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Assessing Students’ Learning

Barbara Gross Davis, University of California, Berkeley

There are no hard-and-fast rules about the best ways to grade. In fact, as Erickson and Strommer (1991) point out, how you grade depends a great deal on your values, assumptions, and educational philosophy: if you view introductory courses as “weeder” classes–to separate out students who lack potential for future success in the field–you are likely to take a different grading approach than someone who views introductory courses as teaching important skills that all students need to master.

All faculty agree, however, that grades provide information on how well students are learning (Erickson and Strommer, 1991). But grades also serve other purposes. Scriven (1974) has identified at least six functions of grading:

  • To describe unambiguously the worth, merit, or value of the work accomplished
  • To improve the capacity of students to identify good work, that is, to improve their self-evaluation or discrimination skills with respect to work submitted
  • To stimulate and encourage good work by students
  • To communicate the teacher’s judgment of the student’s progress
  • To inform the teacher about what students have and haven’t learned
  • To select people for rewards or continued education

For some students, grades are also a sign of approval or disapproval; they take them very personally. Because of the importance of grades, faculty need to communicate to students a clear rationale and policy on grading.

If you devise clear guidelines from which to assess performance, you will find the grading process more efficient, and the essential function of grades– communicating the student’s level of knowledge–will be easier. Further, if you grade carefully and consistently, you can reduce the number of students who complain and ask you to defend a grade. The suggestions below are designed to help you develop clear and fair grading policies. For tips on calculating final grades, see “Calculating and Assigning Grades.”

General Strategies 

Grade on the basis of students’ mastery of knowledge and skills. Restrict your evaluations to academic performance. Eliminate other considerations, such as classroom behavior, effort, classroom participation, attendance, punctuality, attitude, personality traits, or student interest in the course material, as the basis of course grades. If you count these non-academic factors, you obscure the primary meaning of the grade, as an indicator of what students have learned. For a discussion on why not to count class participation, see “Encouraging Student Participation in Discussion.” (Source: Jacobs and Chase, 1992)

Avoid grading systems that put students in competition with their classmates and limit the number of high grades. These normative systems, such as grading on the curve, work against collaborative learning strategies that have been shown to be effective in promoting student learning. Normative grading produces undesirable consequences for many students, such as reduced motivation to learn, debilitating evaluation anxiety, decreased ability to use feedback to improve learning, and poor social relationships. (Sources: Crooks, 1988; McKeachie, 1986)

Try not to overemphasize grades. Explain to your class the meaning of and basis for grades and the procedures you use in grading. At the beginning of the term, inform students, in writing (see “The Course Syllabus”) how much tests, papers, homework, and the final exam will count toward their final grade. Once you have explained your policies, avoid stressing grades or excessive talk about grades, which only increases students’ anxieties and decreases their motivation to do something for its own sake rather than to obtain an external reward such as a grade. (Sources: Allen and Rueter, 1990; Fuhrmann and Grasha, 1983)

Keep students informed of their progress throughout the term. For each paper, assignment, midterm, or project that you grade, give students a sense of what their score means. Try to give a point total rather than a letter grade. Letter grades tend to have emotional associations that point totals lack. Do show the range and distribution of point scores, and indicate what level of performance is satisfactory. Such information can motivate students to improve if they are doing poorly or to maintain their performance if they are doing well. By keeping students informed throughout the term, you also prevent unpleasant surprises at the end. (Sources: Lowman, 1984; Shea, 1990)

Minimizing Students’ Complaints About Grading

Clearly state grading procedures in your course syllabus, and go over this information in class. Students want to know how their grades will be determined, the weights of various tests and assignments, and the model of grading you will be using to calculate their grades: will the class be graded on a curve or by absolute standards? If you intend to make allowances for extra credit, late assignments, or revision of papers, clearly state your policies.

Set policies on late work. Will you refuse to accept any late work? Deduct points according to how late the work is submitted? Handle late work on a case-by-case basis? Offer a grace period? See “Preparing or Revising a Course.”

Avoid modifying your grading policies during the term. Midcourse changes may erode students’ confidence in your fairness, consistency, objectivity, and organizational skills. If you must make a change, give your students a complete explanation. (Source: Frisbie, Diamond, and Ory, 1979)

Provide enough opportunities for students to show you what they know. By giving students many opportunities to show you what they know, you will have a more accurate picture of their abilities and will avoid penalizing a student who has an off day at the time of a test. So in addition to a final exam, give one or two midterms and one or two short papers. For lower-division courses, Erickson and Strommer (1991) recommend giving shorter tests or written assignments and scheduling some form of evaluation every two or three weeks.

Consider allowing students to choose among alternative assignments. One instructor presents a list of activities with assigned points for each that take into account the assignments’ educational and motivational value, difficulty, and probable amount of effort required. Students are told how many points are needed for an A, a B, or a C, and they choose a combination of assignments that meets the grade they desire for that portion of the course.

Here are some possible activities:

  • Writing a case study
  • Engaging in and reporting on a fieldwork experience
  • Leading a discussion panel
  • Serving on a discussion panel
  • Keeping a journal or log of course-related ideas
  • Writing up thoughtful evaluations of several lectures
  • Creating instructional materials for the course (study guides, exam questions, or audiovisual materials) on a particular concept or theme
  • Undertaking an original research project or research paper
  • Reviewing the current research literature on a course-related topic
  • Keeping a reading log that includes brief abstracts of the readings and comments, applications, and critiques
  • Completing problem-solving assignments (such as designing an experiment to test a hypothesis or creating a test to measure something)  (Source: Davis, Wood, and Wilson, 1983)

Stress to students that grades reflect work on a specific task and are not judgments about people. Remind students that a teacher grades only a piece of paper. You might also let students know, if appropriate, that research shows that grades bear little or no relationship to measures of adult accomplishment (Eble, 1988, p. 156).

Give encouragement to students who are performing poorly. If students are having difficulty, do what you can to help them improve on the next assignment or exam. If they do perform well, take this into account when averaging the early low score with the later higher one. (Source: Lowman, 1984)

Deal directly with students who are angry or upset about their grade. Ask an upset student to take a day or more to cool off. It is also helpful to ask the student to prepare in writing the complaint or justification for a grade change. When you meet with the student in your office, have all the relevant materials at hand: the test questions, answer key or criteria, and examples of good answers. Listen to the student’s concerns or read the memo with an open mind and respond in a calm manner. Don’t allow yourself to become antagonized, and don’t antagonize the student. Describe the key elements of a good answer, and point out how the student’s response was incomplete or incorrect. Help the student understand your reasons for assigning the grade that you did. Take time to think about the student’s request or to reread the exam if you need to, but resist pressures to change a grade because of a student’s personal needs (to get into graduate school or maintain status on the dean’s list). If appropriate, for final course grades, offer to write a letter to the student’s adviser or to others, describing the student’s work in detail and indicating any extenuating circumstances that may have hurt the grade. (Sources: Allen and Rueter, 1990; McKeachie, 1986)

Keep accurate records of students’ grades. Your department may keep copies of final grade reports, but it is important for you to keep a record of all grades assigned throughout the semester, in case a student wishes to contest a grade, finish an incomplete, or ask for a letter of recommendation.

Making Effective Use of Grading Tactics 

Return the first graded assignment or test before the add/drop deadline. Early assignments help students decide whether they are prepared to take the class (Shea, 1990). Some faculty members give students the option of throwing out this first test (Johnson, 1988). Students may receive a low score because they did not know what the instructor required or because they underestimated the level of preparation needed to succeed.

Record results numerically rather than as letter grades, whenever possible. Tests, problem sets, homework, and so on are best recorded by their point value to assure greater accuracy when calculating final grades. (Source: Jacobs and Chase, 1992)

Give students a chance to improve their grades by rewriting their papers. Many faculty encourage rewriting but do not count the grades on rewritten papers as equivalent to those of papers that have not been rewritten. See “Helping Students Write Better in All Courses.”

If many students do poorly on an exam, schedule another one on the same material a week or so later. Devote one or more classes to reviewing the troublesome material. Provide in-class exercises, homework problems or questions, practice quizzes, study group opportunities, and extra office hours before you administer the new exam. Though reviewing and retesting may seem burdensome and time-consuming, there is usually little point in proceeding to new topics when many of your students are still struggling. (Source: Erickson and Strommer, 1991)

Evaluating Your Grading Policies

Compare your grade distributions with those for similar courses in your department. Differences between your grade distributions and those of your colleagues do not necessarily mean that your methods are faulty. But glaring discrepancies should prompt you to reexamine your practices. (Source: Frisbie, Diamond, and Ory, 1979)

Ask students about your grading policies on end-of-course questionnaires. Here are some sample questions (adapted from Frisbie, Diamond, and Ory, 1979, p. 22):

To what extent:

  • Were the grading procedures for the course fair?
  • Were the grading procedures for the course clearly explained?
  • Did you receive adequate feedback on your performance?
  • Were requests for re-grading or review handled fairly?
  • Did the instructor evaluate your work in a meaningful and conscientious manner?


Allen, R. R., and Rueter, T. Teaching Assistant Strategies. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1990.

Crooks, T. J. “The Impact of Classroom Evaluation Practices on Students.”Review of Educational Research, 1988, 58(4), 438-48 1.

Davis, B. G., Wood, L., and Wilson, R. The ABCs of Teaching Excellence.Berkeley: Office of Educational Development, University of California, 1983.

Eble, K. E. The Craft of Teaching. (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,1988.

Erickson, B. L., and Strommer, D. W. Teaching College Freshmen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Frisbie, D. A., Diamond, N. A., and Ory, J. C. Assigning Course Grades. Urbana: Office of Instructional Resources, University of Illinois, 1979.

Fuhrmann, B. S., and Grasha, A. F. A Practical Handbook for College Teachers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
Jacobs, L. C., and Chase, C. I.. Developing and Using Tests Effectively: A Guide for Faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Johnson, G. R. Taking Teaching Seriously. College Station: Center for Teaching Excellence, Texas A & M University, 1988.

Lowman, J. Mastering the Techniques of Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1984.

McKeachie, W. J. Teaching Tips. (8th ed.) Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1986.

Scriven, M. “Evaluation of Students.” Unpublished manuscript, 1974.

Shea, M. A. Compendium of Good Ideas on Teaching and Learning. Boulder: Faculty Teaching Excellence Program, University of Colorado, 1990.



Grayson H. Walker Teaching Resource Center
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
401 Hunter Hall
615 McCallie Ave.
Chattanooga, TN 37403-2598
(423) 755-4026
(423) 755-4025 (fax)

Karen I. Adsit, EdD, Director

Descriptions follow with uses, advantages, disadvantages, and tips for writing test questions in the following formats:


Good for:
Knowledge level content  Evaluating student understanding of popular misconceptions  Concepts with two logical responses

Can test large amounts of content  Students can answer 3-4 questions per minute

They are easy  It is difficult to discriminate between students that know the material and students who don’t  Students have a 50-50 chance of getting the right answer by guessing  Need a large number of items for high reliability

Tips for Writing Good True/False items:
Avoid double negatives.  Avoid long/complex sentences.  Use specific determinants with caution: never, only, all, none, always, could, might, can, may, sometimes, generally, some, few.  Use only one central idea in each item.  Don’t emphasize the trivial.  Use exact quantitative language  Don’t lift items straight from the book.  Make more false than true (60/40). (Students are more likely to answer true.)


Good for:
knowledge level some comprehension level, if appropriately constructed

terms with definitions  phrases with other phrases causes with effects parts with larger units problems with solutions

Maximum coverage at knowledge level in a minimum amount of space/prep time  Valuable in content areas that have a lot of facts

Time consuming for students  Not good for higher levels of learning

Tips for Writing Good Matching items:
Need 15 items or less.  Give good directions on basis for matching.  Use items in response column more than once (reduces the effects of guessing).  Use homogenous material in each exercise.  Make all responses plausible.  Put all items on a single page.  Put response in some logical order (chronological, alphabetical, etc.).  Responses should be short.

Multiple Choice 

Good for:
application, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation levels

Question/Right answer  Incomplete statement  Best answer

Very effective  Versatile at all levels  Minimum of writing for student  Guessing reduced  Can cover broad range of content

Difficult to construct good test items.  Difficult to come up with plausible distractors/alternative responses.

Tips for Writing Good Multiple Choice items:
Stem should present single, clearly formulated problem.  Stem should be in simple, understood language; delete extraneous words.  Avoid “all of the above”–can answer based on partial knowledge (if one is incorrect or two are correct, but unsure of the third…).  Avoid “none of the above.”  Make all distractors plausible/homogeneous.  Don’t overlap response alternatives (decreases discrimination between students who know the material and those who don’t).  Don’t use double negatives.  Present alternatives in logical or numerical order.  Place correct answer at random (A answer is most often).  Make each item independent of others on test.  Way to judge a good stem: student’s who know the content should be able to answer before reading the alternatives  List alternatives on separate lines, indent, separate by blank line, use letters vs. numbers for alternative answers.  Need more than 3 alternatives, 4 is best.

Short Answer

Good for:
application, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation levels

easy to construct  good for “who,” what,” where,” “when” content  minimizes guessing  Encourages more intensive study-student must know the answer vs. recognizing the answer.

May overemphasize memorization of facts  Take care – questions may have more than one correct answer  Scoring is laborious

Tips for Writing Good Short Answer Items:
When using with definitions: supply term, not the definition-for a better judge of student knowledge.  For numbers, indicate the degree of precision/units expected.  Use direct questions, not an incomplete statement.  If you do use incomplete statements, don’t use more than 2 blanks within an item.  Arrange blanks to make scoring easy.  Try to phrase question so there is only one answer possible.


Good for:
application, synthesis and evaluation levels

Extended response: synthesis and evaluation levels; a lot of freedom in answers  Restricted response: more consistent scoring, outlines parameters of responses

Students less likely to guess  Easy to construct  Stimulates more study  Allows students to demonstrate ability to organize knowledge, express opinions, show originality.

Can limit amount of material tested, therefore has decreased validity.  Subjective, potentially unreliable scoring.  Time consuming to score.

Tips for Writing Good Essay Items:
Provide reasonable time limits for thinking and writing.  Avoid letting them to answer a choice of questions (You won’t get a good idea of the broadness of student achievement when they only answer a set of questions.)  Give definitive task to student-compare, analyze, evaluate, etc.  Use checklist point system to score with a model answer: write outline, determine how many points to assign to each part  Score one question at a time-all at the same time.

Oral Exams

Good for:
knowledge, synthesis, evaluation levels

Useful as an instructional tool-allows students to learn at the same time as testing.  Allows teacher to give clues to facilitate learning.  Useful to test speech and foreign language competencies.

Time consuming to give and take.  Could have poorp student performance because they haven’t had much practice with it.  Provides no written record without checklists.

Student Portfolios 

Good for:
knowledge, application, synthesis, evaluation levels

Can assess compatible skills: writing, documentation, critical thinking, problem solving  Can allow student to present totality of learning.  Students become active participants in the evaluation process.

Can be difficult and time consuming to grade.


Good for:
application of knowledge, skills, abilities

Measures some skills and abilities not possible to measure in other ways

Can not be used in some fields of study  Difficult to construct  Difficult to grade  Time-consuming to give and take


“A good exam is one where the students come away and feel that not only have they exhibited what they know about the material-they feel good about the exam reflecting what they know-but also they’ve learned something new. I think that’s a terrific result.”
Professor Joseph W. Goodman, Electrical Engineering

Tests let both you and your students know how much they have learned and provide a chance for more learning to take place. Tests should be designed with primary course objectives in mind; they should cover what has gone on in sections (usually) and lectures. Before making up an exam, go over the kinds of information and skills emphasized in the course. Was the memorization of facts or the application of principles more important? The exam should be constructed accordingly.

Students should be told in advance, preferably at the beginning of the quarter, what kinds of exams will be given in a course. Since some students may have access to old exams, if the course is a long-running one, it is probably fairer to give all students sample copies of at least one previous exam. If you are new to the course, you will also want to go over the old tests carefully and see both what was covered and how.

Frequent testing can enhance learning as well as provide information on student progress. For maximum learning from an exam-and out of respect for the students-tests should be returned as soon as possible. Unless you intend to discuss them in class, you should hand tests back at the end of a period in order to avoid students being preoccupied by them while you try to cover something else.

Explicit directions and clearly stated questions are two key ingredients in a good exam. No matter how clearly you write these beforehand, however, you should still go over them with the students at the beginning of the actual test. If a student comes up and asks you privately about a question that looks as though it could be confusing to others, share your answer with the whole class. The placement of questions and answer spaces, or choices, on a page also needs consideration. If all the questions and answer slots are single spaced on both sides of one page, the visual impact of the exam may confuse the students. If you leave enough space for short answers, on the other hand, realize that the amount of space you leave is often interpreted by students as the length of the answer you want.

Answers to exam questions need to be determined before the first exam is corrected and preferably before the exam is given. The amount of credit each question will carry should also be determined in advance, and students should know that amount before the exam begins. Tests should be reasonably difficult but not tricky.

After constructing an exam, classify the questions according to what they require of the students: information recall, translation, interpretation, application of principles, analysis of concepts, synthesis of ideas, or evaluation. Small changes in questions can often require a higher level of thought from the student and agree more with the emphasis in the course.

Short answer questions help test information recall and analytic skills. Essay tests give students a chance to organize, evaluate, and think, and therefore have the best educational value although they are the hardest to grade. Multiple-choice exams are the most difficult to construct but can measure both information recall and concept application. Numerical or logical problems test understanding of material and the ability to apply it. Completion questions test for recognition of key terms and concepts. But if you use completion questions, be willing to accept reasonable alternative answers that you had not considered prior to giving the exam. Matching questions are useful for testing recognition of the relationships between pairs of words or between words and definitions. Be sure to give enough answers so that students cannot guess simply by the process of elimination.

In recent years, take-home essay exams have grown in popularity. Although they may seem an ideal format, by providing students with a calmer environment and more time in which to think through answers, they do have drawbacks which some precautions can minimize. Word or time limits should be put on the exams, for example, so that students with other tests do not have to compete unfairly against students with no other demands on their time. There should also be explicit instructions on whether or not students can talk to each other about their answers and whether they have unlimited access to materials. An alternative strategy is to give out the exam in advance and allow consultation among students, but have them write the test in class without notes. Essay exams should be designed primarily to be learning experiences, not exercises in information recall. Because they are difficult to evaluate, you should discuss the criteria for their evaluation with the students and with any fellow graders before the test is given.

Math and science exams generally consist of problems to be solved. Here are some guidelines for constructing these problems:

  • Construct the problems so that they resemble the ones given in exercises during the quarter.
  • Make the problems as interesting as possible. This can be done by making them seem to have a “real” application or by combining two single concepts. The latter method gives a more interesting (but more difficult) problem than straightforward applications of one idea.
  • Construct problems of graduated difficulty. The first problem, at least, should be one which builds confidence, so that fearful students do not get ruinously flustered at the outset. Double jeopardy-when the working of one problem depends on comprehension of a previous one-should be avoided.
  • Always take the exam first yourself. You should be able to finish the exam in no more than a quarter of the time the students will have.
  • Avoid long, detailed computations. Concentrate on ideas, not endurance.

After constructing any kind of exam, ask an experienced colleague or your TAs to look it over. Someone else can often point out ambiguities that you do not see. After the exam is given, place a copy of it in your files along with a note to yourself indicating whether any parts unnecessarily confused students or brought responses that you hadn’t really meant to test.



Grades are the currency of the teaching and learning process: students “earn” grades and professors endeavor to allocate grades in the fairest possible way in return for the learning their students demonstrate. We frequently judge students’ abilities and potential for future success based on grades and cumulative grade point averages. It is not surprising, then, that students are particularly concerned with fairness and equity in grade determination.

Exams and assignments are motivating forces in the learning process and are essential components in the feedback loop that drives continuous learning. The challenge in using exams and assignments as effective learning tools in any course is to develop students’ confidence in grades as fair indicators of success in the complex learning process. Achieving this perception of fairness is especially challenging in multi-section courses in which different professors take different groups of students along different learning paths to meet the requirements of a single academic course. When there is variation between sections of the same course, students’ concerns about “fairness” have to be addressed. While student concerns about fairness across multi-section courses often focus on variation between sections, teaching staff can address students’ perceptions of fairness in part, by paying particular attention to equity and consistency in grading within each section of the course.

The research literature on classroom practices which promote fairness and equity in grading procedures reflects a common guiding principle: grading policies and procedures should be articulated clearly and followed strictly. In short, there should be no surprises. This principle is reflected in the University’s policy on the Responsibilities of Academic Staff with Regard to Students (ROASS). With respect to grading, the ROASS policy requires all teaching staff to provide students with a description of the evaluation procedures that will be followed in the course; the weighting of the various components contributing to the final grade; a tentative schedule of term assignments and tests; and a statement of policy on late assignments. Under the ROASS policy, this information must be provided in the first week of a course. Within the context of these general guidelines, more specific suggestions for promoting fair grading practices include:

(1) Explain to students the role of exams and assignments in the overall design and objectives of the course. If exams and assignments are important learning experiences in a course, be explicit about their role. Frequently, an instructor’s purpose in assigning essays or problem sets includes the development of writing and thinking abilities as well as the assessment of student knowledge. Explaining these objectives in the course outline will increase the likelihood that students pay attention to these aspects of the assignments as they work. It is also helpful to students if the instructor can be clear about the context in which grades are given, received and used. The use of grades may range from a rank ordering of students to providing feedback to individuals on their progress. Furthermore, the uses of grades may vary from one exam or assignment to another. A clear articulation of the rationale for grades in the course outline can promote a clear understanding between professors and students about the role of grades in the course.

(2) Clearly articulate grading policies and procedures. The ROASS policy requires all teaching staff to describe the components of course work for which marks will be received and the relative weight assigned to each component in the course outline provided to students in the first week of classes. The course outline must also articulate clear policies in cases where course requirements are not met, such as missed exams or late assignments. In addition to providing information in the course outline, a discussion of grading policies and procedures early in the course will give the instructor the opportunity to explain decisions with respect to grading in terms of maximum fairness to all students. It will also give students the opportunity to raise any questions or concerns they may have.

While the course outline gives an overview of evaluation procedures and policies, it is important to students that the instructor communicates objectives and expectations for each test or assignment as it comes up in the course. Students will be better equipped to focus on an assignment or test, to maximize their learning from the experience and will be more likely to be successful if the instructor provides clear criteria for each assignment and, if possible, examples that reflect strong and weak performance on that assignment.

(3) Strictly follow the evaluation procedures set out. It is imperative to students’ perceptions of fair treatment that instructors be scrupulously fair in administering grading policies and procedures. Students perceive variable applications and exceptions to policies as unfair to the group as a whole, and see such decisions as arbitrary.

Students are especially sensitive to fairness in the ways that professors interact with individual students and they expect professors to treat all students equally. In setting grading policies, it is important to anticipate possible exceptions that may occur, particularly for students who have competing study, work and family responsibilities. It is much easier to build a degree of flexibility into grading procedures, such as offering “days of grace” (either with or without penalty), than to make exceptions later.

Inconsistent application of grading policies and procedures is not perceived by students as “giving us a break”. Students are more likely to interpret inconsistencies as arbitrary and favoring some individuals over others. Furthermore, inconsistent practices are more likely to favor students who skip class or cheat.

(4) Avoid changing grading policies and procedures in mid-course. Careful planning and experience will minimize difficulties with grading procedures, but occasionally a problem will arise. If possible, delay changes to the next offering of the course.

In summary, students value professors’ fairness, both in personal interactions and in their assessment of student performance. Given a choice between a professor who is fair, but “strict” in applying absolute rules with no exceptions and a professor who is lax in applying policies and procedures and makes arbitrary decisions about exceptions, students prefer the strict professor. This holds true even when the lax professor is known to give higher than average grades. These findings support explicit grading policies and procedures and strict adherence to them. While grading often involves the human judgment of a complex learning process, it is important to avoid the perception that grades are assigned in a mysterious or arbitrary fashion. Clearly articulated and faithfully applied grading procedures and policies will contribute to students’ perceptions of fair grading.

Lowman, J. (1987). Giving Students Feedback. In M. Weimer (Ed.), Teaching Large Classes Well. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 32. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pollio, H.R. & Humphreys, W.L. ((1987). Grading Students. In J.H. McMillan (Ed.), Assessing Students’ Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 34. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Richard M. Felder


It’s the middle of December. A colleague of yours who teaches mechanical engineering (or statistics or physics or economics) has just gotten the tabulations of his end-of-course student evaluations and he’s steaming! His students clearly hated his course, giving him the lowest ratings received by any instructor in the department. He consoles himself by grumbling that student evaluations are just popularity contests and that even though his students don’t appreciate him now, in a few years they’ll realize that he really did them a favor by maintaining high standards.

He’s probably kidding himself. Although bashing student ratings is a popular faculty sport, several thousand research studies have shown that student ratings are remarkably consistent with retrospective senior and alumni ratings, peer ratings, and every other form of teaching evaluation used in higher education.1 Although there are always exceptions, teaching rated by most students as excellent usually is excellent, and teaching rated as atrocious usually is atrocious.

If your colleague decided to take a hard objective look at those evaluations instead of dismissing them out of hand, there is a good chance that he would find his examinations at the heart of most students’ complaints. Not the difficulty of the exams per se: the research also shows that the highest evaluations tend to go to some of the more demanding teachers, not the ones who hand out A’s for mediocre work.. What students hate more than anything else (except outright sadistic behavior) are examinations that they perceive as unfair. Exams that fall into this category include (1) tests on content not covered in class or on graded homework assignments; (2) tests they consider tricky, with unfamiliar twists that must be worked out on the spur of the moment; (3) tests that are too long. Most students can deal with tests that they do poorly on because they don’t understand the course material or didn’t study hard enough; however, if they fail because they aren’t being tested on what was taught or because they couldn’t see the “trick,” or if they can’t finish in the allotted time even if they know the material perfectly, they feel cheated. This feeling is not unjustified.

A good rule to follow is, no surprises on tests. Everything that shows up on a test should have been previewed several times in the course-in class, in readings, and in assignments. Some professors will argue that as professionals our students will constantly have to deal with unexpected problems. True enough, but they will not be presented with these problems and told that they have to solve them in 50 minutes without consulting anyone and possibly without being able to look anything up. Their ability to deal with a totally unrealistic situation like that should not be the main determinant of whether they should be certified to practice as professionals.

If you teach a course in a quantitative discipline, there are several things you can do to minimize your students’ perceptions that you are dealing with them unfairly on examinations.

  • Consider handing out a study guide a week before each test. The guide should be thorough and detailed, with statements of every type of question you might include on the test and questions as challenging as you want to make them.
  • Always work out a test from scratch when you have what you think is the final version and time yourself on it. Then revise to eliminate the inevitable flaws (unclear or improperly specified problem statements, busywork, excessive length.) and do it again.
  • Minimize speed as a factor in performance. Unless your problems are trivial, students need time to stop and think about how to solve them, and you don’t. You should be able to work out the test in less than one-third of the time your students will have to do it. If you can’t, cut it down by eliminating questions, presenting some formulas instead of requiring derivations, or asking for solution outlines rather than complete calculations. (Make sure you give similar problems on homework before putting them on the test.) Announce point values for each test item to help the students with time management.
  • Design 10-15% of the test to discriminate between A-level and B-level performance. Any more than that is unfair to the majority of your students; any less and your better students will have no incentive to go for the highest levels of understanding they are capable of achieving.  Be generous with partial credit on time-limited tests for work that clearly demonstrates understanding.

Putting that much effort into test design takes time, but it is time well spent if our goal is to grade our students on the basis of their understanding of what we are teaching and not simply on their test-taking skills. It is the former and not the latter that ultimately determines their qualification for the certification they seek from us.
References: .R.M. Felder, “What Do They Know, Anyway?” Chem. Engr. Education, 26(3), 134-135 (1992).