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Grading and Assessment of Students

Defining the Terms

At no time in the educational process is stress more acutely felt that in the assigning and receiving of grades. In our own experiences as students we can all remember those anxious moments waiting on the instructor to return our papers or exams wondering what mark we would get, a bit unsure if we answered the questions correctly. As instructors, a majority of us have struggled with the assigning of grades. Trying to communicate the quality of student work with precision that numbers such as 83% indicate is generally almost impossible unless you are dealing with strictly right and wrong answers. But at the university level we usually move beyond the right/wrong forms of assessment and this is where trying to differentiate between why one student is given an 82% and the next student is given an 83% is such a challenging task. Inevitably most instructors face the very difficult question, “Why did Jill receive an 83% and I only received an 82%?” There are a number of things you can do to lessen the stresses both you and your students feel.

The University of Saskatchewan, through its recently approved Learning Charter, has made two important policy statements about assessment that are important for instructors to reflect on. Articulated under "Instructor Commitment 3", these are:

  • Assess Fairly
  • Communicate and uphold clear academic expectations and standards
  • Perform fair and relevant assessment of student learning

Definitions are very important in terms of discussing assessment, evaluation and grading. Often these words are incorrectly used interchangeably, and what many instructors do not realize is that the definitions vary slightly by national context – the US educational literature defines these terms differently than does the UK and Australian literature, for example. In the Learning Charter, the U of S generally follows the UK/Australian definitions, which are as follows:

Assessment: measurement of the achievement and progress of the learner, which can be both formative and summative

Evaluation: quantitative and qualitative judgment of the curriculum and its delivery, to include teaching

Grading: the assignment of grades/marks to learner, as a result of the summative assessments conducted


The assessment of students’ learning is an often under-discussed and under-examined aspect of higher education teaching and learning. As new instructors, we often assess student work through the exact same, often flawed, means that we ourselves were assessed during our education. This results in defaulting to multiple choice exams, short answer or essay exams, lab assignments or papers, none of which are incorrect but may not be the most appropriate assessment to measure the learning outcomes of students in a given context.

Assessment is normally understood as summative, (in other words, making formal decisions about progress and level of achievement of the learners in your classes), but assessment may be seen as informal and formative. And while it should be stated that we often neglect the importance of formative assessment in our courses in helping students get feedback on their learning in low-risk ways that encourage deeper approaches to learning, the majority of this section will be focused on the following two main points:

In determining how effective your assessments are it is important to remember that, much like research instruments, assessments should be valid, reliable, and fair (Wakeford, 1999).

We might consider issues such as:

  • Clarity, and students’ understanding of assessment criteria and assignments
  • Promoting learning (including the quality of feedback provided to students)
  • Measuring attainment of intended learning outcomes
  • Appropriateness of assessment to the student profile, level, and mode of study
  • Consistency and rigour of marking

2.  In general the nature of the assessments used should reflect the specific objectives or learning outcomes of that particular course (or unit within a course), and should also be aligned with the content and learning activities of the course.

The following principles, adapted from Wakeford (1999), should be followed:

  • Contemporary good practice in assessment should be adopted
  • The function of different components of an assessment system (essays, assignments, exams, etc,) should be explicit
  • Course designers should be able to defend how the content of an assessment procedure (questions or items) has been arrived at
  • Examination procedures should be specified in detail
  • There should be explicit assessment criteria for assessment procedures which involve examiner judgment
  • Individuals doing the assessment/grading should receive training on assessment generally, detailed information about the procedures in which they are to be involved, and receive feedback on their performance
  • Assessment procedures should routinely be evaluated, including measures of validity and reliability
  • Multiple assessment methods should be used to counter possible bias associated with individual methods


Using a rubric is one way to help you and your students make sense of the assessment criteria as well as where the students’ work fits in on the spectrum of achievement. Providing students with examples that are representative of achievement at the various levels of the rubric is particularly helpful because they can be referred to when students are looking for clarification about their individual work.  

A well constructed and utilized rubric can help guide you in decisions about what a student should receive on an assignment, help ensure consistency in your grading, and it can also be used to help you explain to students how you determined their particular grade. It is important to note that rubrics are used for a variety of purposes in the teaching process.

Current issue (PDF icon) Rubric for Evaluating Persuasive Writing 


Grading is the numerical representation of an instructor’s assessment of student work. There are a number of things you should take into consideration when grading:

  • Weight grading criteria carefully. 
  • Weight the criteria according to its importance in assessing the objectives or learning outcomes of the course. 
  • Grade students against a general standard (criterion-referenced), not against other students in the class (norm-referenced).  
  • Grading on a curve, where each students is given a mark based on their relative performance to other students, places students in competition with each other and distorts actual achievement.  
  • Criterion-based grading involves assessing each individual student independent of other students and if all students reach the highest levels of achievement, they should not be punished for doing so (though perhaps a re-examination of the validity and reliability of the assessments may be in order). 
  • Finally, students’ grades should not be penalized because of an instructor’s inappropriate development of an assessment tool.

For more information on grading and assessment please contact the Gwenna Moss Centre.


Wakeford, R. (1999). “Principles of Assessment” in Fry, H et al. (ed.) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. London: Kogan