Grading and Feedback in OWL

The purpose of grading

5 strategies for grading fairly online 

5 strategies for providing feedback online 

2 strategies for grading efficiently 

The purpose of grading

Evaluating students: Grades are one way to assess student work. Usually we think of assessment by the teaching assistant or instructor, but grades can be determined by instructor-assessment, peer-assessment, or self-assessment (or any combination thereof). 

Communication: Communicate to students, graduate schools, professional schools, and employers about a student's performance and potential for success 

Provide feedback: Clarify to students what they understand and where they can improve.

Clarify to instructors and teaching assistants on how their students are doing. This information can be used to inform teaching decisions. 

Motivation: Motivate students for continued learning and improvement.

Organization: Grades can aid in organization by marking a transition to a new unit or the end of the course.

(Walvoord and Anderson, 1998)

The following are commonly used OWL tools for grading. Click the tool to head to the OWL help page.

Assignment Tool

Tests and Quizzes




Gradebook is the tool used to calculate and store grade information, as well as to communicate grades to students online. Making use of categories and weighting features within the gradebook allows students to see an organized view of their grades throughout the course.

5 Strategies for grading fairly online

1: Use Grading Criteria

Grading criteria are the standards or approaches that we use to keep our grading practices consistent and as fair as possible. Rubrics and marking schemes are a common format of grading criteria, although rubrics can vary quite a bit between projects, courses and disciplines. Sharing grading criteria also communicates expectations to students. 

2: Practice with the grading scheme and compare with your TAs

If you are part of a teaching team (I.e., with TAs or other instructors), mark 2 or 3 of the same assignments and compare. Keep lines of communication open so that any issues that arise can be discussed as a team, and a common approach can be taken.

3: Don't look at student names

Several studies show that disparities in student achievement are perpetuated by teacher perceptions, expectations, and behaviours (Ferguson, 2003; Botelho, Madeira, and Rangel, 2010; Hanna and Linden, 2012).  Use blind grading when possible to lessen the student perception or possibility that grading is biased based on identity.  

Use this combination of techniques to help limit any biases:

  1. Ask students to submit their assignment with their student number and date rather than name and date. Alternatively, ask students to add their name to the bottom of the final page rather than the top of the first page. Explain why you are doing so.
  2. Go to Assignment preferences and click "Hide submitters' identities (e.g., for anonymous grading)". 

4: Mark question by question

Marking question by question allows you to compare across a single answer.  This is more time efficient and fair (as you remember more readily how you marked the question before). See OWL help page on Tests and Quizzes for information on how to mark question by question.

5: Temperature check with benchmark piles

Consider using the Temperature check with benchmark piles strategy when you are marking long assignments like essays and reports.  This strategy involves using folders on your computer in place of physical stacks of papers to compare similar grades.

  1. Bulk download all of the assignments
  2. Within the downloaded folder on your computer, add sub folders (benchmark folders) for A, B, C, D, and F papers (as needed). 
  3. Mark the assignments. As you complete the grading for each assignment, move the file into the folder that matches the mark.
  4. Once you complete your marking, sort the folder by "Date modified".
  5. Select 2 assignments - one from the top and one from the bottom of each list and see how they compare.
  6. Reflect: Did you become harsher or more lenient as the marking went on? Are there adjustments that need to be made?


5 Strategies for providing feedback online

1: Provide common feedback to the entire group

In most cases, there are common strengths and errors on an assignment or test. As you identify these commonalities, create a general feedback response that can be shared with everyone.

Options include:

  • Copy and paste the feedback into the Assignmentsfeedback area (caution: this is onerous if too many students!)
  • Create an Announcement
  • Share your feedback via video
  • Use Post'em tool to provide common formative feedback (that is, feedback to help students grow and check-in on progress) to all students.   This approach can be combined with individual feedback (students would see a section or common feedback and for individual feedback).

2: Provide individual feedback

Provide a short summary of the feedback, which goes a long way to helping students see the key message for improvement. Identify the most significant strengths and areas for improvement, and ask students to start their review of the feedback with that summary.

3: Consider alternative approaches to providing feedback 

Find a way of providing feedback that works for you. For example. some people prefer to provide audio or video feedback, which can be done for assignments submitted via VoiceThread. You can even ask students to add the rubric as a slide, and write on the rubric as you speak. 

4: Use a rubric or grading criteria

Use the rubric to your advantage. Focus your feedback on unique strengths and areas for growth, rather than repeating details covered by the rubric. Remind students that their feedback is a mix of comments and items circled on the rubric.

5: Help students learn from feedback

How can you assist students to do more than simply check the mark, then file their assignment away? Consider using an exam or assignment wrapper: take 5 minutes from your synchronous session or make a video specifically asking students to review their feedback. Ask them to jot down reflections on where they went wrong, and what they might do next time to fix it.  

You may use the following prompts:

  • What is the most important feedback you received? What would you do differently next time to address this feedback in your work?
  • Where did you lose points? What was the most common reason why you lost points? (i.e., didn't complete the question, didn't understand, understood but made an error, answered a question that wasn't asked, etc.).
  • How did you prepare for this assignment/ test? Seeing the kinds of errors you made, what might you change about how you prepared?

For other examples of exam wrappers, see Carnegie Melon UniversityLakehead University, and Queen's University School of Medicine, or assignment wrappers from Bowen, 2013

2 Strategies for grading efficiently

1: Bulk download and upload assignments

By far, this is the most important online strategy for efficient grading! Clicking on each student in turn to review their assignment submissions gets old fast. Instead, download all of the assignments at once, and learn to upload them all at once as well. Complete instructions on how to do this are available on OWL help.

2: Light grading

Use a simple grading system for short assignments, like discussion posts, reflections, short answers, or a paper outline. This is also a recommended system for assignments where it doesn't make sense to be divided into 100 marks (such as small assignments better suited for 3 or 5 point scales).

Use these prompts to think about how you spend your time marking. When you grade, ask yourself these questions to clarify where you spend the most effort and to narrow down your grading criteria.

  • What are students demonstrating in this assignment? Are grammar and spelling key areas for feedback, or is the focus more on conceptual understanding? Or both?
  • What should the feedback focus on? What are common errors that you want addressed?

 If light grading interests you, read more about this technique on our grading strategies page.