High Performance Grading:
Reducing Your Time Behind the Red Pen
Revisiting our CAE Teaching Excellence Workshops
Many of the questions we receive in our workshops revolve around assessment—more specifically, grading. How is it in a class of 200 we could possible do anything other than give multiple choice tests or ever consider giving writing assignments, even though we may have the desire to do both. On the other hand, even a class of 20 can present grading difficulties. We know that giving students frequent assessments is one of the most critical aspects of helping them monitor their learning and improve their achievement (Brissenden et al; 2002;Tobias & Raphael, 1997) . We also know there is no question that the grading process involved in all this assessment can be incredibly time consuming, even if we don't grade everything. The bottom line remains, however, that grading is important. It is one of the ways we have of showing students what we want them to learn and the extent to which we want them to learn it.
Probably one of the most frustrating things we encounter with respect to grading is how little it seems students value the time and effort we put into grading and how little students take away from our efforts. We spend long hours marking and correcting a set of student papers with what we hope are thoughtful comments. Then we see far too many of our students take only a few seconds to look at what we've written on their papers, and then they immediately deposit them into the trash can. The point of our writing comments and asking questions in the margins, leaving encouraging notes at the end of the paper, and carefully calculating a score is to help students improve their learning. However, if students are not engaging with our comments and questions—a very time consuming task on our part—how will they have the desired impact of improving student learning?
One way of decreasing the amount of time we spend grading, and increasing the impact of the grading we do, is to "supercharge" our grading system. A supercharged—or High Performance Grading—grading technique focuses on informing students of the degree to which their performance is meeting our expectations, but it puts onus on the students to check in with us on the particulars. As we like to say in our workshops, this helps take us out of the position of providing answers to students who don't have questions, and frees up our time to answer the questions of students who do have them.
So, what is High Performance Grading? High Performance Grading assigns grades based on a four point scale (0, 1, 2, or 3—nothing in between!). A score of 2 tells students that their performance is meeting our expectations for this particular assignment. Their work does not need to be error free to earn a 2, but whatever errors they do make are minor ones, such as a units, calculation, or sign error. A score of 1 tells students that there are some major errors or omissions that need to be corrected. It is generally these types of errors that we spend so much time commenting in the margins about. By assigning a 1 without comments, the student clearly knows that they have not met our expectations for this assignment. They also know that if they wish to know the specifics of their errors it is their responsibility to come ask us questions—in office hours. However, before coming to office hours it is the student's responsibility to have looked at the grading key with the goal of trying to understand their errors. When they come to office hours, they should be prepared to explain why they missed what they did and be prepared to ask clarifying questions. And during this office hours time, we get to ask all those probing questions designed to tease out our students' mental models (the ones we would have put in the margins) to students who are actually interested in them. A score of 0 tells students that either they did not complete the assignment in a meaningful way or tells them that their work implies conceptual problems that are going to take longer than a few minutes to sort out.
Assigning a 3 is a right we reserve, but one which we will probably rarely use. It is a score we reserve to reward highly distinguished work. This score doesn't really help students' grade point average, but it does reward students that have submitted work that is more than just correct, but work that goes far above what we would expect. In other words, their performance is above the level that we intended them reaching. It may be necessary to emphasize this point several times—especially to our strongest students. They often need reminding that they should be striving for a score of 2, and that a score of 3 is not commonly given, nor necessary, to improve their grade.
There are two important caveats to using a High Performance Grading technique. The first is that we need to frequently remind students what the scores mean. As stated earlier, their automatic inclination is to convert the score into a percentage grade out of 100—and, yes, even the students who tell you they can't actually do math can actually calculate fractions and percentages. Students will say, "Hey, why did I get a 2 out of 3 on this assignment when I did it right—that's a failing 67%!" When this occurs, you have to remind them again what a score of 2 actually means and reassure them that they are still earning an A for the homework part of their grade.
The second caveat is that we also need to clearly identify to our students how these scores will be translated into their overall homework grade. As instructors, we have considerable flexibility in how this is actually done. Here is one example of how to assign an overall homework grade for a course with 10 homework assignments: 100% if ten assignments earn a 2-score and they have no 0-scores; 80% if eight assignments earn a 2-score and they have no 0-scores; a 70% if eight assignments earn a 2-score and they have some 1- or 0-scores; and a 50% if they have five or less 2-scores. Most grading software can be easily set up to automatically count the frequency of various scores to accommodate this plan.
Here is what you give your students—in your syllabus:
3-2-1-0 High Performance Grading Scoring Key
- Score 2: Your work is essentially correct and free of most major errors. Your work is meeting my expectations. You should quickly check the posted answer key and resolve any differences that might exist.
- Score 1: Your work is missing some important components or has some important errors that need to be resolved before you can progress. Please take a careful look at the posted answer key and then arrange a few minutes to talk individually with me as soon as possible.
- Score 0: Your work was not submitted according to the directions or no meaningful attempt is evident in your work. Please see me as soon as possible.
- Score 3: Your work is unusually exemplary and goes far beyond my expectations for this particular assignment. This score is rarely assigned and you should be very proud of your efforts.
- Important Note: Students should strive to earn a "2-score" on every assignment. A consistent ,2-score" will earn an A for this portion of the grade. Please do not assume that a 2-score represents a 67% grade or that a 1-score represents a 33% grade; rather, the scores are intended to describe the degree to which students are meeting performance expectations.
In the end, this should not be your only grading system. There are times, for example when grading exams, when students need to be provided a more detailed evaluation of their success, and when you may need to spread out the range of student grades more than is capable with a three-point scoring rubric. No single grading technique is appropriate for something as incredibly complex as the measurement of learning. However, High Performance Grading is a useful and efficient technique easily incorporated into our much larger system for providing students with feedback and assigning them grades.
Brissenden, G., Slater, T. F., & Mathieu, R. (2002). The role of assessment in the development of the college introductory astronomy course: A ,how-to" guide for instructors. Astronomy Education Review 1(1). Retrievable from http://aer.noao.edu
Tobias, S & Raphael, J. (1997). The hidden curriculum—faculty-made tests in science, Part I: Lower-division courses. New York: Plenum Press.