Using the grading process to improve teaching

Today I led a discussion focused on using assessment to improve teaching, a continuation of the Graduate Teaching Community seminar on effective grading that I talked about in my last post. For anyone following along, we used chapter 9 in Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment by Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson as our jumping off point.

Assuming that you have already evaluated your teaching goals for a course and designed effective assignments with informative rubrics, you as a teacher stand in a position to learn a lot about your teaching methods once you are finished grading. In other words,  assessments of your students’ learning can help you assess yourself as an instructor. For instance, when grading an essay, if most students got 2 out of the 5 points available in your rubric for creating a clear and interesting thesis statement, then you know that this is a point you need to address.

This chapter, while getting the discussion rolling, fell short when it came to the most important parts of using grading to improve teaching: 1) Figuring out why learning for a that particular topic fell short and 2) How do we go about fixing our teaching. We addressed the first problem by brainstorming why our students failed to perform up to our expectations for a particular goal (e.g., creating excellent topic sentences):

– Students didn’t understand or misinterpreted the wording of a question or assignment.

-Students didn’t understand the concepts being graded by the question or assignment.

-Students are unmotivated or frustrated by the course or assignment.

-The teacher has failed to articulate explicit goals for student learning, the reasons why goals are important, and how the assignment addresses those learning goals.

-Students have not been adequately prepared for the assignment through classroom lecture, outside reading, or classroom demonstration and practice.

How you actually pinpoint which of these issues is at play can vary, but we all seemed to agree that being open with your students and engaging them in open discussion is often a good place to start. You all did really poorly on part C, why was that? Should I have spent more time on that or was my coverage of the material confusing? In my experience, I  learned from grading a scientific report that I was incorrectly assuming that they knew how to format a scientific paper, including how to properly present tables and figures. In the future I need to specifically state my expectations in the assignment and provide them with examples of format in class.

The second point, how to actually improve your teaching is what the GTC seminar series is all about. In general, the examples in Walvoord and Anderson promote substituting and supplementing passive transfer of information (e.g., lecture style delivery, reading-only assignments) with active learning strategies ranging from discussion of a paper in pairs, to working in groups to properly piece together a scientific paper that has been cut into pieces. I have attached three readings suggested by Walvoord and Anderson that do a good job laying out the theory behind active learning (a.k.a. “higher learning” or “student involvement”), different ways to encourage active learning, and even some of the cons to take into consideration when trying to incorporate active learning into class (e.g., time constraints).


Angelo, Thomas Anthony. “A” TEACHER’S DOZEN”.” AAHE Bulletin 45.8 (1993): 3-7.

Astin, Alexander W. “Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education.” Journal of college student personnel 25.4 (1984): 297-308.

Bonwell, Charles C., and James A. Eison. Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom. Washington, DC: School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University, 1991.

Walvoord, Barbara E., and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. Jossey-Bass, 2011.


About sarahjlongo

I'm a first year graduate student in the Department of Population Biology at UC Davis. Broadly, I am interested in studying both the patterns and processes of evolution in actinopterygian fishes.
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