You can help students understand their grades better by …

  • discussing your criteria for grades
  • discussing the role of grades with respect to the goals of the course
  • doing some grading exercises with students in section

Grades have at least three functions: evaluation of students’ work, communication about how they might improve, and motivation for them to do so. Students often do not fully appreciate these functions; instead, they tend to see grades as rewards or punishments for effort or tickets to success or failure in life. For example, a student who has put a lot of effort into a mediocre paper may feel that he or she deserves a higher grade simply because of that effort. It is helpful to discuss the criteria for grades and their goals with respect to the course in advance of the first graded assignment.

Below are some exercises to help students to develop a better appreciation of the grading process.

Peer Review

Assign a short paper or ask students to bring a draft of their next assigned paper. Split students into pairs or small groups and have them read and evaluate each other’s papers together. Structure their time by giving them a checklist of tasks to work through as they review each other’s work. For example, ask them to begin by working out a set of criteria to be used in evaluation. This exercise can be effective in getting students to think more deeply about the assessment process.

A similar exercise may be done with anonymous sample papers provided by the instructor. These can be actual papers with the students’ names removed (always ask the student writer’s permission before you show others his or her work) or papers that the GSI has written for this purpose.

Discuss Sample Papers

Identify sample assignments in each grade range, copy them and remove names, and discuss your comments and grades with students in section. (Again, always ask the writer’s permission before you do this, and discuss each paper in a section in which its author is not present.) Explain why you chose to comment as you did and what criteria you used, and ask the students for suggestions about how the work might be improved. It is often interesting to have students vote on what grade they would give a particular assignment before telling them what grade it actually received. Surprisingly, students tend to assign lower grades than the actual one the instructor gave.

Address the Reasons for Low Grades

Most students, upon seeing a disappointing grade, will wonder, “What went wrong?” Wherever they may be inclined to lay blame, they are keenly interested in figuring out how they could have done better.

Sometimes students think that if they talk around a short-answer exam item without giving the key terms, they should get credit for the item anyway. Microbial and Cell Biology GSI Seemay Chou addressed this problem by helping students understand why the key terms are important to the way scientists think, and by giving them motivating ways to practice using the key terms in section. Seemay’s Teaching Excellence Award essay sums up her approach.

Inefficient study habits coupled with anxiety can also result in low grades. Consider asking students how they go about studying for an exam — how early they begin studying, whether they try to anticipate what will be on the test, whether they practice writing about concepts the test will likely address. Many GSIs have found that working with students on their exam preparation strategies serves them well. A good example of this is Emily Hamilton’s intervention in a history section, which also won her a Teaching Excellence Award. There are several other TEA essays in the Award-Winning GSI Teaching Ideas section that can give you ideas for turning a disappointing exam grade into a valuable learning experience.