Assessing Student Performance: Formulating Effective Methods of Assessment

Adapted with permission, Awareness of Teaching and Teaching Improvement Center, Temple University.

Students often complain about their grades when the basis for their assessment is unclear to them. Clear communication also makes courses more inclusive for students from underrepresented groups, such as international students, who might otherwise misunderstand unspoken expectations. Students' ability to "guess" what they will be assessed on does not indicate mastery of course content. Day-to-day class activities and assignments should reflect the instructor's assessment method. This is not to say that the assessment must be a "regurgitation" of class work and readings, but it should fall within the same general framework of the course. Un-graded trial tests can be useful tools both to alert the instructor as to the students' abilities and to provide the students with an understanding of the assessment method.

There are many methods of grading. Numeric methods are not necessarily more "objective" than those that rely on written comments or holistic approaches. It is important for instructors to think through their grading philosophy and purposes before deciding on a grading scheme. Before selecting a grading method, it is also advisable to check relevant course or departmental policies.

Letter Grading

Letter grading should be familiar to anyone who has attended a traditional high school, college or university. Defining what constitutes each level of performance is the responsibility of the instructor.


  • Letter grades are convenient for determining levels of competence for future employment and advanced education.
  • Letter grades provide feedback.
  • Alternatives to letter grades may not result in more effective assessment.


  • Grades can be determined by mixing factors that have various weightings.
  • They can divide students into discriminatory and often competitive groups.
  • They can foster dependent, conforming, unimaginative behavior in students.
  • Letter grades can emphasize hierarchy among students. This can have an adverse effect on learning.


Satisfactory-unsatisfactory systems are based on one cut-off point that determines whether the student has passed or failed the course.


  • This system can be more relaxed and less competitive.
  • This system can provide a better atmosphere; students may be willing to take risks with the teacher.
  • Cheating may be reduced.
  • Some students do more work when freed from the pressure of a letter grade.


  • A passing grade does not distinguish among levels of competence.
  • Some students may work less.
  • It can be difficult to state level of mastery leading to a passing grade.
  • A failing student is still under pressure.

Within the above parameters, a variety of approaches can be used to arrive at the letter grade or the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade. A few of these are listed below, along with some of their relative advantages and disadvantages.

Mastery Approach

The mastery approach assigns a basic satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade to students based on their achievement of specified goals. In a mastery system, students are ordinarily allowed to take different amounts of time to accomplish a goal and to repeat tests or assignments without penalty until they achieve the desired outcome.


  • The grade is meaningful since it is tied to the student's performance level.
  • When students know their goals, they may achieve them faster.
  • The focus is on success, rather than on failure.
  • This system tends to generate cooperation and may raise morale among teachers and students.


  • This approach is more time consuming.
  • It can limit the freedom of teachers.
  • Some teachers might be too exacting in their requirements.

Contract System

A contract system of grading involves the development of a written contract between the student and the instructor that specifies precisely what will be required to receive any given grade. The course syllabus is a good place to communicate this option.


  • This system can reduce anxieties since the student knows what is expected.
  • It can reduce the role of personal judgment in grading.
  • It encourages self-set goals.


  • There is a potential for overemphasis on quantity.
  • There can be difficulty in measuring the quality of student activity.
  • Ambiguity may exist in qualitative distinctions between grades.


A variety of formats can be used. The significant difference in this form of grading is that the source of the evaluation is the student. Instructors can use self-evaluation by students to determine part or all of the course grade.


  • Self-evaluation can be a learning experience for the student.
  • Students are usually fair, objective, and demanding of themselves.
  • It encourages students to take responsibility.


  • It can be taken less seriously as the novelty wears off.
  • It can be abused when students are not introspective.
  • It can be abused under extreme pressure for grades.