Grading Strategies

Parts of this article have been adapted with permission from the Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University.

Grading is perhaps one of the most time consuming and arguably most disliked activities of the professoriate. Grading excellent assignments can be exhilarating and rewarding, but sometimes, assignments are mediocre, off track, unfocused, poorly written and generally disappointing.

Grading can eat up as much time as you want to give it, but the results may not be any better for the extra time you have spent. Grading a large number of papers can leave you exhausted and discouraged. New faculty members in particular can fall into a grading trap, where far too much of their allocated teaching time is spent on grading. As well, after the graded assignments have been handed back, there may be a rush of students wanting either to contest the grade, or understand why they got a particular grade, which takes up even more of the instructor’s time.

It doesn’t have to be this way! With some planning, preparation and sound grading strategies in hand, grading can go smoothly and efficiently, provide good learning opportunities for the students and good information for the instructor about the student learning (or lack of) taking place in the course. Ultimately, you do not need to choose between superficial, minimal grading and a complex grading system that leaves you and your TAs overwhelmed. With the right strategies and techniques, you can both give your students frequent feedback, graded and ungraded, while still maintaining some semblance of a social life.

Grading Guidelines

Undergraduate Grading Guidelines

General grading guidelines for undergraduate work is available in the Marks/Grades for Undergraduate Students policy.

Grading guidelines are intended to specify what quality of work is required to achieve specific grades within a course. For most undergraduate courses, letter grades indicate the following percentages. Descriptors have also been created to indicate the level of work expected of students within these grade ranges.

  • A+ (90 - 100%) – One could scarcely expect better from a student at this level
  • A (80 - 89%) – Superior work which is clearly above average
  • B (70 - 79%) – Good work, meeting all requirements, and eminently satisfactory
  • C (60 - 69%) – Competent work that meets requirements
  • D (50 - 59%) – Fair work, minimally acceptable
  • F (<50%) – Below expectations, or assigned when course is dropped with academic penalty

Graduate Grading Guidelines

Guidelines for grading graduate work are set out in the Academic Handbook in the section Grading Scale for Graduate Students.

  • A – 80 - 100%
  • B – 70 - 79%
  • C – 60 - 69%
  • F – 00 - 59%

Some academic units may also provide more detailed grading guidelines and descriptions of what is expected of student work. Check with your departmental administrator for any existing grading guidelines within your unit.

Developing Your Grading Techniques

How do you begin to implement grading practices that are effective, efficient and meaningful for you and your students? The following sections provide some suggestions regarding how to develop your grading to help prevent overwork, while still dealing efficiently with all the student assignments that you need to grade, and giving your students the feedback that will help them in their next assignments.

Assignment Basics

Grading can be particularly difficult if the assignment did not produce what you expected, or did not reveal the learning that you hoped was taking place in the course. Grading these kinds of assignments is even more time consuming than normal, because the students have missed what you hoped they had learned and so none of their work is what you expected. This situation quickly becomes messy because you are forced to adjust your thinking and grading to accommodate the flaws in your assignment design.

Accordingly, one way to avoid this situation is to have clear learning outcomes for your course, and for your assignments. Make sure assignments are tied in some way to the material covered in your lectures or the required readings.  In other words, grade what you teach.

That’s not to say that students should be limited to your lectures and course texts – you can certainly expect them to stretch, to demonstrate their understanding of the content you have been covering. The best students will do this anyway, but a well-constructed assignment will allow some of the middle-of-the-road students to stretch as well.

Another basic strategy that comes into play here is to ensure that students are clear about your expectations for every assignment. A one-page handout detailing your expectations can go a long way to making sure that all the students understand what they need to produce, in the format that you require.  This is particularly important if you are using gateway requirements, as described in section 3.

Finally, one other assignment basic suggested by Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 105) is to “look at the physical and logistical aspects of grading”, and “ask students to organize their work for your efficiency”. Do papers fall apart due to the use of paper clips? Do you have to search through the paper to ensure all the parts are there before you start marking? You can eliminate this kind of time-wasting work by having the students complete a checklist to attach to the assignment. Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 105) suggest your checklist could include things like:

  • If hard copy, the assignment is stapled, not paper-clipped.
  • If electronic, the assignment is submitted in Word as an attachment, labeled with the assignment and the student’s name (e.g. Essay 2, Jones).
  • A Title page and Table of Contents are provided.
  • A complete and properly formatted Reference List is provided.
  • Charts, graphs and tables are all numbered and properly labeled.

Rethink Formative Assessment

“The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately.

Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • turn in a research proposal for early feedback.”
(Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, 2018)

There are several ways to incorporate more formative assessments into your class that do not add significantly to your workload, but give students and instructors the critical feedback that they need. Discussion-oriented activities in the classroom enable students to practice course-related skills and demonstrate comprehension of the material, while not requiring formal grading. For these kinds of activities, students can receive valuable verbal (and sometimes written) feedback from professors, TAs, and other students. The incorporation of classroom response systems like PressWestern can also serve to engage students while giving students a sense of how they’re doing in the course, and giving instructors an opportunity to assess student-learning. These types of feedback-providing activities are especially valuable in classes in which the first graded assignments are not returned to students for several weeks.

Rethink Summative Assessment

When most instructors think or talk about the burden of grading, summative assessment is what is usually meant. But what exactly is summative assessment, and how does it differ from formative assessment?

"The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. Examples of summative assessments include:

  • a midterm exam
  • a final project
  • a paper
  • a senior recital."
(Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, 2018)

Following are a number of ideas for rethinking or handling the summative assessments that you incorporate into your courses.

Implement a Gateway Requirement

In their classic text on grading at the college/university level, Walvoord and Anderson (2010) suggest that too often, instructors waste valuable time reading through papers or assignments when the student has not even met the basic requirements of the assignment, or has not put any effort into it. To eliminate this frustrating and unnecessary work, the authors recommend instituting a gateway requirement, whereby an assignment that has not met the basic requirements is returned to the student with very little or no instructor time spent on it. Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 100) further remark that “you can give it an F, or hand it back with instructions to revise and resubmit, perhaps with a grade cap or penalty for the resubmission. But you need not spend time on careless student work”.

However, to use a gateway approach, you need to be very clear with the students about what the minimum requirements of the assignment are, and what will happen if the gateway is not met. Gateway requirements could include a variety of elements, depending on the nature of the assignment. For a paper, examples of gateway requirements could be any of the following:

  • a particular page length, double-spaced
  • proper use of English
  • correct sentence structure
  • paper divided into well-labelled, logical and meaningful sections
  • a complete and properly formatted reference list
  • correct in-text citations
  • a hard copy submission, etc.

All the gateway requirements need to be made clear to the students prior to the assignment. For instance, if a particular citation style is required, students need to be made aware of where to find information on that style, and how to use it correctly. Some class time may need to be spent to ensure that all students understand the gateway requirements, because the stakes can be considerable if they do not. Gateway requirements can also form the basis of an assignment checklist, discussed previously in section 1.

Manage Instructor Comments

One of the most time-consuming aspects of grading for any course is providing comments on student papers. On the one hand, you want to give feedback on both great work and any noticeable problems/issues, but too many negative comments are discouraging for the student and may actually work against learning. Positive and negative comments need to be balanced. How do you provide worthwhile comments to students while protecting your time? There are a few ways to approach this problem.

  • Consider using shorthand comments: One suggestion is to use shorthand comments on papers and hand back papers with a guide to that shorthand. Indeed, often we make the same comments over and over again on many papers. Rather than repeating those comments in full sentences, a shorthand comment of perhaps a word or acronym, keyed to a guide can save considerable time for professors. That’s not to say either that all comments should be “cookie-cutter” in this way, but using this technique for half of one’s written comments can shave hours off the grading process.

  • Develop a short comments thesaurus: Along the same lines as shorthand comments, you could develop a thesaurus for yourself of short pithy comments that are fast and easy to use, and convey either praise or concern. For instance, underline a point made by the student and write in the margin – “Good point!”, “Great insight!”, “Nice approach!”, “Good analysis!”, “Well written!” etc. Short pithy comments with underlining and exclamation points convey to the student that you have considered the paper in detail, yet you haven’t had to write paragraphs of comments.

    Praise and encouragement can also be conveyed by slightly longer phrases such as: “Good point – bring this up in class”, or “Worth developing in another paper”, or “Do you think this perspective is the key?”. Keep track of the comments and phrases you use and add them to your thesaurus.

    As for comments on problematic areas of the work, short comments work equally well here. For instance, you could say “Watch your sentence structure!”, “Illogical reasoning”, “Too verbose!”, “Needs better flow”, ‘Basic premise missing”, “Needs clearer articulation”, etc. Try to capture the essence of the problem in as few words as possible, while still making it clear to the student what is needed.

  • Limit comments on grammar and punctuation: When grammar and punctuation are poorly done, many instructors feel compelled to make corrections, but this is a losing game. Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 101) are adamant that grading time should not be spent on grammar and punctuation problems. Rather, they suggest that you could edit a paragraph showing what needs to be done, or select one or two of the most problematic areas, circle some examples and make a comment like “You often misuse the apostrophe – please consult a handbook or go to the Writing Centre to learn the rules”.

  • Develop grading rubrics: By utilizing a detailed grading rubric or checklist for papers and other assignments, you can streamline the grading process and reduce the need for extensive written comments. Rubrics can also obviate problems of inconsistency when you’re dealing with more than one TA grader. Rubrics can be shared with the students so that they have a clear understanding of what they need to do and how their work will be scored. Effective rubrics can thus facilitate a faster grading system that is also fairer for students.

    See: Grading with Rubrics

    If you are not using a rubric or checklist, give students a handout of what the grade ranges are, and what is required to achieve particular grades on their assignments.

Limit the Basis for Grading

There is no rule that says you need to grade, or comment on, everything the student writes or produces for a certain assignment. Your assignment learning outcomes are your guide here. Once you have decided what you want the students to demonstrate, you have the option to limit most of your comments to just those elements, and grade accordingly. Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 103) further suggest that you use your comments only for “teachable moments” (i.e. those instances where the student could make an improvement for the next essay etc.). Commenting extensively on a final product when there is no further chance to improve does little for the student and even less for you.

Do Light Grading on Short Assignments

Another way to build a steadier stream of graded feedback into your course without making grading a full-time job is to maintain a simple grading system for short assignments. For example, you can grade papers on a three-to-five point scale, with specific pieces of information required for each point. For example, on a short paper, you could assign points for a clearly stated thesis or goal, a well structured and coherent argument, appropriate coverage of the topic, good use of citations, a range of readings etc. etc. A five-point scale can also be used numerically, such that 5 = 90-100%, 4 = 80-90%, 3 = 70=80%, 2 = 60-70% and 1 is basically inadequate. Not only is grading faster with a limited scale, but it also cuts down on student grumbling about small percentage differences on papers (i.e. my friend got 85% but I only got 82%).

A Check/Check-minus/Check-plus system also makes your job as a grader quicker and easier while providing feedback to instructor and student alike. You can quickly go through the assignment and use checks, or checks with pluses or minuses, for various points made by the student, thus avoiding the need to make comments on all those points. If you are using a Check Plus/Minus system, you will need to decide how to convert the checks to grades. For instance, a majority of Check Pluses on the paper could be A, a majority of Checks could be B and Check Minuses could be C, or something similar. Fewer than a certain number of checks would be a failure. It’s important to realize that you need not grade everything on a 100-point scale with copious comments.

Incorporate Group Projects

Summative assessment can impose a heavy burden on the instructor (and TAs), especially in large classes. To cut down on the grading required, one option is to split students into groups. In a class of 200, organizing your class into 50 groups of four students to work on weekly homework assignments or papers reduces your grading load by 75%, while still giving students a chance to practice their skills and receive feedback. This substantial difference in workload may make collecting homework assignments or additional paper assignments feasible in these large classes. Such group work also has value in promoting the kinds of communication skills that represent critical learning goals in so many of our classrooms.

However, group projects also raise different challenges in cultivating fair and equitable groups that you will need to address. To help promote active contribution by all group members, there are a number of tactics that you can try, such as:

  • assigning each member of the group a role in the group
  • building a peer review element into the group work so students feel accountable to one another
  • offering small bonuses on exams for those groups whose members all maintained a certain average, in order to promote positive interdependence.

For more information on group work, see our resources on Teamwork/Group Work.

Ensure Grading Consistency

If you are grading a large number of papers, it is easy to drift into grading either easier or harder as time goes on.  Grading inconsistency can be a headache, because you can be sure that students will compare their grades and will complain if they perceive unfair grading. There are a few strategies you can use to avoid this.

Allow enough time

Don’t put off your grading until you absolutely have to do it. Rather, plan for enough hours to accomplish the task in smaller chunks. Remember that not all assignments have to be graded in one sitting, and in fact, grading this way may lead to tiredness, lack of focus and grading inconsistency.

Set a goal for yourself such as, “This morning I will grade xx papers”. Then give yourself permission to do something else whenever you are finished (maybe do a bit of writing or research reading?). In the afternoon, resume your grading and tackle another xx papers. It may take a few extra hours to grade this way, but in the end, you will feel less tired and frustrated, and your grading will be more consistent throughout.

Do a periodic check for consistency

After you have graded a certain number of papers, review your rubric or checklist to ensure that you are grading consistently. If you are working with TAs, recommend that they do the same.

Take short breaks

Take periodic breaks (say every 10 papers, or every 15 short reports etc.) where you get up and move around. This helps to keep the grading task manageable and less overwhelming.

Should I grade on a curve?

The short answer is, don’t.

Norm-referenced grading is known colloquially as “curving grades”, since the statistical calculations underlying the process are based on the assumption that student grades in a given class will vary enough to fall along a normal distribution. While norm-referenced grading can control for situations beyond students’ control (i.e. poorly constructed tests), the disadvantages of norm-referenced grading exceed the advantages.

Negative Impact of Norm-referenced Grading

Curving grades (referred to as “norm-referenced” grading in the assessment literature) means that a student’s performance is determined by their relative standing to their classmates. In other words, a certain percentage of the students receive each grade, such as 10% get As, etc. Here, student success depends on how well other students in the class perform (Parkes & Zimmaro, 2017).

A fundamental assumption of curving grades is that the population in question (a class in this case) is distributed normally (i.e. is a representative sample). Yet we know, for example, that Western undergraduates have amongst the highest entering high-school averages in Canada. It’s fair to conclude that our undergraduate students are not representative of a general population and, in turn, any curving will not correct equally for variance. When class size is smaller (less than 200 students) or in upper-year courses, it is also fair to assume that there is no representative sample. If there is no representative sample, then grading on a curve is fundamentally flawed and unfair.

Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 122) are also opposed to grading on a curve. They comment that grading on a curve reduces the instructor’s role to one that “focuses on awarding a limited number of grades by a formula, rather than a role that includes rewarding all learning with the grade it deserves.” The authors also point out that there is the “possibility that standards for a grade will be lowered, to enable a certain percentage of students to receive that grade.”

Another significant negative impact of norm-referenced grading identified by Schinske & Tanner (2014) is increased competition amongst classmates for grades. This, in turn, has unintended impacts on learning, as a competitive classroom environment has been shown to lower rates of student learning and retention. Increased competition will also largely rule out opportunities for peer-based pedagogies.

The alternative to norm-referenced grading is criterion-referenced grading, where student performance is assessed against an established standard. A criterion-referenced approach allows for better differentiation amongst students and is a much fairer system to demonstrate student learning. Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 122) comment that you want your students “to believe that they and their classmates can be rewarded for outstanding effort and achievement. You want to be free to help and encourage all of them to their highest possible levels of achievement. Furthermore, we recommend setting standards for student work that represent your best judgment of what they need to know, and what they can achieve with their best effort and your best teaching”.

Benjamin Bloom (an educational psychologist and the namesake of Bloom's Taxonomy) wrote in 1981 that: “The normal curve is a distribution most appropriate to chance and random activity. Education is a purposeful activity, and we seek to have students learn what we would teach. Therefore, if we are effective, the distribution of grades will be anything but a normal curve.”

Walvoord and Johnson (2010, 122) note that faculty sometimes exaggerate the pressures to grade to a curve. They recommend that instructors take a good look at what the perceived problem is, and consider other ways to manage it. Do you tend to give too many A grades, or too few D and F grades? In such cases, it is possible to change the grading profile of your course with other strategies, such as raising your standards, so that A grades are harder to achieve and are reserved for truly outstanding work.

Grading by Teaching Assistants

Teaching assistants come with different teaching skill sets and life experiences. Some of them are mature, effective teachers, while others are preparing to teach their first class. Teaching assistants are often tasked with grading, especially in large classes, but they come to that activity with vastly different conceptions of what effective grading looks like, and how one can grade effectively in a reasonable amount of time.

First of all, how do you ensure that your TAs are all on the same page and doing their jobs well? A good starting point is to refer to the Western Guide to Working with Teaching Assistants.

With respect to grading in particular, one common undergraduate complaint, especially in large classes, is with regard to inconsistency in grading. Most instructors will recognize the refrain, “My TA is an unfair grader! Can I change sections?” Indeed, it can be frustrating for undergraduates who believe that they are the victim of the “tough grader,” and are receiving worse grades than their friends despite handing in comparable work. So how do you ensure consistency and mitigate undergraduate charges of unfairness?

Have regular grading meetings

The best way to promote grading consistency among your TAs is to meet as a group soon after collecting an exam or paper. If you are grading essays, identify and photocopy an exemplary essay, a few mediocre essays, and a poor essay and distribute these examples to each member of the group. Prior to the meeting, have each TA grade and comment upon these essays. At the meeting, go through each essay one-by-one. Ask each person what grade they gave to each essay and why. Ask them about the best and worst aspects of each piece of writing. Such a meeting provides a wonderful opportunity for your graders, especially inexperienced graders, to think about how they’re approaching their grading. The meeting can also serve as a forum for you to explain your expectations for exams or papers. It is unfair to assume that your TAs will simply know what you’re looking for on any given exam question or paper topic.

Use grading rubrics

A carefully designed grading rubric can both minimize the amount of time spent grading, an important consideration in large classes, and serve as a common standard for your TAs (see our article on Grading Rubrics). You can even enlist TA support in constructing a grading rubric. Such an exercise can be valuable to TAs because it facilitates the grading process, but it also gives them an opportunity to play a major role in student assessment, a valuable experience for those TAs who hope to teach courses of their own at some future time. It also gives you a new and unique perspective on class exams, papers, and assignments that may ultimately enrich the course.

Divide up grading sections

You can better ensure consistency by assigning different grading sections to different TAs. This is more challenging with essays, but is a common approach for exam-grading. What this technique entails specifically depends on the makeup of your exam, but for example, perhaps one TA grades the short-answer section, a second TA grades the first essay, and a third TA grades the second essay. While there still may be some inconsistency in the “harshness” of grading between sections, with this method, students can hardly argue that their particular grader is tougher: everyone’s exam is graded by the same graders!

Grade together

If you have TAs who are also grading, consider having an informal grading session where you all grade together. This approach is particularly effective with exams, where issues that arise with exam answers can be discussed and dealt with together. Consider adding a pizza lunch or dinner as a value-added element for the group.

Besides exams, grading papers and other written assignments together also can be beneficial. It’s not necessary to grade all the papers together, but you might ask your TAs to spend two hours with you grading together to see what issues arise, and then finish the rest of the grading individually. This can be very helpful for inexperienced TAs, and also helps to promote consistency in grading across all the graders, particularly if a rubric or checklist is being used.

Handling Grade Complaints

In most classes, large or small, grade complaints are inevitable. However, the issue can become more pronounced when a couple of upset students becomes a dozen or more. How can you best deal with grading complaints?

Have a formalized system in place

Instructors of large classes approach grade complaints in a variety of ways. Some insist that undergraduates come directly to them with their concerns. Others suggest that undergraduates speak to their TAs first before consulting the professor. Still others give full authority to their TAs to handle all grade complaints. The important thing is that you have a formalized system, preferably outlined in your syllabus. Students should know what is expected of them, and what their options are if they feel that they have been graded unfairly. Tell students up front what the protocol will be.

Require complaints to be written out and submitted

One common technique to avoid frivolous grade complaints is requiring a written explanation of the complaint at an early stage in your protocol. Oftentimes, upon starting this piece of writing, undergraduates with a visceral reaction to a bad grade will see that the grade was deserved. By requiring this piece of writing, students are forced to confront the written comments on their exam or paper. Sometimes, students simply see the bad mark and seek out the instructor, rather than reading and mulling over grader comments.

Institute a 24-hour rule

Another way to ensure that students are carefully considering the grade and comments, and aren’t simply going with a visceral reaction, is to have a 24-hour rule. What that means is that students are required to take 24-hours before contacting the TA or professor with a grade complaint. This 24-hour period often serves as a “cooling off” period in which students can read and think about grader comments.

Keep Track of Grading Hours

One final thought about grading strategies is to keep track of how much time you spend grading, on which assignments, and assess if you are spending your grading time wisely. You need to be a bit ruthless to ensure that the time spent grading is worthwhile in terms of the overall content of your course, and the weight of your assignments. For instance, if you are spending as much time grading assignments worth only 5-10% of the overall grade as you are grading essays worth 40%, then you need to adjust something to make your grading hours more effective. You could eliminate some or all of those lower-weighted assignments from your course, grade them differently (perhaps with a light grading approach as described in section 3) or, if you think they are that important, make those assignments worth a larger portion of the final grade.

In terms of papers and essays, keep track of how much time you are spending on grading the entire set of papers, and then figure out how much time you spend, on average, on each paper. This will give you a benchmark to work with – if you think you are spending too much time per paper, then institute some of the strategies suggested here to see if you can reduce the overall time spent marking. This will give you more time to devote to preparing, teaching, mentoring students, and helping weaker students either one-on-one or in small peer groups. Remember, grading is only one way to give feedback to your students, and you might prefer to lessen the amount of time spent marking and increase the amount of time you have to actually talk to, and guide, your students face-to-face.


If you would like to talk in more detail about grading strategies, rubrics or norm-referenced grading, please contact one of our assessment specialists.


Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University. (2018). What is the difference between formative and summative assessment? Accessed on June 20, 2018 at

Parkes, J., & Zimmaro, D. (2017). The College classroom assessment compendium: A practical guide to the college instructor’s daily assessment life. New York: Routledge.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). Cell Biology Education, 13(2), 159–166. doi:10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054  

Walvoord, B.E. & Anderson, V.J. (2010). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.