Grading is an ongoing responsibility throughout any semester; many TAs, however, feel the pressures of grading especially strongly at the end of the term. As students worry about their final course grades, they may have more questions about your grading practices, more motivation to turn in late work, and more desire to do other tasks to enhance their end of semester grade. With all the grading-related demands that the end of the semester entails, it may become easy to view grading as a chore, rather than giving it credit for the wide array of uses that it can have.
Because grading is something that we naturally do throughout the semester, possibly almost automatically, it may be the case that you have not thought carefully about what message your grading conveys to students beyond "this is what you did or did not do correctly." However, one can use grades for a variety of purposes. They can reward effort or punish lack of effort, help you understand how well you convey the material to the classroom, motivate students, help students learn how to identify good work, and much more. The score written at the top of a student's paper can be much more powerful than one might expect, both for the student and for the instructor.
As TAs decide how to assign credit to various solutions, they determine what thoughts or explanations will be rewarded. Hopefully, these standards match the classroom goals. Implicitly, when a TA decides to reward some solutions with higher scores than others, he or she is determining what concepts from the course are valued and should be emphasized to students. After their work is graded, students should be able to understand why their assignments or tests were graded as they were. Grading in a consistent way that can be explained to students when questioned demonstrates that a TA has determined clear goals or standards for the class. In this context, higher grades do reward student progress towards these goals.
When an instructor grades students' work, he or she gets a snapshot of their understanding of the material. If one grades carefully, and keeps notes of common mistakes, it may become increasingly clear which portions of class material should be reviewed or revisited in a new way. Also, looking at trends in student work may give insight into how clearly an assignment was written. If students consistently give appropriate answers, a TA can be confident that that material was conveyed well and that questions were asked clearly. Also, an experienced TA may recognize trends in their grading, such as "on a typical week, when I grade quizzes, I expect the class average to be between 75 and 80%." On weeks when the class average is significantly lower or significantly higher, the TA may reconsider the difficulty of the assignment, or the clarity with which things were conveyed. The trends in student assignment scores serve as a litmus test for how successfully the teaching/learning dialogue is being played out in the classroom and for how clearly assignments have been written.
One can view grading as a dialogue between the student and the instructor. In the same way that assignments are students' response to material presented by the TA, grading is a TA's response to what the students have presented. Much attention is given to being approachable in the classroom, to encouraging questions, and to helping students develop critical thinking skills during class. In the same way, one can either be approachable and encouraging or strict and discouraging on paper. Being encouraging does not mean that you give high grades to unsatisfactory work so as not to damage a student's ego. But it does require time and energy to carefully try to understand a student's argument and give appropriate feedback. If students realize that you will consider their work carefully and will treat it respectfully, they may be more likely to be careful with how they write up their work. Moreover, if they feel that you treat their work considerately, they may be more willing to consider feedback and enact your suggestions for improvement.
Beyond assessing and encouraging student learning, clear and thoughtful grading can help students develop further intangible skills. In general, it can be very helpful to use feedback to give students a clear understanding of what you expect a good solution to be and help them to pinpoint their weaknesses. When giving feedback, it is important to be clear, timely, and specific. Feedback that is written clearly and concisely presented is more likely to be read than if it is illegible or exceedingly technical. If possible, feedback should be given in a timely manner, when students have time to respond and improve their work. Finally, it should give students specific directions in which to work. While it is important to help students recognize ways in which they should improve, it is also essential to encourage students with things they do well. When providing both positive and negative feedback, do not attach a positive comment to a negative one just to make the feedback less harsh; instead, make sure to be genuine. As students receive frequent, honest, and personalized comments on their work, they can begin to recognize good or bad work for themselves, and further fine-tune their ability to analyze their own output.
It can be extremely valuable for the TA to consider what they, and their students, can learn from grading. Being careful to grade in a clear and consistent manner helps convey to your students what ideas are considered valuable in your course. Keeping records of your grading trends may provide useful data about your teaching and how well you help students to reach your classroom goals. Even further, grading with care and taking time to give feedback not only helps your students understand your grading values, it also may help them to better evaluate their own work in the future. As you tread through the final weeks of the semester, consider your grading with care, realizing that grading can be even more powerful than we may at times give it credit for.