June 22, 2023

Using grading as a tool for learning | Graide

Manjinder Kainth, PhD

Okay - quick confession.

“How did I do?”

That was the question at the forefront of my mind when I was grading papers back in the day.

Of course, I was also thinking, “How did they, the students, do?” But their performance was, at least in some part, a reflection of my own performance as their teacher, in seminars and practicals and lecture halls.

“Did I explain that new topic properly?”

“Did I spend too little or too much time on that idea?”

“Could I have given more examples?”

So, grading can be a little fraught for everyone.

It’s also an invaluable tool for learning.

Let’s look at its importance in education, with a nod to making it accurate, effective, and time-efficient.

Walvoord and Anderson’s model of grading-based assessment

Let’s start with “why grade at all?” What functions do grades serve?

Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson’s 1989 book Effective Grading gives a neat summary of its main objectives.


Evaluates – it provides some measurement of performance or quality

Communicates the above to stakeholders – firstly, students and teachers, but then the wider community and public, allowing for accountability, inside and outside an institution

Motivates – milestones or markers, or goals and targets along the learning journey provide focus and concentrate the minds of learners

Organises – these milestones or markers also give courses a structure with a clear beginning, midpoints, and a sense of closure

Checking the sequence of skills taught in a department and improving instructional practices

Grading has an organisational or structural function, outlining common expectations which you can then schedule on the calendar. Far from an afterthought, grading can provide a roadmap or handy to-do list of targets for students and faculty.

And if these common expectations are not met, you can then identify patterns or anomalies in order to spot problems and improve instructional practices. Where should time be spent? Where are students (and teachers) having the most difficulty? Where are the key sticking points in a course? All this can then inform the organisational element, in a virtuous feedback loop.

Supporting and motivating learning

Experience shows that grades, like deadlines, focus and concentrate the mind of students, encouraging autonomy and self-regulation.

Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson touch upon this in their book, advising teachers to “listen carefully, appeal to their [students’] highest motivations, and respect them as people who want to learn – perhaps in confused and limited ways, perhaps with mixed motivations.” (page 106).

Targets – as is implicit in the metaphor – give students something to aim for. Without a stated destination (such as some form of test for a grade), progress is less likely. We live in a data-driven age, and students are at the vanguard of that, with smart technology telling them how many steps walked, calories burned, or hours slept on any given day. Many students, therefore, welcome the external validation or concrete proof of progress grades offer. Many find having the opportunity to test and receive acknowledgement of their skills and knowledge in regular low-stakes tests hugely motivating.

Early on in a course, grading reassures students and teachers that everyone has made the best possible start, with foundational principles taken on board. And picking up problems or red flags early on is imperative. It means there are no alarms or nasty little surprises later on, especially as the (grading) stakes rise over the year. Regular snapshots of student performance also ensure timely intervention, should any difficulties arise.

It’s also worth adding that grading at the end of a topic, unit, or course provides some sense of closure, as well as a motivating feeling of accomplishment.

Tracking student performance over time

Regular grading keeps students on track, as they move through a series of tasks based on what they need to know. And over time you can then track their progress.

Grading should be based on clear and measurable learning objectives. If, for instance, grading entails ticking off skills on a list, a pass / fail grading has a role to play. It isn’t necessary to accompany every test with written feedback. If a skill (or topic) has been mastered, it is enough to say that the teacher and student can move on to the next.

Grading sparks teachable moments and meaningful dialogue

Grading focuses the mind on learning, but we don’t want the grades to be the sole focus.

Ideally, grading focuses on what students need to learn. Because it’s so hard to second-guess students’ motivation, I’ve found it’s best to teach assuming the best (of intentions). Students are, we hope, more interested in ideas and learning than grades per se. That said, poor grades can be a wake-up call or call to action, spurring on more reluctant learners, or bringing out the best in more ambitious learners.

Grading, done well, can lead to those precious teachable moments, providing an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue with students about their learning. To that end, students need to see grading in the wider context of learning outcomes. Teachers need to promote the value of grading, sharing success criteria with students from the outset. That includes explaining policies, procedures, and processes, along with breaking down the rubric, standards, and criteria, with examples. Students can then clearly see why they are not meeting required standards, and then take responsibility for plugging the gaps themselves.

In the long-term, regular low-stakes grading throughout a course should ensure progress while reducing the need to resubmit higher-stakes work down the line. 

The importance of widespread faculty participation

Along with student buy-in, grading for learning relies on the support of faculty. Walvood and Anderson make the point that grading “requires wide participation from faculty, and it requires faculty time to reevaluate their classroom practices, improve them as needed, and make them visible in new ways” ( page 154).

Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment (auburn.edu)

The benefits of faculty collaboration are manifold. Widespread participation means everyone embraces the philosophies outlined above, with their merits heard loud and clear by students. It will also help with the fair and equitable sharing of the marking burden. Grading is, most often, a team sport.

Final thoughts

Grading has its limitations as a tool for learning. As we’ve written before, detailed, granular feedback, with a written plan of action, is sometimes required. But there isn’t always time for that. The benefits of using regular grading as a tool for learning outweigh the limitations. Prompt feedback is a key to the learning process. With learning anything new, there is a period of forgetting. I know that as a student I was keen to know of my mistakes, so that I could put them right in the very next assignment. That’s why we came up with Graide.

Learn more about how Graide can help with grading here - www.graide.co.uk

Further reading

For more on Walvoord and Anderson, you may be interested in:

Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment (auburn.edu)

Manjinder Kainth, PhD
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I’ve been intricately involved in teaching for many years. I have over 6 years of private tutoring experience, taught in higher education, and most recently worked on designing and delivering crash courses for a high school.