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On Grading Principles

With...Reflections on Mortality. Source: Google

With...Reflections on Mortality. Source: Google

I passed my final Ph.D. examination the day before the day before yesterday. The result was “Very good”.

Today I was grading the Tallinn University students’ examination papers. And I felt somehow obliged to revisit the grading principles.  I am revisiting those principles now and try to resume later.

It all begins with understanding why do we grade in universities. The general aim is to compare the students and to single out the most promising ones. The aim of grading during the bachelor and master studies is to find the students with good research potential. Why are the Ph.D. Students graded? – In order to eliminate them in the end from the research and development activities they have been committed to during all the years? Wouldn’t it be wiser to eliminate them already after the master studies then?

Before one starts grading, one has to set the study objectives. Doing that, one presumably has in her / his head the qualities s/he wishes to assess.  John Biggs (one author of the already referred in this blog book: J. Biggs, C. Tang, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Open University Press, 2007), pp. 170-202, brings an example: „Let us say AT1 is to assess basic knowledge, the task being ideas taken throughout the course; AT2 problem-solving (a case study, group assessed); AT3 an overview of the unit (a concept map); AT4 the quality of the student’s reflections on course content (a journal). Now we have a logical package, which makes a statement about what we want students to learn, and how well. The logic is that all aspects being assessed are important, and must all be passed, at some level of competence (otherwise why teach them?)“

Biggs then suggests writing out:

„• What key topics do you want to assess?

• What less important topics do you want to assess?

• What levels of understanding of each? (Use the appropriate verbs to operationalize this)

• Do the topics refer to declarative, functioning knowledge, both?

• Are there any basic facts, skills, you want to check?

• What physical constraints do you have to accommodate:

• Final exam?“

Setting the study objectives as a lecturer is not enough. The students should know, what exactly is graded. Consequently, one should also inform the students about the study objectives that have been set.

Weighting is the next difficult task – the lecturer has to convert the performance (values) into numbers. Such activity involves subjectivity. Therefore, it has been stated that (multiple choice) test is the most objective grading method. But even grading a test involves subjectivity, and tests, although oriented towards knowledge-based society, are not much oriented towards developing analytical skills.

Grading is actually an art difficult to master. It is, perhaps, rather easier to grade a written work than an oral answer, because in the latter case, also the behaviour, talking manner, general performance, etc. factors tend to play a role.

Biggs and Tang distinguish between different types of grading – such as comparative grading, grading out-of-context, analytical grading, convergent and divergent grading, grading declarative knowledge and grading functioning knowledge, grading oral answers and written works,  objective and subjective grading, qualitative and quantitative grading, grading creativity and mechanical learning, grading life-long learning, grading the ability to solve problems, etc. They suggest that the student should know in advance what exactly will be graded.

Some links to the sources reflecting assessment methods Biggs and Tang offer:

On student assessment in Australian higher education see

A link to the Higher Education Academy’s assessment process, methods, etc.:

Oxford Brookes University on assessment:

A link to Queensland University of Technology’s teaching and learning support

A link to enhancing teaching and learning through assessment (Hong Kong Polytechnic University Assessment Resource Centre:

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