides students with information about their progress in learning – it does not need to be tied to a mark or a grade.

This guide is about evaluation that is tied to a mark or grade. Many teachers say assessment instead of evaluation so the guide uses the terms interchangeably. Ditto marking and grading.

  • Evaluation system – this is the overall strategy of individual assessment tools that together add up to 100% of the marks for a course.
  • Assessment tools – are the individual tasks students are required to complete in order to earn marks for a course.
  • Grading system – is the college-wide standard that distinguishes the minimum requirement to pass a course (usually 50% or a D) from performances that are above or below the minimum expectation. The chart shows the equivalent letter and percentage grades with their associated grade point average (GPA)
Letter grade Percentage grade GPA Standards
A+ 90-100 4.0 Consistently exceeds (course) requirements; shows evidence of being well-organized; shows original and creative thinking and a superior grasp of subject matter.  
A 86-89 4.0
A- 80-85 3.7
B+ 77-79 3.3 Shows consistent performance and evidence of being well-organized, shows elements of original and creative thinking; has a strong grasp of subject matter.  
B 73-76 3.0
B- 70-72 2.7
C+ 67-79 2.3 Applies the subject matter appropriately; comprehends the subject matter.  
C 63-66 2.0
C- 60-62 1.7
D+ 57-59 1.3 Adequately applies and communicates knowledge of the subject matter. 
D 50-56 1.0
F Under 50 0.0 Fails to apply and communicate an understanding of the subject matter.
Design student working in lab.

5 Guiding principles for designing a course evaluation system

1. Include assessment tools for all the course learning outcomes and relevant Essential Employability Skills (EES)

In George Brown’s outcomes-based curriculum model, the outcomes determine the evaluation system. Students must reliably demonstrate all course outcomes in order to pass a course, so teachers should:

  • make the link between learning outcomes and assessment tools transparent
  • spread individual outcomes and EES across more than one assessment to ensure they are adequately measured
  • categorize test questions by outcome and require students to pass each category in order to pass the test.

2. Take a Universal Design for Learning Approach: use multiple means of action and expression

Encourage students to demonstrate their learning in various formats. Students may find they can express themselves better in one medium more than another. Teachers should provide multiple ways in a course for students to express themselves:

  • include skills demonstrations, written assignments, oral presentations, group projects, quizzes, videos, posters, student choice, etc.
  • use “open” formats to account for the varying learning styles and ability levels of a diverse student population.

3. Ensure consistent evaluation across sections of a course

When more than one teacher is teaching the same course to students in the same or a similar program:

  • the percentage of the overall grade attached to various categories of assessment should be the same
  • the design and weighting of individual assessment tools can vary.

Example – 40% of the final grade for a course measures oral presentation skills:

  • one teacher may require students to give two presentations worth 20% each, another, three presentations worth 10%, 15% and 15% .

4. Follow College policies and guidelines

The policies are:

  • grades for participation or attendance should not exceed 10%
  • at least one graded assessment tool should be completed and returned prior to the mid-way point in every course.
  • try for 30% of the course assessments to take place before the course drop date
  • no one assessment should exceed 50% of the grade in a course.

5. Reflect and revise

Was your evaluation strategy successful?

  • Are students who are producing exceptional work being adequately rewarded for their efforts?
  • Conversely, are students passing the course yet failing to reliably demonstrate all of the course outcomes?
  • Have all of the course outcomes been adequately and fairly assessed?
Students stand talking in a in front of lockers inside the assessment centre.

5 Guiding principles for creating individual assessment tools

1. Be clear about your expectations

Give students clear instructions and details about the tasks they are required to complete for marks in a course. Explain what they need to do to get an “A” and, conversely, make sure that your criteria for a “D” reflect your minimum expectations.

2. Match your expectations to the learning outcomes

Well-written learning outcomes will dictate the minimum expectations for student performance. For example, if an outcome calls for analysis, demonstrating a simple understanding of facts and theory is not sufficient to “pass”.

  • Do not let your minimum expectations fall below the level set by the learning outcomes.
  • Measure students’ work against specific criteria, and not relative to one another’s work.

3. Make authentic assessment tools count

Authentic assessment tools are those which incorporate tasks and scenarios that reflect what students would encounter in a real-world situation. With thoughtful design, they can synthesize the evaluation of several course learning outcomes and require students to integrate knowledge and skills acquired in other courses.

  • Give these tools the value they deserve by increasing their weighting in the overall evaluation system.

4. Involve students

Students can be a great source of ideas for ways to demonstrate and measure their learning. They can:

  • suggest scenarios for case studies
  • draft questions for multiple-choice tests for review sessions and/or graded tests
  • give feedback about assessment tools and ways to improve them
  • self- or peer-assess their own or colleagues’ work before handing it in to improve the quality of the work and make the task of marking by the teacher easier and faster.

5. Reflect and revise

Did your assessment tools work the way you planned?

  • Did students make common errors or encounter difficulties that suggest the need to change teaching strategies?
  • Did students make common errors or encounter difficulties that suggest the need to change evaluation strategies?
  • Are the assessment tools still reflective of real-world tasks in a changing global environment?
  • Was there enough time for the learners to complete the assignment?
  • Was there enough time to evaluate the submissions?
  • Is there feedback from students that you can use to plan for next time?
A smiling female student working in a classroom. Other students in the background also working.

10 Grading tips

It’s stressful to face an allegation of unfairness in evaluating students, or to not be able to adequately explain why a student received a particular grade. Clear communication about expectations and a structured marking process help.


  1. Mark one question or section of an assignment at a time for all students.
  2. Pace yourself and set aside enough time for marking so that the last assignment is given as much attention as the first.
  3. Sort graded work into ’same grade’ piles and review for consistency.
  4. If you take a break during grading, review a few marked papers before resuming.
  5. Ask a colleague to do a random audit of a few papers to see if you agree on the assigned grade.


  1. Have students identify their work by student number, rather than name, (or turn the cover page over and don’t look at the names until you’re ready to record the marks).
  2. Provide constructive comments that explain a mark, noting what was done well and what needs improvement.
  3. Analyze common errors, including patterns of multiple-choice responses, to determine problem questions and adjust marks as necessary.


  1. Create and share a key of symbols and comments to reduce the time it takes to provide individual feedback.
  2. Scaffold the submission of assignment or project components so that students learn project and time management skills and marking can be spread out in stages.

4 Common assessment tools

The variety and design of assessment tools is limited only by your imagination and creativity.

Case studies

  • Helps students bridge the gap between theory and application
  • Reinforces critical thinking skills
  • Provides a practice scenario to formulate and communicate ideas and opinions
  • Helps students understand the connection between fact and assumption
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection and to defend a decision.
  • To combine multiple learning outcomes and/or essential employability skills into one assessment tool
  • For learning outcomes that call for students to express the relationship among things or to justify or support their opinion
  • For higher level learning outcomes (Bloom’s taxonomy levels of application, analysis, evaluation and creation)."
  • Identify a problem to be solved that aligns with one or more learning outcomes or essential employability skills.
  • Ensure the problem has one or more possible solutions.
  • Provide sufficient facts and details for the students to understand the scenario and/or time to conduct their own research.
  • Design questions that encourage higher level thought processes. Example: How would you approach this situation from the role of a) a business owner? b) an employee? c) a consultant? What recommendations might you make for solving the problem?"
  • Use ready-made case studies from reliable sources.
  • Design your own from life experiences, news stories or student ideas.
  • Modify cases to use as scenarios and role-playing situations in class.
  • Have students create something new out of the case – a commercial, a poster, a mind-map.
  • Structure a student debate around the case study.
  • Have students generate questions, answers or quizzes out of the case study material.

Written Assignments (e.g. research papers, essays, business reports)

  • Helps students develop research and writing skills
  • Helps student’s ability to consolidate theory into practice
  • Provides the opportunity for reflection and to present/defend a point of view.
  • For higher-level learning outcomes in the cognitive domain
  • For learning outcomes that call for students to express the relationship among things or to justify or support their opinion
  • To assess students’ ability to communicate in writing.
  • Write clearly-articulated questions to avoid different interpretations.
  • Give directions that align with the level of intended learning –e.g. describe is at a different learning level than evaluate or create.
  • Identify the question weighting so that students can allot appropriate time to different questions.
  • Provide appropriate timeframe for students to construct and edit their assignments/answers.
  • Share exemplary papers/projects for student review to clarify expectations.
  • Have students create and follow a timeline to arrive at a final paper –e.g. submit a topic, then a research plan or outline, then a rough draft and so on.
  • Provide students with a grading template and time to do and integrate peer reviews.
  • Make self-evaluation part of the process.


Group Projects

  • Helps students develop social, personal and interpersonal skills(the EES)
  • Helps students improve listening, negotiating and speaking skills
  • Provides opportunities for students to learn from each other."
  • For self-and peer-evaluation
  • For authentic assessment via real-world team scenarios.
  • Include all aspects of group contribution and weight for individual student strengths – e.g. research, writing, oral presentation.
  • Provide framework for roles within the group.
  • Include marks for achieving critical benchmarks on a timeline – e.g. work plan, research report, and presentation.
  • Align assignment to specific learning outcomes.
  • Have students develop a code of conduct.
  • Encourage use of social media and/or Blackboard to connect.
  • Use a ‘ticket in’ system where students complete prior to group meetings.
  • Have students develop a ‘division of labour’ form to report on their experience.

Multiple-choice Tests

  • Helps students remember and understand concepts, steps in a process, terminology, definitions, etc.
  • Helps students prepare for entry-to-practice exams
  • Tests understanding of a broad scope of information at one time (e.g. the objectives that underlie the broader learning outcomes in a course)
  • Provides speedy feedback about a student’s progress (especially through the use of clicker technology, or automated marking tools that allow test results to be processed and returned in the same class) Are objective and less likely to be challenged by students. 
  • For review of concepts, terms and definitions
  • Can evaluate a broad range of Bloom’s Taxonomy if scenario-based
  •  Present a single, clearly-formulated problem or question statement in the stem.
  • Provide the correct answer and a maximum of three viable answer options.
  • Be grammatically consistent in the answer options.
  • Make the answer options approximately the same length.
  • Avoid double-negatives. ESL students may be particularly disadvantaged.
  • “All” or “none of the above” confuse students and increase text anxiety so avoid as an answer option.
  • Write the questions and answer options in a positive context.
  • Avoid answers that are mutually exclusive, i.e. one part of the answer ensures that another part cannot possibly be correct.
  • Avoid trick questions.
  • Direct students to choose the “best” answer.
  • Avoid patterns in the responses that can be copied from one student to another.
  • Design your own to fit with the learning outcomes of the course.
  • Generate randomly from a publisher’s text book test bank.
  • When using a test bank, answer the questions first yourself and make sure they are aligned with the learning outcomes and level of learning for the course.
  • Since the questions are usually knowledge-based rather than application-based, allow students to create a “cheat-sheet” they will spend lots of time creating!
  • For 5-10 minutes at the end of the exam, allow students to discuss their answers in small groups. This allows for deep learning of the material and reflects a more authentic approach to how we acquire knowledge in the real-world.
Module 5

Critical Thinking: Learning, Teaching and Assessment

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