Effective Grading Strategies for Written Assessments

January 7, 2013 at 12:42 PM Leave a comment

Oh, the boringest title in the world, right? But the pile of papers is staring at me, threatening to stress me out on, let’s face it, at 10pm the night before school starts in Jan. Here’s some help, or at least companionship to ease the pain of conforming to the best practices/common core literacy requirements sweeping the country.

The truth is writing is thinking made clear. It’s what you have to do in real life situations. Marshalling your thoughts, putting them down logically and completely just has to be a better way for both students and teachers to see if teaching and learning was effective.

Written assessments are strongly resisted by some of my ‘A’ students because it sure is more work than bubbling in an answer. Plus there are no hints. But the majority of my students, including special ed students do better at this type of assessment than multiple choice. I think because there is less reading and distractors involved. I can usually find something to give points for. Almost nobody answers with complete crap.

And some good news for teachers. It’s not so bad to grade either, with these strategies. Plus it reveals some genuinely useful insight into how my students are learning (and sometimes not).


1. Come up with one or two clear, open ended questions like ‘Why does this object float? Use physics terms in your explanation.’. Or ‘What is the difference between a chemical and a physical property of matter?’ Or ‘Explain evolution and give an example.’

2. Write a model answer.

3. Use that to come up with a rubric. Seriously, the rubric is key. Here’s an example of one of our common assessments on density (contains teacher notes at the end too.) 15. Common Assessment Density rubric 2012

4. I let students see the assessment ahead of time – after all, it’s asking them to explain the central concepts of what they learned. It’s not a secret. The rubric does not give away the answer. Some students did do the exam ahead of time and tried to memorize their answers. A very few keen or exam-phobic students. Posting it did surprise them and I feel a little defensive about it. Strangely,  it did not result in a suspiciously large number of A grades. It’s awfully easy to see if they copied each other, or memorized the Wikipedia entry.


1. I read the whole thing out loud to the class. This is an accomodation for some of my special ed students but it helps many students understand exactly what is being asked, and how they will be graded.

2. Keep it fair for the kids who don’t cheat: I make students cover their papers or tilt them away from each other on a clip board. I enforce no talking, at all, for any reason, and no ‘resting your eyes’ on someone elses’ paper. I don’t judge their intention to cheat, just observed behavior. I take a couple of points off if any of this happens and more if they argue with me.

Cheating is a big problem in this community. I try to take away the motivation to cheat by reducing test stress – they see it ahead of time and they may redo for up to a ‘B’. I also meet with students who seemed to be cheating to see what is going on with them – are they under pressure to get a certain grade? From themselves or their parents? Are they over-committed to say, sports outside of school and have no time to study? etc. It’s usually not just because they are bad people. This painful experience can be turned around to a powerful learning experience. But it won’t be if I am too hard on them. Then they learn how much they hate me.

3. Tiered hints: Rather than letting a student struggle and fail, or just decide not to engage, I gave a hint for 2 points. They ask the question. If it seems like it materially helps them, it’s 2 points. So stuff like clarifying the question is free, but ‘how do you measure volume?’ in the density lab is 2 points off. This strategy is used in online interactive assessments that are coming our way from WestEd so I thought I’d give it a try. Another special ed modification that worked really well in a broader pool. Very easy to do and another piece of reducing exam stress on students.

4. Check that all sections are complete as they hand it in. I position myself in the middle, front of the room on a high stool and table and get started on grading right away, while looking up every couple of minutes.


1. Grade one question at a time, factory line style, for a whole class. NOT one whole paper at a time. It’s much easier to be fair and consistent this way. It’s also less intellectually demanding. I get a mental template of what I’m looking for and can whiz through papers quickly with a sense of accomplishment.

2. Keep a blank exam paper handy for taking notes – what are common mistakes and misconceptions? I often need to adjust the rubric and put in specifics for what constitutes a 4/5 or whatever. This is so helpful when I go over their work for re-teaching ready for the redo. Sometimes a question turns out to be ambiguous. The beauty of a written answer is you can give credit for this.

3. I don’t keep grading when I am really tired and bored. Sometimes I make a list of questions and classes so I can check stuff off. Sad. But I do get it done as quickly as possible, preferably by the next day, because they are dying to know how they did and if it’s fresh in their heads, the coaching is so much more effective. MAKING myself get grading done quickly has helped reduce the stress on me too. I care about it more when it’s fresh.

4. If almost all students are missing a question or a concept, that’s a clear indication it needs to be retaught.  I use the feeling of fairness to guide me re. curving the scores, after all, they did see the question and the rubric ahead of time –  BUT I don’t curve scores so we can all feel better. But it doesn’t help students to re-learn stuff they didn’t get the first time, and it doesn’t help them understand what high standards actually mean.


This can make-or-break a teacher’s relationship with a class. It can set high, achievable expectations or it can be a nightmare of students trying to make it your fault they did poorly. The quiet kids are watching to see how you handle this. It helps me to stay firm in the face of pressure to water down expectations.

If students do genuinely well, cool, everyone has a sense of achievement and real self esteem.

What if a class or individual students do poorly? Here’s how I avoid the class going off the deep end:

Framing this as a learning experience is critical. To do that, students have to feel that the test was fair and that they were fairly graded. I set it up by laying out the schedule:

1. We go over the answers. General questions can be asked BUT NOT SPECIFIC TO THEIR OWN PAPERS. This avoids an angry student from derailing the class and making it all my fault.

2. I collect papers back from each student and deal with individual concerns – I make changes where I have made a mistake easily. Stuff that’s a little more tricky I may have them see me with it after class when I can think more clearly. This is when I often find out about real issues going on in a student’s life and may need to get a counselor involved, or meet with parents.

I usually include a question at the end of the assessment: ‘How well do you think you did? Explain.” This tells me (and reminds them) about their level of engagement in class and at home. Sometimes it’s pretty clear that they need to engage more next time. IN CLASS engagement is the most effective strategy. Metacognitive skills – learning to recognize surprise and confusion – are skills I actively teach and are necessary for efficient review as well as for asking questions in class.

3. While I’m collecting papers and dealing with individual concerns, I have all students write what they learned about studying efficiently and effectively in their journals. Even those who did well – there are ways to be more efficient and to earn extra credit points for going above and beyond what was taught.

4. Because there is a re-do for up to a B, this is coaching, not final judgement.

I sure hope this is helpful with dealing with this increasingly important piece of teacher stress. Let me know, and share your tips too.

Running and grading a lab assessment

Entry filed under: Assessment and grading, Class Management, Critical Thinking, Density. Tags: , , , , , , .

(Trying) Google Docs with 160 8th graders Tweak Trad. Labs to Inquiry Excitement.

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