Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985
Most TAs have some responsibility for grading student performance (weekly quizzes or essays, mid-term or final examinations, lab reports or term papers) and those with considerable autonomy often assign final semester grades as well. It is important, then, that you develop a sense of academic standards as quickly as possible, explain them clearly at the beginning of the course, and apply them consistently throughout the semester. However, as you know from your experience as a student, grading practices vary considerably from one instructor to the next.
It will probably take a semester for you to strike a comfortable balance between the "I'm tough—learn because you respect me" and the "I'm compassionate—learn because you love me" extremes of motivating students. Regardless of the approach you take, students will not respect you or your standards unless you provide them with the means to meet your expectations.
Adapted with permission from Farris, 1985
Students are very sensitive to grades and to the criteria on which the grades are based: "Will this be on the test? How much does the quiz count toward the final grade? Do you consider attendance and participation?" Grading is a thankless job but somebody has to do it, and you may as well be prepared to answer these questions on the first day of class; that means, of course, that you must have answered them for yourself well in advance.
Before constructing an exam or assignment, you need to decide exactly what it is you expect your students to demonstrate that they have learned. Reviewing the instructional objectives you established at the beginning of the term may be a good way to begin. The first step is to think carefully about the goals which you (or the professor teaching the course) have set for the students. Should students have mastered basic terminology and working principles? Should they have developed a broad understanding of the subject? Should they be able to use the principles and concepts taught in the course to solve problems in the field? The next question is how you can best evaluate the extent to which students have achieved these goals.
Perhaps a certain type of test will suggest itself immediately (e.g. multiple choice, matching, fill in the blanks, short answer, problem solving, or essay). If you know what you want to assess and why, then writing the actual questions will be much less frustrating.
Objective Tests
Although by definition no test can be truly "objective" (existing as an object of fact, independent of the mind), an objective test in this handbook refers to a test made up of multiple choice, matching, fill-in, true/false, or short answer items. Objective tests have the advantages of allowing an instructor to assess a large and potentially representative sample of course material and of allowing for reliable and efficient test scoring. The disadvantages of objective tests include a tendency to emphasize only "recognition" skills, the ease with which correct answers can be guessed on many item types, and the inability to measure students' organization and synthesis of material. (adapted with permission from Yonge, 1977)
Since the practical arguments for giving objective exams are compelling, we offer a few suggestions for writing multiple choice items. The first suggestion is to avoid this testing style if you can. If it is unavoidable, there are numerous ways of generating objective test items. Many textbooks are accompanied by teachers' manuals containing collections of items, and your professor or former teachers of the same course may be willing to share items with you. In either case, however, the general rule is adapt rather than adopt. Existing items will rarely fit your specific needs, so you should tailor them to reflect more adequately your objectives.
Second, design multiple choice items so that students who know the subject or material adequately are more likely to choose the correct alternative and students with less adequate knowledge are more likely to choose a wrong alternative. That sounds simple enough, but you want to avoid writing items which lead students to choose the right answer for the wrong reasons. For instance, avoid making the correct alternative the longest or most qualified one, or the only one that is grammatically appropriate to the stem. Even a careless shift in tense or verb-subject agreement can often suggest the correct answer.
Finally, it is very easy to disregard the above advice and slip into writing items which require only rote recall but are nonetheless difficult because they are taken from obscure passages (footnotes, for instance). Some items requiring only recall might be appropriate, but try to design most of the items to tap the students' understanding of the subject. (adapted with permission from Farris, 1985)
Here are a few additional guidelines to keep in mind when writing multiple choice tests (adapted with permission from Yonge, 1977):
• the item-stem (the lead-in to the choices) should clearly formulate a problem
• as much of the question as possible should be included in the stem
• randomize occurrence of the correct response (i.e., you don't always want "C" to be the right answer.
• make sure there is only one clearly correct answer (unless you are instructing students to select more than one)
• make the wording in the response choices consistent with the item stem
• don't load the stem down with irrelevant material
• beware of using answers such as "none of these" or "all of the above"
• use negatives or double negatives sparingly in the question or stem
Essay Tests
Conventional wisdom accurately portrays short answer and essay examinations as the easiest to write and the most difficult to grade, particularly if they are graded well. However, essay items are also considered the most effective means of assessing students' mastery of a subject. If it is crucial that students understand a particular concept, you can force them to respond to a single question, but you might consider asking them to write on one or two of several options. TAs generally expect a great deal from students, but remember that their mastery of a subject depends as much on prior preparation and experience as it does on diligence and intelligence; even at the end of the semester some students will be struggling to understand the material.
Design your questions so that all students can answer at their own levels. (adapted with permission from Farris, 1985)
The following are some suggestions which may enhance the quality of the essay tests that you produce (adapted with permission from Ronkowski, 1986):
• Keep in mind the processes that you want measured (e.g., analysis, synthesis).
• Start questions with words such as "compare," "contrast," "explain why". Don't use "what," "who," "when," or "list". (These latter types are better measured with objective-type items.)
• Write items that define the parameters of expected answers as clearly as possible.
• Don't have too many possible answers for the time available.
Reading 50 papers or 200 essay exams presents special problems, especially when all 50 or 200 are responses to the same topic or question. How do you maintain consistency? You are more likely to be thorough with the first few papers you read than with the rest and less likely to be careful with the comments when you are tired. To avoid such problems, read five or six papers before you start grading to get an idea of the range of quality (some instructors rank-order the papers in groups before they assign grades), and stop grading when you get tired, irritable, or bored. When you start again, read over the last couple of papers you graded to make sure you were fair. Some instructors select "range finder" papers—middle range A, B, C and D papers to which they refer for comparison.
Depending upon the number of students you have, you may have to spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes on a three- to four-page paper. Try to select only the most insightful passages for praise and only the most shallow responses or repeated errors for comment; in others words, don't turn a neatly typed paper into a case of the measles. Avoid the tendency of new TAs to edit the paper for the student. Remember, also, that if you comment on and correct everything, a student loses a sense of where priorities lie. Do not give the impression that semicolons are as important to good writing and to a grade as, say, adequate support for an argument. (adapted with permission from Farris, 1968)
In assigning grades to essay questions you may want to use one of the following methods (adapted with permission from Cashin, 1987):
• Analytic (point-score) Method: In this method the ideal or model answer is broken down into several specific points regarding content. A specific subtotal point value is assigned to each. When reading the exam, you need to decide how much of each maximum subtotal you judge the student's answer to have earned. When using this method be sure to outline the model (ideal or acceptable) answer BEFORE you begin to read the essays.
• Global (holistic) Method: In this method the rater reads the entire essay and makes an overall judgment about how successfully the student has covered everything that was expected in the answer and assigns the paper to a category (grade). Generally, five to nine categories are sufficient. Ideally, all of the essays should be read quickly and sorted into five to nine piles, then each pile reread to check that every essay has been accurately (fairly) assigned to that pile which will be given a specific score or letter grade.
Grading of multiple choice exams can be done by hand or through the use of computer answer sheets available through your department. If you choose the computer grading route you must be sure to provide number 2 pencils for students to mark answers on their sheets. These are usually available from your department's main office. At the time of the exam it is helpful to write on the chalkboard all pertinent information required on the answer sheet (course name, course number, section number, instructor's name, etc.). Also remind students to fill in their university identification numbers completely to ensure that their answers will be properly graded by the computer.
Procedures for grading and the distribution of grades to students will most likely be negotiated with the professor teaching the course. Many will have established procedures for the distribution of grades, while others may leave it up to you. When posting grades in any kind of public area (outside your or the professor's office, for example) be sure that students' names are not visible on the grade sheets. Grades should be recorded by ID number rather than by name. If the exams have been computer graded, the printout you receive will include a sheet with ID numbers and grades only, which is suitable for posting. Another method is to record grades on the attendance roster, photocopy it, and then clip out the section of names on the sheet, leaving only ID numbers and grades.
Handing back papers or essays to a large class can be a very time-consuming task.
Some instructors deal with this by leaving time at the end of class to hand back assignments or tests, or they may ask students to come to their office to pick up papers. The latter alternative provides an opportunity for students to get more personal feedback from you about their papers.
This table shows letter grades and their corresponding grade point equivalents. For further information and elaboration of grading policies in your department, consult with your supervising faculty member.
A = 4.0
AB = 3.5
B = 3.0
BC = 2.5
C = 2.0
CD = 1.5
D = 1.0
F = 0.0
I = Incomplete
W = Withdrawn
P = Passed