Judging Students’ Performance: Are We Too Lenient or Severe When We Grade Our Learners in Online Courses?

Concurrent Session 7
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Grading is the backbone of our educational system and an important professional responsibility for educators, but assessing students’ performance in online courses is a challenging task for many instructors. This session will present deep insights of grading practices in online courses, including point-based scoring with their benefits and pitfalls.


Kadriye O. Lewis, EdD, is the Director of Evaluation and Program Development in the Department of Graduate Medical Education at Children's Mercy Hospital CMH). She is also Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine (UMKC SOM). Prior to coming to Children’s Mercy, Dr. Lewis worked for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) for more than 13 years. She played a major role in the development of the Online Master's Degree in Education Program for Healthcare Professionals. This program has developed a national and international reputation for excellence and played an important role in training future leaders in medical education. Dr. Lewis served as an education consultant to the medical center's faculty development program. She applied her educational background and academic skills to health literacy by establishing a Health Literacy Committee at CCHMC in 2007 and chaired this committee successfully for three years. Along with her many accomplishments in the area of scholarly activities, she also established the e-Learning SIG in Medical Education for the Academic Pediatrics Association (APA) in 2008 and served this group as the chair person for six years. Dr. Lewis is active in medical education research and her scholarly interests include performance-based assessment, the construction of new assessment tools as well as the improvement and validation of existing tools and methods. She also has a particular interest in instructional design and implementation of innovative technologies for curriculum delivery at many levels in healthcare education due to her extensive experience in e-learning and web-based technologies. Currently, she is involved in an NIH funded grant project on genome, various curriculum development projects for the graduate medical education programs at CMH and teaches an online/blended course in the Master of Health Professions Education program at UMKC SOM (http://med.umkc.edu/mhpe/). Dr. Lewis presents extensively at many professional meetings and conferences, and has been an invited speaker at many national and international universities.

Additional Authors

With over 17 years of experience developing adult-centered online programs, Jennifer knows what drives student success— learning experiences that connect academic content to learners’ own lives in realistic, relevant, and relatable ways. Jennifer has managed e-learning initiatives and operations for public, private, and for-profit institutions of higher education. She has led the development of solutions focused on scaling instructional design processes using Lean and project management principles while building infrastructures to keep pace with the evolving state of online higher education. Jennifer earned a BA in Corporate Communication from Marietta College, an MAEd in Adult Education and Distance Learning from the University of Phoenix, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from The University of Dayton. She is also a graduate of the OLC's Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Education.

Extended Abstract

Upon successful completion of the session, participants will be able to:

  1. Describe multiple assessment strategies to judge student performance in an online course
  2. Describe the effects and consequences of leniency or severity in grading online learners
  3. Discuss the benefits and pitfalls of both analytical and holistic approaches in point-based grading systems
  4. Discuss commonly accepted reliable grading systems in online courses

Grading is the backbone of our educational system and an important professional responsibility for all educators. However, not many instructors like grading their students’ assignments due to the subjective nature of current assessment and evaluation practices lack of formal training in effective grading methods. Poor grading practices can be partially associated with grade inflation, a chronic problem captured by GradeInflation.com using data collected between 1983-2013. According to the study, grade inflation made A’s average and the most common grade earned by students. The root cause of problem can be traced to an inherent disconnect among assignment design, grading purposes, variation of grading practices, measurement standards, and policies.

Assessing students’ performance in online courses is a challenging task for many instructors, especially if the courses utilize performance based learning pedagogies and evaluation. A course instructor, develops their own practices based on the importance they place on each assignment. Some instructors are lenient (soft) graders while others are severe (hard) graders. They may evaluate learners in an automatic and subconscious manner or use their own discretion for lower or higher grades. Guskey (2011) points out that educators must make every effort to ensure that grading practices are clear, explicit, and as objective as possible. There is no doubt that transparency in judging students’ performance is critical; however, sometimes it is difficult to articulate the differences between an assignment we score as an A and one to which we give a B. Thus, as online practitioners, we started questioning our own practices and we think multiple factors affecting assessing students’ performance in online courses. For example, we are using point-based grading scores. While this system has many advantages (e.g., what each assignment is worth, wiggle room for adjusting grade controversies, less worry about grades, etc.), we have realized that there are some liability issues (e.g., transparency, objectivity, odd point values for various assignments or calculating the absolute value of an assignment, etc.).

Likely, there is no perfect grading system. Instructors will continue to struggle with ways to maximize the differences among students or to achieve the greatest possible variation in students' scores when grading practices are so ambiguous. This session will share deep insights into grading practices in online courses. Drawing from our own extensive experiences in online teaching and learning, we will engage in discussion of grading practices, critiquing and synthesizing online activities in grading, and revisiting usefulness of institutional grading policies. This session will pose the following questions to the participants:

  • Why and how we grade in online teaching?
  • What is the best approach in grading students’ performance in an online course?
  • How to include students’ input in the grading system?
  • How to design assignments to motivate students for more learning rather than having concern for their grades?
  • What are the reasons using specific grading systems and how to capture valid evidences?
  • What approaches can be used for decision-making practices for grading and their implications?
  • What grading strategies should the performance-based designed courses use?
  • What are the challenges and barriers to establish a robust grading system that support learning and enhance students' perceptions of themselves as learners?

Finally, this information session will provide ample information on point-based grading systems/scoring both analytical and holistic approach, including their benefits and pitfalls.


Grade Inflation at American Colleges and Universities. Available at: http://www.gradeinflation.com/

Guskey, T. (2011). Five obstacles to grading reform. Educational leadership, 69(3), 17-21.