Grading Fairly Can Be Fairly Grating

Five basic suggestions to help avoid bias

Posted Jul 26, 2013

As a professor, it would be great fun simply to help students learn without actually having to measure that learning.  Indeed, college teaching would be the perfect job if only I didn't have to give grades.  But assessing student learning is part of the gig.  Moreover, the process of assessment itself is one of the best ways to facilitate learning.  

I’ve written before about the ethical (and practical) issue of competence.  Being competent as a teacher includes assessing students and providing useful feedback.  Another important ethical issue is justice, or fairness.  I have an obligation to treat students equally by giving them equal opportunity to earn their grades.  Justice also means that grades should be based on what students learn and how they perform rather than on irrelevant factors such as gender, race, political affiliation, attractiveness, sports team participation, how much money their parents donate to the school, etc.  In other words, grading shouldn’t be biased. 

Here are five basic principles I use when designing and grading papers, tests, and other assignments (I’ve framed them in the form of advice to other, to convey that special sense of moral superiority):

Be clear about what you are assessing.  I use my course objectives to guide what I want to ask for on tests or papers.  For example, do I want students to (a) demonstrate (regurgitate) knowledge, (b) demonstrate comprehension, (c) apply knowledge, (d) think critically by justifying their thoughts, and/or (e) integrate material?  (Anybody recognize Bloom?)

Ask for what you want.  Do I want students to define a term, give an example of it, apply it to a given situation, or relate the term to other course material?  If I want examples, I should ask for them.  I give students this advice for tests:  “Read the question.  Answer the question.”  For me, the advice is:  “Ask the question.”   

Use written rubrics.  In the old days I could give a paper an A because it “felt like an A paper.”  But that’s not enough anymore!  (We really have made some progress in education.) In the past few years I’ve started using written rubrics for papers, projects, presentations, and sometimes for essay questions on tests.  My rubrics typically contain the dimensions along which grades will be based, and criteria for “preliminary,” “proficient,” and “polished” performance.  (For more information, see Stevens & Levi, 2005). 

In my experience, rubrics help me organize my own thinking and then communicate my expectations and standards more clearly.  Sometimes I’ll develop rubrics in collaboration with my students.  I’ve also found that rubrics allow me to convey more feedback to students more quickly to—they know exactly where they earned and lost points.  (Providing more than just a grade could have been a separate suggestion, but that would make six, and five is a better number for these things.)  Rubrics help me cure another bias:  giving high grades to arguments that agree with mine rather than arguments that are well-reasoned and demonstrate the skills I’m teaching.

Grade tests question by question rather than student by student.  The grade a student earns on one question should not be influenced by their previous answers, but that can easily happen.  It’s a version of the “halo effect.” 

Daniel Kahneman, a famous psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, writes that he too struggled with the halo effect:  “The first question I scored had a disproportionate effect on the overall grade.  The mechanism was simple:  if I had given a high score to the first essay, I gave the student the benefit of the doubt whenever I encountered a vague or ambiguous statement later on…. If a student had written two essays one strong and one weak, I would end up with different final grades depending on which essay I read first” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 83).  Whenever possible, I have students write the answer to each question in a separate green book (They were blue back when I went to college….) so there’s no chance of my seeing their scores on previous questions.

Grade anonymously.  Again, it’s easy and tempting to give active and bright students the benefit of the doubt.  “I’m sure they know it, they just didn’t put it down on paper.”  By grading anonymously (when possible), I judge quality only by what the student actually wrote.  I believe anonymous grading benefits both the “brighter” students, who get more feedback about their writing ability, and students who are less active in class but can convey their ideas better in writing.

Of course, there are other possible suggestions, but—again—five is a good number.  I’d love to hear how others deal with (or have been subject to) biases in grading.


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Stevens, D. D., & Levi, A. J. (2005). Introduction to rubric: An assessment tool to save grading time, convey effective feedback and promote student learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology(American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2013 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

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