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Strategies for Grading Problem Sets, Labs, and Exams for TAs

Strategies for TAs to streamline and improve the grading process.

This article offers two key strategies to help streamline the grading process: communicating with your teaching team and relying on a scoring tool. By following these strategies your grading process can be more efficient, and you can measure student learning more objectively, consistently, and equitably.

Communicate with your teaching team

Grades serve many purposes. They can motivate students, measure student learning, give students feedback on their progress, and provide teaching feedback. Different courses and instructors may have different purposes in mind when grading. The teaching team should agree on the purpose of grades for that course.

Take time at the beginning of the quarter to meet as a team to discuss how you will approach grading. You can use the Working Effectively with Teaching Assistants resource as a guide for the conversation.

Use a scoring tool to increase efficiency

Using a scoring tool can reduce time spent grading and negotiating grades, as well as ensure consistency both across graders and within a single grader’s work. 

What is a scoring tool?

Scoring tools define a set of criteria for evaluating an assessment. Depending on the format or goal of an assessment, scoring tools can come in different forms. Two common scoring tools are checklists and rubrics.

Checklists assign point values for meeting different criteria for each question. They are often used to grade quantitative problems or short free-response questions. As an example, consider this checklist that you might apply to a math problem worth 5 points:

  • Correct formula: 3 points
  • Correct math: 1 point
  • Correct units: 1 point

Rubrics describe what it looks like to demonstrate different levels of proficiency for each goal or concept of an assessment, and how many points are earned at each level. They are often used to grade assessments that are writing-based and more qualitative or subjective (such as papers, presentations, projects, or in-class discussions). 

Sometimes, course instructors will provide a scoring tool for TAs to use while grading. At other times, no scoring tool will exist for the assignment. In this latter situation, TAs may choose to draft a rubric (perhaps in collaboration with fellow TAs) and propose it to the instructor. While this may go above and beyond the standard expectations of the instructor, doing so can result in a smoother, more efficient, and more equitable grading process going forward.

You can find more information about and examples of rubrics in this resource from UC Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning

Qualities of good scoring tools

Your scoring tool should align with the learning goals of the course. This alignment uses the grading process to provide feedback to students on their learning and also to gather feedback on your teaching. That is, with a well-aligned scoring tool, if students are getting high scores, this means that they are meeting the learning goals and  your teaching is effective. If they are getting low scores, then you know they may need more support and you might need to adjust your teaching. 

Learning goals and scoring tools reinforce each other. Learning goals determine the grading criteria implemented in the scoring tool, and the scoring tool assesses student progress toward the learning goals. Student performance on the scoring tool can also give you a sense of how effective your teaching and instruction are at helping students meet the learning goals.

Good scoring tools should: 

  • Assess the learning goals of the assignment and the course.
  • Create clear guidelines for how students gain or lose points.
  • Give the most points for the main concept or skill.
  • Avoid over-penalizing small or repeated mistakes.

Your grading strategy can promote equity

While we sometimes think about grading as a source of inequity, you can use grades to promote equity within your classroom by emphasizing learning over assessment. In other words, help your students understand that they are more than their grades. Consider these strategies to promote equity in your class.

  • Provide in-class, non-graded opportunities for students to receive and learn from feedback before graded assessments (e.g. in-class problem sets, mini quizzes, and peer or self-feedback activities).
  • Balance rewarding both effort and mastery to maximize student learning and motivation (e.g., include some assignments or questions that are graded on completion rather than correctness). 
  • Avoid curve-based grading if possible, as curves can foster competitive classroom environments that result in poorer learning, diminished interest, and disproportionate retention rates for students from underrepresented backgrounds.
  • Consider what purpose your grading practice serves: many common grading practices originate from historical or practical reasons that are detached from student learning. Learning which grading practices are most effective at promoting learning is an iterative process. 

For additional guidelines on effective and equitable grading practices, especially concerning student motivation, we encourage you to check out these strategies for aligning grading with learning or this video essay that unpacks the assumptions behind traditional grading strategies.

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