As an educator, do you believe the process of grading or evaluating students’ work is always completed in a fair manner? Are you able to maintain a strict sense of objectivity as you evaluate learning activities completed by your students?

I’ve thought about this recently as I reviewed the levels of a scoring guide given to me to complete for a written assignment. While the wording was seemingly different between these levels, there is still an element of subjectivity to the process. For example, is there really that much of a difference between “explains” and “completely explains” a concept? And who would be able to audit what an educator has assigned, as the score for a particular criterion, without injecting their own sense of subjectivity when attempting to interpret what the student wrote?

The next question which comes to mind is this: What are the conditions you consider for something submitted by a student to earn a maximum score, especially a written assignment? Is this reserved for the best of the best work, which are the top few students who are able to demonstrate mastery of the content and academic writing? Or is it possible a student can earn the maximum number of points just by meeting all the requirements?

Here’s another scenario that comes up on occasion: What if it’s a student whose made consistent progress, always submitted papers on time, has been responsive to feedback, and is typically above average; however, this time they have barely met the minimum requirements. Would you still assign the maximum number of points, just based upon working hard and making a good attempt?

Students believe if they work hard, that effort should automatically equate into the maximum number of possible points, regardless of a scoring guide or rubric. Many students also believe their continued hard work should be rewarded, even if they occasionally fall short of expectations. I do understand the natural inclination to want to reward those students who work hard. However, I’ve learned with time and practice it is possible to utilize the required scoring guide or rubric, and provide encouragement (or a feeling of reward) to students in other ways. Perhaps these strategies can help you as well.

The Challenge of Unconscious Bias

There’s no question that grading papers takes up a significant amount of time for an educator, especially if you want to provide substantive feedback. From a mindset perspective, you are well aware of what can make this process easier and more challenging. It depends upon the type of learning activity, the amount of work you need to review, and the quality of work submitted by the students. Whether or not you are consciously aware of it, the quality of work submitted can have a direct impact upon how you evaluate it. This is called having an unconscious bias.

If you possess any form of unconscious bias, you may reward those who write a paper that is fairly easy to read and meets most of the requirements, with a perfect score. The converse may be true for a paper that is poorly written and requires a significant amount of your time to read and review, especially if it seems the student isn’t making an effort and/or doesn’t respond well to feedback provided. It’s a habitual pattern you may find yourself getting into over the course of time, which is something I had to learn to pay attention to. It was my natural desire to want to make students happy which always caused me to lean towards giving a better grade, early in my online teaching career, that I had to learn to correct. The indicator of an unconscious bias usually occurs when you feel a reaction to a learning activity, often a written assignment, you are about to review.

What’s Fair and Appropriate?

There will always be degrees of effort put in by students, especially non-traditional students who are also working and maintaining other responsibilities. Your best students may not be quite up to par one week, and there is an inclination on your part to still want to give them the best grade. Then you could have a student who isn’t engaged often in the class, and you naturally feel like being harder on that student, from a grading perspective.

Then there are levels of effort in-between, from just enough effort to barely meeting the requirements, to more than enough effort that far exceeds all the requirements. You know there is a certain number of points to be allocated and nothing more. How do you feel justified giving a perfect score to those who meet the requirements and those who exceed it? What is fair and appropriate?

Consistency is the Key to Fair Grading

I’ve learned the answer to the question is to first use the tools available, which is generally a scoring guide or rubric. It is important for the sake of the students and their success to maintain consistency in the classroom, especially with regards to grading. If you begin to try to weigh who “deserves” the maximum number of points, rather than follow the prescribed standards, you will eventually find yourself getting caught up in classifying not only the work of your students, but the students themselves.

This means you have to take care to eliminate any potential unconscious bias you may have about students and the effort they put into their work. To do this, and find other methods of providing meaningful feedback, you can implement the following strategies.

#1. Conduct a Mindset Self-Check:

Before you begin the process of providing feedback, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? For example, did you allocate enough time to provide meaningful feedback, or do you feel rushed and stressed out? Your mood can have a direct impact on your response to what it is you are reviewing. The more time you allocate, the better positioned you will be for fulfilling your role in a calm and rational manner.

#2. Provide Instructional Resources Ahead of Time:

I have yet to teach an online class in which the instructions have been adequate enough for students to complete a written assignment. This is not to point blame on the curriculum developer or subject matter expert involved in the process, as I’ve been involved in course design myself. It’s a matter of practice that students learn in a variety of methods and sometimes another form of explanation can help them further understand what the assignment is about.

This is why I take the time to develop short instructional videos each week, to review the upcoming course concepts and learning activities for the week. Now students can hear an explanation, as I break down the assignment into components. This might work well for you, especially if you have a challenging assignment.

#3. Develop a Deep Understanding of the Learning Activity

This suggestion ties into the one before; however, this particular strategy is more about knowing the outcome of the learning activity. For example, after I have evaluated papers for a particular assignment numerous times, I develop a feel for what the answers should be. This means I can open up a new paper and within minutes I’ll know if the response is substantive or not. I also take time, before I’ve ever evaluated the assignment for the first time, and work through it as if I were the student. This allows me to examine what resources should be included, what explanations might serve it well, and so on. This level of deep understanding helps me better understand the scoring guide as well.

#4. Don’t React, Act with an Explanation

Once you’ve eliminated, or at least controlled your unconscious biases, you can now do more than react to a learning activity when you first view it. This is especially important when a written assignment is less than perfect and you are going to have to ascertain where on the scoring guide it fits. Now you are better able to respond with an explanation, as you can take your deep understanding of the learning activity and share what you know, as a means of coaching the students. This also helps students put their attention on what needs to be improved, rather than just the grade.

#5. Offer Commentary, Not Rewards

The most important aspect of these strategies is learning to view the process of grading as offering objective commentary and a score, not subjective rewards. If there is little difference between levels in a scoring guide or rubric, provide an explanation and offer helpful tips, strategies, resources, and an opportunity for the student to speak with you. This helps them understand their score was earned, rather than points having been randomly assigned. I have Office Hours and find many students will contact me by classroom messaging and phone to discuss their feedback. That connection further solidifies the intent or purpose of providing feedback, which is related to growth and development.

Think of Encouragement Instead of Rewards

One of the most important resources I have available, when I am providing feedback, is the power of my words. For example, if I have a student who has written a paper that has far exceeded the requirements, I don’t have extra points to award them, but I do have words to use. I’ve learned appreciation can do more for students in the long-run than subjective rewards. Any form of subjective rewards does not help students, it only teaches them they can try to work to gain your influence. But when they know the scoring guide is used and you adhere to it, you are doing the most for their ongoing development. Then when you couple that with your words of encouragement, appreciation, gratitude, and an acknowledgement of their hard work, you will find students respond in a positive manner. Perhaps this is the best reward students could ask for, a learning activity in which they receive an accurate grade, meaning feedback, and something positive written by you as their instructor.

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