Assigning Course Grades

The end-of-course grades assigned by instructors are intended to convey the level of achievement of each student in the class. These grades are used by students, other faculty, university administrators, and prospective employers to make a multitude of different decisions. Unless instructors use generally-accepted policies and practices in assigning grades, these grades are apt to convey misinformation and lead the decision-maker astray. Read more.

What might a faculty member consider to establish sound grading policies and practices? The issues which contribute to making grading a controversial topic are primarily philosophical in nature. There are no research studies that can answer questions like: What should an "A" grade mean? What percent of the students in my class should receive a "C?" Should spelling and grammar be judged in assigning a grade to a paper? What should a course grade represent? These "should" questions require value judgments rather than an interpretation of research data; the answer to each will vary from instructor to instructor. But all instructors must ask similar questions and find acceptable answers to them in establishing their own grading policies. It is not sufficient to have some method of assigning grades--the method used must be defensible by the user in terms of his or her beliefs about the goals of an American college education and tempered by the realities of the setting in which grades are given. An instructor's view of the role of a university education consciously or unwittingly affects grading plans. The instructor who believes that the end product of a university education should be a "prestigious" group which has survived four or more years of culling and sorting has different grading policies than the instructor who believes that most college-aged youths should be able to earn a college degree in four or more years.

An instructor's beliefs are influenced by many factors. As any of these factors change there may be a corresponding change in belief. The type of instructional strategy used in teaching dictates, to some extent, the type of grading procedures to use. For example, a mastery learning approach to teaching is incongruent with a grading approach which is based on competition for an arbitrarily set number of "A" or "B" grades. Grading policies of the department, college, or campus may limit the procedures which can be used and force a basic grading plan on each instructor in that administrative unit. The recent response to grade inflation has caused some faculty, individually and collectively, to alter their philosophies and procedures. Pressure from colleagues to give lower or higher grades often causes some faculty members to operate in conflict with their own views. Student grade expectations and the need for positive student evaluations of instruction probably both contribute to the shaping or altering of the grading philosophies of some faculty. The dissonance created by institutional restraints probably contributes to the wide-spread feeling that end-of-course grading is one of the least pleasant tasks facing a college instructor.

With careful thought and periodic review, most instructors can develop satisfactory, defensible grading policies and procedures. To this end, several of the key issues associated with grading are identified in this area's subsections. In each case, alternative viewpoints are described and advantages and disadvantages noted.


  • Block, J. H. (ed.) Mastery learning: Theory and practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

References for further reading

  1.  Dressel, P. L. & Associates. Evaluation in higher education. Boston, Mass: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1961. Chapter 8, "Testing and Grading Policies." 371.26 M585e*
  2. Ebel, R. L., & Frisbie, D. A. (1991). Essentials of educational (3rd ed.) measurement. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,1979. Chapter 12, "Marking and Marking System" 371.26 Eb3M*
  3. Frisbie, D. A. Issues in formulating course grading policies. National association of colleges and teachers of agriculture journal. 1977, 21, 15-18.
  4. Frisbie, D. A. Methodological considerations in grading. National association of colleges and teachers of agriculture journal. 1978, 22, 30-34.
  5. Linn, R., & Gronlund, N. (1995). Measurement and assessment in teaching (7th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  6. Handlin, O., & Handlin, M. F. The american college and american culture: socialization as a function of higher education. Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. New York: McGraw Hill, 1970.
  7. Hill, J. R. Measurement and evaluation in the classroom. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1976. Part 3, "Grading and Marking," 178-260.
  8. McKeachie, W. J. Teaching tips (8th ed.). Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath and Co., 1986. Chapter 9, "The A,B,C's of Assigning Grades," pp. 110-122.
  9. Mehrens, W. A. & Lehmann, I. J. Measurement and evaluation in education and psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
  10. Ory, J. O., & Ryan, K. E. (1993). Writing and grading classroom examinations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  11. Terwilliger, J. S. Assigning grades to students. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1971.
*The Dewey-decimal numbers are those used by the University of Illinois Library.