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Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment

Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson
Jossey-Bass
272 Pages
1998
ISBN: 0-787-94030-5
$35.00

Reviewed by

Richard Noel

California State University, Bakersfield

Faculty Teaching and Learning Center


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Don't be misled by the title of this book. At first glance, one might assume that it is a book only about grading in the narrow sense of the term. However, the authors use the concept of grading in a far more ambitious and important manner. To Walvoord and Anderson, the term "grading" refers to the entire process of teaching and learning. Grading encompasses the setting of meaningful learning objectives, standards, and criteria; the development of effective assignments; and the improvement of instruction based on the results of the grading. Because they view grading as intimately tied to learning objectives, they also refute the common belief that grades cannot be used for assessment.

I consider this to be on the short list of "must read" books about teaching. Reading it can be an epiphany for faculty who are searching for better ways to help students learn. Although the book is not organized around issues, faculty can find suggestions throughout the book that will help them deal with the following concerns:

  • How to motivate students
  • How to develop meaningful course objectives
  • How to create effective assignments that help students learn
  • How to create assignment-centered syllabi that emphasize what students should learn, not what instructors will "cover"
  • How to develop a grading system that is consistent with course objectives and faculty values
  • How to develop grading and feedback strategies that reduce faculty workload and improve student learning
  • How to use grading for assessment, whether at the level of the class, program, or institution

Walvoord and Anderson have a definite philosophy about teaching that is reflected in their recommendations to faculty. First, they consistently espouse a student-centered approach in which the purpose of teaching is to help all students learn. If students are not learning, the student-centered instructor finds ways to improve the learning process. The authors suggest that faculty can help students learn by clearly specifying their learning objectives, by explicitly teaching to these objectives, by creating learning opportunities that are connected to the objectives, and by using clear standards (i.e., rubrics) that help students know what they are expected to do. Their student-centered approach also leads to recommendations about how better to engage students in the learning process, such as by using active learning and classroom assessment techniques.

A second position of the authors may be described as pragmatic. For example, instead of approaching grading as a necessary evil, they see grades as an opportunity to enhance the learning process. Similarly, they do not view assessment as a nuisance, but rather as an invaluable opportunity to obtain feedback to improve teaching.

The book is organized into three main sections. The preface and Chapter One present the authors' philosophy about teaching, learning, and assessment and should be read to understand better the rationale for subsequent chapters. The second section, Chapters Two through Nine, presents a systematic approach to planning a course, from establishing course objectives to using the grading process for assessing student learning. This section provides examples and resources for developing meaningful learning objectives, developing a skeleton course outline, creating "assignments worth grading," and developing an effective and efficient grading process. The third section, Chapters Ten through Twelve, focuses on the use of rubrics and primary trait analysis for assessing classes and programs. The appendixes also contain a wealth of information, including the AAHE's Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning, a list of types of assignments and tests, and numerous examples of primary trait-based scales.

I cannot overstate the importance of the book in promoting a systematic approach to teaching. For example, in Chapter Three Walvoord and Anderson recommend that faculty first state what they believe are the most important student outcomes for their course. Next, they recommend that faculty list, in a skeleton course outline, assignments and tests that help students achieve and demonstrate the student learning outcomes. This simple process allows faculty to determine quickly whether the assignments are sequenced effectively and efficiently, and with an acceptable workload for both faculty and students. One example in the book describes a course purporting to teach students to apply sociological analysis to their everyday world. However, the skeleton outline immediately reveals that the course actually offers little to promote such learning. One remedy is systematically to introduce activities that require students to apply sociological knowledge to events.

The book is replete with examples that illustrate both effective and ineffective practices. The authors provide examples of assignments that are carefully constructed to help students achieve course objectives. They also provide clear examples of three different grading models--weighted letter grades, accumulated points, and definitional grading--along with the strengths and weaknesses of each. They describe how to construct a scale for Primary Trait Analysis (PTA) and provide numerous examples of PTA scales in diverse disciplines. When it comes to using grading for program assessment, they devote an entire chapter to a case study of how one college used primary traits for assessing its general education program.

Other than its potentially misleading title, the book has few limitations for those who have the time to read it thoroughly. Some suggestions may be resisted by faculty who define their roles as presenters of information rather than as facilitators of student learning. Others may believe that, by encouraging faculty to create a course design to maximize student learning, we are "spoon-feeding" students. However, the rationale and examples presented by the authors should be convincing to any but the most hardened advocate of a "teacher-centered" model of teaching. In my view, faculty who follow the authors' recommendations can expect to produce significant improvements in their own motivation, in student motivation, and ultimately in student learning.

It is difficult to imagine that faculty could read this book and not take away something to improve the teaching/learning process. It also is indispensable for faculty developers. The book provides many examples and suggestions that can be used in workshops for the improvement of faculty teaching. Finally, those involved in assessment may welcome the support presented by Walvoord and Anderson for using embedded assessment and the grading process to assess student outcomes. I recommend Effective Grading with no reservations.

Posted April 26, 2002

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2002 by Richard Noel.

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