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Turning the Anxiety of Grading into Long-Term Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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What’s heard most often when colleagues complain about teaching is dislike of testing and grading. Many love classroom discussions and advising students on projects, but dread having to assess students’ content mastery and discuss grades with them.


The posting below looks at four suggestions to make the grading process more effective for instructors and less anxiety producing among students. It is by Joseph Lowman and Howard Aldrich, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 25, Number 6, October 2016. It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Three Keys to Graduate School Success


Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Turning the Anxiety of Grading into Long-Term Learning

What’s heard most often when colleagues complain about teaching is dislike of testing and grading. Many love classroom discussions and advising students on projects, but dread having to assess students’ content mastery and discuss grades with them. Three matters appear especially troublesome: (1) the amount of time spent preparing questions and grading them, (2) the trauma of dealing with student complaints when the tests are returned, and (3) the realization that many students are correct when they sometimes assert that our testing methods have little to do with their learning.

Too many instructors spend little time helping their students prepare for tests. They procrastinate in constructing exams and scramble at the last minute to finish them. Not surprisingly, tests constructed in this way are less likely to match mastery objectives laid out in the syllabus and more likely to cause conflict between instructors and their students. For similar reasons, instructors delay grading and rush through the process to return exams in a reasonable amount of time.

Four Suggestions

We have four suggestions to make the evaluation process more palatable for instructors and more likely to reduce anxiety and promote learning among students.

First, start early. Discuss your philosophy and techniques of evaluation from the very beginning of a course. Explain what kinds of learning strategies are more likely to result in high marks on exams as well as other assignments. If students don’t know what they should be getting out of readings and other assignments, they are less likely to meet our expectations when evaluated and more likely to blame us for their poor performance. We believe that instructional goals should include consideration of what students should take away from a class meeting and thus inform instructors’ decisions about whether specific content is important enough to be included in a  lesson. Thinking about potential exam questions as you’re preparing lesson plans helps integrate them into your instructional goals. If something is important enough to be covered in an exam, then it should become an explicit part of a day’s lesson, and vice-versa.

Similarly, don’t wait until a few days before the testing date to create the exam. Build the exam, question by question, throughout the term. You might begin by generating a list of main takeaways from each class meeting when constructing the syllabus. Another option is to write draft questions either before or immediately after each class meeting. For example, after class add possible questions to a “midterm/ final file.” You might also invite students to submit potential questions after each section, which may generate some useful items and help students think seriously about what they should be learning.

Second, make sure that your exam questions have a “best” answer. It is easy to zip through the question writing process without giving much thought to whether students might interpret your question variously and get off subject— you might recognize imprecision only after the exam, when marking a number of student responses. Essay questions are particularly easy to write—novice instructors often favor them over the more difficult to write multiple choice or short answer questions—but simplicity is an illusion. The integrity of an essay question can be improved by careful word choice, grammatical precision, and the inclusion of guiding details about important individuals and key terms.

We suggest writing the “best” answer to an essay question immediately after you have drafted it, using complete sentences and full paragraphs. Don’t just list bullet points or shorthand terms that you will be looking for in an answer. Write out what you think would be an “A” answer, including principles, concepts, examples, and references, to clarify the standards of assessment.

Also, compose a minimally correct response, the standard for a “C” mark at this juncture. Your answer becomes the basis of a question rubric, which will not only help you in judging the interpretability of your question but also can be used by your teaching assistants if they will be doing some of the grading. It can also be shared later with the students as part of the feedback process. Nothing is as hard as evaluating and defending poorly planned examination questions when students come by seeking clarification.  Putting in the time to craft items that are clear to you and your students beforehand saves time and reduces unhappiness in the end—for everyone. Plus, over successive exams, such clarity enables students to better prepare for exams—they will better know what to expect.

Importantly, once you see from your rubric what you are going to give credit for, make sure that the sentences in your question spell this out for the students. For example, if you will give 100% credit only if they include two examples, three principles, or four components, include that requirement in the question stem. Then, go back to your instructional goals and make sure you will be covering this material during a class meeting or in the assigned readings.

In writing multiple-choice questions, which is often necessary in large classes, write the correct answer immediately after you have written the question. Ideally, write the stem of the question and then the answer in the same sentence, making sure that the answer completes the thought begun by the stem. Next, see whether the correct answer can be “made incorrect” to become one of the four “distracter options” that you need for multiple-choice questions. Each distracter should also grammatically follow the stem. By writing the correct answer immediately as a “thought completion” process, you can avoid qualifiers and grammar mistakes that plague bad multiple-choice questions or steer students to the correct option. Five-option multiple-choice items are much more likely to distinguish differences in levels of content mastery than four-option items. Finally, it is a good idea to randomly locate the correct answer in the A–E order.

Third, while grading, write enough feedback directly on a student’s paper for definitional, short answer, and essay questions such that you can give a satisfactory answer to a student who comes up to you after class and asks “why didn’t I get full credit for this answer?” You should be able to look the student in the eye and explain yourself. We remember the sinking feeling that came over us on those occasions when we were unable to come up with a good reason for a mark beyond “you didn’t give me what I asked for.” After receiving students’ permission, photocopy a few examples of exemplary answers and show them to students; this is an excellent way to offer study guidance and promote learning. Having read a top-level essay, many students are able to improve their game.

Prepare ahead of time for these inevitable and often stressful encounters by making sure not only that the question was clear, but also that you use a rubric that can be explained to your students, which assures students you know what you’re doing. A warning: avoid going into detail about items or changing grades in front of the entire class. Have students meet with you individually.

Fourth, we suggest you schedule specific times for grading exams and dates for returning them to students. We’ll have more to say about helpful routines for grading exams in a future posting, but the most important thing you can do is to begin grading the exams immediately. Do not procrastinate—waiting only increases your anxiety, reduces the time available for grading, and can lead to sloppy mistakes. With respect to handing back the exams to the students, one of us has written some guidelines to help students figure out why they missed some questions.¹ The more informed students are about why they missed an item or lost points, the more likely they will see a connection between what they learned and how they performed on the exam. Students should never be justified in saying, “I just didn’t know what you wanted on the exam.”

Although we can’t promise our suggestions will make the grading process fun, they will make grading less stressful. By starting early and anticipating the major issues that can arise in testing and grading, you will make better use of your time and spend less effort on recovering from avoidable mistakes. Moreover, well-constructed exams that involve students early and often improve the likelihood students will meet our learning objective and earn the grades they seek in our classes.


Howard E. Aldrich. 2001. “How to Hand Exams Back to Your Class.” College Teaching, 49, 3 (Summer): 82.


Howard E. Aldrich

Kenan Professor of Sociology, Dept of Sociology,

UNC-CH, CB#3210, Hamilton Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3210 USA

Telephone (919) 962-5044 E-mail:


Joseph Lowman

Professor of Psychology (retired), Department of Psychology, UNC-Chapel Hill