Effective Online Grading

Written by: Tim Bristol, Ph.D.
Published On: March 12, 2012

Using online tools in student assessment is an important strategy for today's faculty. These grading tools offer faculty and students many efficiencies and enhancements that allow for success and satisfaction in the assessment process. Online gradebooks allow for quick feedback in a logical format. Students can access their grades at their leisure. The online gradebook allows for connections between numerical grades and narrative feedback (e.g., instructor comments on a quiz). The gradebook can save faculty time in organization and communication to students.

Magna Online SeminarOnline quizzing is another area of efficiency and enhancement. These tools are usually available to most faculty, and can be used for graded and nongraded assignments. They can be administered in a face-to-face environment or fully online. When the tools include multiple-choice, true/false, and matching questions, the students can receive instant feedback. When essay questions are used, the instructor will not need to worry about lost papers and exams, as all are "locked" behind a password on a secure server. One final advantage of online exams is the item analysis that can be generated. Most online quizzing tools allow for instant item analysis reports that help faculty judge the validity and reliability of the exams. 

Other online assessment strategies and tools that bring benefit to academia include the online discussion, online projects, and online group work. These tools allow for enhanced interactions compared to the face-to-face environment while building flexibility and realism into the curriculum. 

Regardless of the online tool being used for assessment, two key principles must be addressed. These principles are clarity and consistency.


Online Classroom newsletterClear communications and guidelines are vital to the success of online assessment. The issues that drive the need for clarity are twofold. First, when online tools are used, there are different and sometimes fewer directional cues for the learner. These missing cues can be everything from handouts to facial expressions. When assessments are done online, there is a need to compensate for some of these cues. Compensation can come in the form of reminders in online announcements and emails. Other cues may come from online exam instructions and reminders in the stem of a discussion.

The second issue that drives the need for clarity involves adult learning theory. Adult learners come with many expectations of the learning environment. And since more adult learners are joining all academic settings, we are wise to consider their characteristics. Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2005) discuss the fact that adult learners have a need for rationale and are quite motivated. This means that an assessment process that is confusing or poorly developed can cause them significant stress. This stress can adversely affect the assessment. In turn, this may lead to a bad grade and poor data for the faculty.

Strategies that can enhance clarity with online assessment often relate to verbiage. "Do the instructions make sense?" Ask an assistant or family member to read the instructions. If there are any questions, consider this a clue as to what students will experience. Another strategy is to "test-drive" instructions with students through a low-stakes event. For instance, have the online quiz be an in-class activity or extra-credit activity.

Clarity should be sought in all descriptions and steps in the process. In the beginning, some complexity may be left out of the process for the sake of ensuring that the first run is smooth. An example may be turning in papers digitally. The instructor has as an ultimate goal to have students attach a grading rubric to each paper before submitting both to the drop box. If this is the first time the instructor intends to use the drop box, consider skipping the requirement to attach the grading rubric. Save that for after the drop box tool has been mastered by faculty and students alike.

Another important part of developing instructions is the use of images. Images of the computer screen can be captured and pasted into the instructions. Using screen captures can clarify written instructions—when the instructions say "click the submit button" a picture of the submit button can be shown.

If these concepts seem difficult, ask a student helper to assist with image capture and edit. Student helpers have made my life a lot easier when it comes to technology.

As these tips demonstrate, there can be a lot of room for confusion when online assessment is used. However, once the initial foundation is laid, the benefits of online assessment can flow freely. To ensure that this flow continues, faculty will do well to pursue consistency.


Consistency addresses the idea that students come to learn for the purpose of pursuing greater milestones in life. They do not come to learn about faculty preferences and quirks. Keeping this in mind, faculty need to look for ways to ensure consistency of instructional design between assessment strategies and within programs. This can apply to one's own course (i.e., the grading rubric for the concept paper is similar to or the same as the one for the final project). This includes consistency between courses as well. Are the discussion forum questions in psychology graded in the same way as discussion forum questions in sociology?

Consistency needs to be sought in terminology. Some courses will have the same assignment discussed in the syllabus, in the course calendar, and in the online course management system. Are the assessment criteria laid out the same way in all three areas? Is the assignment referred to with the same phraseology? In the beginning it may be difficult for faculty to remember to adjust all three when a change is made. However, this type of discrepancy can cause undue stress to weary learners who simply want to submit their papers before the deadline.

Within the department, consistency should be sought as well. In one liberal arts college, the grading rubric for online discussions is exactly the same (with the exception of two to three words) in all the nursing classes. At another school, the education department has chosen to use one online testing package for all education courses. At one statewide community college system, grading rubrics are computer generated by an instructional design specialist. That group has also put policy in place that maintains consistency in the look and operation of the online course management system. 


Clarity and consistency lead to a well-developed assessment structure. These concepts help to remove barriers to effective and efficient assessment. Once these barriers come down, satisfaction and sanity is enhanced for all involved.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., and Swanson, R. A. (Eds.). (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.). Woburn, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Dr. Bristol is a nurse educator, consultant, and technology specialist. 

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom  (March 2009): 3,5.  Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.