In this post, I share some suggestions and practices for grading that I have found to be helpful in online teaching. In the first section, I share a bit of my grading philosophy and how I communicate with students. Then I talk about the value of a clear grading philosophy and how to set yourself and your students up for an optimal experience when it comes to course grading. Finally, I offer a few specific tips related to giving feedback.

On the first day of a class, I typically will share something similar to the following announcement:


Class, please read the following carefully as I want to clarify my general philosophy of grading.

  • I usually try to give a little bit of feedback for each grade. However, I do not generally ever give 100% points, largely on the basis that there is always room for improvement.
  • I tend to think in terms of letter grades, A/A-/B+ and so on.
  • If you give me everything that the assignment asks for and its thoughtful and clear, it will be an A- (90-93 or thereabouts).
  • If you do all of that PLUS add some significant insights, analysis, research, or in-depth argument that shows me you’re going well past what is expected, that’s what gets an full A. Sometimes, though, the distance between the A- and the A is closed by just a little more time spent digging deeper. To me, an ‘A’ (93-98) represents stellar work that really excels and goes above and beyond what I expect. It is, in a real sense, the “WOW” factor.

Bottom line: If you are getting scores of…

…93-98 (A),  you did stellar work that really excels and shows me the ‘wow’ factor.  (Your work was above and beyond what was expected.)

…90-92 (A-), you did thoughtful and clear work for all that the assignment required, but…recognize you can do more. (You did great work.)

…87-89 (B+), you are really close to giving me everything the assignment calls for but just need to beef up one or two areas a bit more. (You did above average work but need improvement.)

…80-86 (B-/B), you are doing average work, mostly meeting the requirements (just barely) but needs significant development is several areas. (You did average work but generally hit everything.)

…73-79 (C/B-), you’ve done the assignment, but are missing some critical pieces or have done only superficial work on them. (You did below average work and left some critical pieces out.)

…under 73 (D/C-), you left some major parts of the assignment, did not do it all, et. (You might need to reread the instructions or pay more careful attention to the assignment next time.)

I expect most good students to fall between a B+ and an A- (percentage points between 87-92).

I take this approach with the ‘A’ because I recognize that many students are looking for the lowest threshold to still get a high grade (which I certainly understand), whereas a few students really want to push themselves and go deeper. It’s important for me as a teacher to reward those who will push harder than what is asked for in the class.


I have found that this kind of philosophy and explanation at the front end of the course has helped significantly reduce the number of questions and complaints about grading from students. But there are several other important steps we can take to help provide better grading for students that can lead to better learning and greater clarity.

First, communicate grading philosophy early and often in your course. If you do not have an explicit, written grading philosophy, I would strongly encourage you to develop one. It will be a tremendous help you and your students alike.

Second, grade the first 2 weeks of the course hard and give very detailed feedback. This may seem counterintuitive, but it actually produces a better environment for everybody. Commit to coming out of the gate with a pretty tough approach to grading work and explaining to students very specifically how they can improve to hit a higher grade level. At times, many of us have probably done just the opposite: grade easy to allow the students time to acclimate and then make the grading harder as the course progresses. But research and experience shows the opposite works better. In accelerated courses, students very quickly look to establish a baseline for their performance: what does this instructor expect and how do I need to work? If the first week especially is graded easy and with little feedback, this tends to become the baseline for future weeks. So when you come along in week 3 or 4 and suddenly start grading harder, students may feel like you’ve changed the rules or shifted the requirements. This is what leads to frustrated phone calls or emails to faculty or advisors.

By grading hard with detailed feedback at the start, you set a much more realistic reference point for students. You will also find that your students will actually tend to appreciate this approach once they’ve recovered from their initial shock.

Now, of course, I don’t mean go through and give everybody bad grades just to do it. That’s not legitimate. You may certainly have a few students that from the beginning are doing stellar work. But as a rule of thumb, in week 1, I mentally think of everybody as starting out at a low B level (80-85%) With that kind of a grade and detailed feedback, the climb up to an A- or even an A still seems very doable and realistic. My detailed feedback gives them very explicit clues as to what needs to happen next time.

Use a comments file for quickly replicating common chunks of feedback. In the past, I have maintained Excel spreadsheet of commonly used comments and explanatory notes that I would have open to copy=and-paste from as I’ve graded. More recently, I have begun using a powerful little utility called TypeIt4Me (I use a Mac) that is a text replacement tool on steroids. And I now use Dragon Naturally Speaking’s voice dictation feature to turn running audio commentary into written text. Whichever process or tool you use, these kinds of approaches saves a great deal of time while still allowing me to give substantive feedback, thus making me a much more efficient and effective grader. I am able to give better feedback in less time.

On major papers, I encourage faculty to allow rewrites on papers and encourage students to submit drafts for faculty review prior to a final version. My approach is to give detailed critiques and feedback on papers and if they are below a certain level (usually a C- or worse), I will privately extend to the student one chance to revise their paper on the basis of my comments and then resubmit it for a better grade. Some will take advantage of this, others may not.

Many of us routinely deal with students who struggle in their writing. Poor writing and the use of APA are near-chronic issues — and not just at OKWU. We do not currently have a formal institutional tutoring or writing support center available, so partner with advisors for tutoring. If you have a student who really is struggling far worse than normal with writing or comprehension, gently encourage that student to reach out to their academic advisor about finding tutoring help. While our resources are limited, at the moment, our advisors are the ones in the best position to help direct the student to the right places.

Finally, be firm but patient in your grading expectations and activity. But, most importantly, over-communicate! Communicate in written announcements, emails, and video or audio introductions to the course. Most of the complaints I get in my office that relate to grading come down to a lack of communication or understanding. Students don’t know what is being asked for or why they were graded down.

Some practical tips for leaving feedback

If your institution or LMS allows, use TurnItIn for handling student’s written work. In addition to the originality indexing and plagiarism tools, TurnItIn’s GradeMark feature provides a very powerful and user-friendlyh built-in, customizable library of grading comments. These comments blocks can be easily dragged-and-dropped into the paper and its very easy to add your own blocks for constant reuse. Plus, there is a tool for building rubrics or grading forms on the fly for any assignment or paper. TII also allows you to leave general audio comments (up to 3:00 in length) for a student’s paper. This can be a great way to add a personal note of encouragement or affirmation to individual students.

Post video explanations of major assignments ahead of time. I found this out more by accident in a recent class I taught. I put together a short YouTube video of my walking through the instructions of a weekly paper for the class. I basically read the instructions right from the class but added a bit of commentary at certain points: I am looking for this or I would suggest you do this or Please make sure to pay attention to this requirement. I treated it as if I were standing in front of the classroom going over with students this particular assignment and talking about what it would take to make a high grade on it. I did this in front of the camera, uploaded it to Wistia (or YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) and shared it with the class.

I had numerous requests to do the same thing for the major paper in the class. So I put together another one for the final paper. It was about 15 minutes long, but I posted it anyway. I had numerous comments about how helpful that was for students (this was in a graduate course with 14 students). After grading all of the final papers (which were substantially long at 15-20 pages), I am convinced it made a big difference in student performance.

This particular final paper had a literature review section. Looking back, it was obvious that almost none of the students had any idea what a literature review was or how to do one. If I had a do-over or in a future course, I would make another video explaining what a literature review was and how to do one.

Providing explanations and clarification about assignments before students complete them is a type of formative assessment. This is assessment related to helping students know how to perform better. This is different than summative assessment which relates to evaluating how students actually performed on the work. Formative assessment is more like coaching in practice, its working with students to know what is needed or how to perform better prior to them actually having to perform for the grade.

To summarize,

  • develop a specific grading philosophy
  • communicate that early, often, and clearly
  • grade hard early and give detailed feedback
  • think in terms of coaching for success: give specific feedback for improving performance
  • use the power of personal videos to clarify expectations

Updated Nov. 2016. This post was originally written and posted on the faculty development site for Oklahoma Wesleyan University in June 2015.