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Assessment and Grades

Course grades are assigned to individual students to indicate the extent to which they have met the instructor's expectations for a given set of course requirements.

Assessment results are intended to reflect the extent to which all students achieve the outcomes of a course or program of study. Clearly, grades and assessment differ in that one focuses on individuals and courses and the other with groups and programs.

Why can't we use course grades for assessment?

Grades are insufficient because:

  • Grades don't necessarily tell us what the student knows and doesn't know. The grade in the course may be a composite of various grades on differing assignments and not reflect what aspects of the actual outcomes of the course the student mastered. For example a student may earn a grade of B on a research paper and may have learned a good deal about research methods but we cannot tell exactly what aspects of the research process she has mastered.
  • Grades are assigned based on one instructor's judgment only. Courses often have multiple sections with different faculty who may grade assignments using different standards. How grades are assigned varies across courses and course sections. This means we can't compare grades across courses to make inferences about the program as a whole.
  • Grades include student behaviors that may or may not be related to course goals (i.e. class attendance, participation, late submission of assignments).  These practices can help a student earn a fairly high grade even though they may not achieve some of the learning goals.
  • Grades give us information on student performance in individual courses or course assignments, but not how well the students have learned holistically over an entire program. And they don’t give us any information about what students learned from their co-curricular experiences.
Grades are important indicators of student learning if they are based on direct evidence of learning that is clearly linked to major learning goals. See this short video on how to revise your grading system. See also this video on aligning your course learning outcomes and assignments.

Both sources below offer numerous practical suggestions about how to tie grades to explicit learning goals and standards:

Suskie, L. (2004). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Co., Inc.

Walvoord, B., Anderson, V. (1998) Effective Grading: a tool for learning and assessment.   San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.