TAs discuss strategies for grading

Worries about grades on term papers, lab reports and final exams can make up a large portion of undergraduate stress, but according to a panel held by the Center for Excellence in Teaching on Thursday, grading also is one of the biggest concerns for Teaching Assistants and professors.

The event, Grading Strategies for T.A.’s and Instructors, consisted of a panel of three CET teaching assistant fellows and one faculty fellow who addressed issues such as fairly and accurately grading student work.

Grade inflation frequently surfaced in the conversation between panelists and the audience.

Teaching assistant fellow Juvenal Cortes said some of the worry about grade inflation comes from conflicts between professors’ expectations of an average grade and the T.A.s’ knowledge of the actual competency of students.

“T.A.’s don’t have much power over the average grades because it depends on what professors want their class average to be,” Cortes said. “As T.A.’s, we are constrained by what the professor wants. And there’s no straight-across rubric over the college for grading.”

Disparities in the perception of letter grade meanings can also account for some problems, teaching assistant fellow Chris Corzett said.

“Different people view an A as being something different,” Corzett said, “Whether it’s one or two people per class getting an A, a certain percentage of people getting an A or if everyone does exemplary work, they all get A’s.”

The university defines each letter grade in its Grading and Correction of Grades Handbook, with “excellent” work earning A’s, “good” work earning B’s and “fair” work earning C’s.

These definitions, however, are by no means absolute, and the subtle differences between a right and wrong answer in some disciplines can also make accurate grading a challenge, Cortes said.

“For the social sciences, grading is more difficult than the hard sciences, because something is not just wrong or right,” Cortes said. “It’s more complex than that.”

Though many T.A.’s expressed concerns over causing grade inflation in their courses, faculty fellow Steven Finkel said he does not see a major problem at USC.

“I have been in institutions with grade inflation and I don’t think USC suffers from it,” Finkel said. “I think A’s mean something here.”

The panel also discussed strategies to help T.A.’s grade fairly. Teaching assistant fellow Edson Rodriguez mentioned grading parties, where T.A.’s and professors grade papers or tests side-by-side, as one way to correct differences in grading.

“It is crucial for everyone to be on the same page,” Rodriguez said. “Grading is a relationship as well. It’s a relationship between students, T.A.’s, the professor and the department.”

Other strategies T.A.’s and instructors can use to ensure fair grading include distributing rubrics to students before assigning work, including feedback as part of the teaching process and taking the time to speak individually to students about their work.

Whichever way T.A.’s choose to implement their grading policy, CET fellows said they hope this event motivates them to strive for higher standards in their teaching.

“The goal of the program is to improve teaching at USC and as a consequence improve learning at USC,” Cortes said. “The center is called the Center for Excellence in Teaching, but it should be called the Center for Excellence in Learning.”