There is no mystery in grading

Each semester for the past 5 or so years, I have asked my students to write a one page self evaluation at the end of the semester, in which I ask them to evaluate their work in the class, to talk about what they have learned,  what goals they reached or approximated and to grade themselves on the work they have done. This is sometimes different from the grade they want or would like to see on their transcript, and we talk about that.

Sure, you’d like to see an “A” as your final grade…but do you believe that you did  “A” quality work?

Given the variety of the projects they choose to undertake, it is hard to define what an “A” or a “B” or a “C” looks like for the the entire class, so I ask my students to define that for themselves as they go along.  I ask them to informally evaluate their work at different points in the term and I give them my feedback as well.  Over time, the stigma of grading lessens, the mystery evaporates, and slowly the conversation turns to back to the much more important questions: what did you learn and how do you know you learned it?

At the end of each semester, before I look at my students’ self-evaluations and their self-grades, I review their work on my own.  I make notes and then write down the grade I think their work has earned.  And then I read their evaluations.

Above is a chart I drew up last semester. The scores on the left reflect the grades I thought the students had earned.  The scores on the right are the grades they though the had earned.

Each semester, there is always -one- student for whom this exercise is a challenge and with whom I need to have a further conversation…not because I want to impose my grade upon that person, but because it is clear we have a disconnect and we need to talk about it.  To be fair,  that is also the same student with whom I have been conversing all semester because there was a disconnect brewing for a while.  The same student who, for whatever reason, is either afraid or unwilling to look honestly at their learning.  For that student (and others) my job is to keep holding up the mirror, but I can’t make them see their reflexion.

But look at the others:  there is maybe the difference of a + or a – but totally within the ballpark. When in doubt,  I re-read their evaluations.  If there is a compelling example of their learning that I missed in my review of their work, I give them the benefit of the doubt and round up.

More often that not I am amazed at how self-critical my students are.  One semester I had a second semester senior who gave himself a C- because he was angry at himself for not overcoming his shyness in class. So angry in fact that he overlooked the brief but important presentation he did in class, and the evaluations from his peers that he was a helpful and reliable speaker in small group activities.  Needless to say the C- did not stand. 🙂

By letting our students self-grade are we giving up our authority, our control, our roles as teachers?   No. In my opinion, teaching isn’t about authority and control…but it is about guidance and encouragement and keeping students (and yourself!) aware of  what is needed to accomplish personal goals,  all the while being attentive to the deadlines the semester imposes upon us.

By allowing students to self-grade, I believe, we are giving them a brief glimpse of the world outside of college where self evaluation is a common part of the workplace.  Being self-aware and able to talk about what you have done and whether you met expectations or not is an important skill to develop well before your first annual report or performance review at work.

As I have said many times before, teaching in college is about preparing them for what awaits them outside of our classroom. Self grading is one small way to do just that.

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Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Barbara · June 26, 2013 Reply

    It’s so great to see you continue to have your students self-evaluate their work and to count their evaluations (I know of plenty of teachers who ask for narrative self-evaluations which they promptly disregard in the “real” grading), even in the face of what I am certain is resistance on the part of many. Every time I read a Tweet bemoaning the stack of papers or tests the Tweeter is grading, I shake my head. Feedback, baby, that’s what students/apprentices/neophytes need. Grades, they can and should give themselves. Brava!

    • Barbara · June 27, 2013 Reply

      Thank you so much for the comment, bg. It is so lovely to hear from you!

      Yes, I too am befuddled by our colleagues who seem to feel that teacher-centric grading practices are the only “real” grading that can exist in the Academy. What I have seen over and over again is this fear (by faculty) that others will perceive them as wishy washy, arbitrary, not in “control”, not rigorous enough…etc. But I daresay many teacher-centric grading practices that could be perceived in the exact same way.

      Looking into the mirror and talking about your own learning is hard work…it’s uncomfortable work. The key, I think, is to model for our students how as teachers we also look into the mirror (thanks to their assessments throughout the term of our work in the classroom) and to show that we are willing to make changes in our practice to support their learning. I say to my students each term that I teach not because I know it all but because I want to learn from them: I need their feedback in order that I may learn how to teach better.

      It’s all about feedback, absolutely, and it is also all about modeling the hard work that is needed to grow and stretch as a learner.

      And as I learned from you and still hold dear to my heart: Teaching is about the reciprocal, interchangeable roles of being the expert and the apprentice…and building a classroom community that supports deep learning for everyone.

  2. Steve Greenlaw (@sgreenla) · June 27, 2013 Reply

    Extraordinary! You’re definitely moving in the right direction vis a vis grades. Which is not to say you’re not there, just that you’re pulling the rest of us in the right direction. I love it.

    • Barbara · June 27, 2013 Reply

      Thank you, Steve! Happy to push, pull, whatever…

      I have a few more posts about student self assessment that are percolating in draft mode. I would love to read your comments on them once they see the light of day!


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