Journal of Nursing Education

Major Article 

Uncovering Nurse Educators’ Beliefs and Values About Grading Academic Papers: Guidelines for Best Practices

Kathy O'Flynn-Magee, MSN, RN; Marion Clauson, MSN, RN

Abstract

Fair and consistent assessment, specifically grading, is crucial to teaching and learning scholarship and is a professional responsibility of nurse educators. Yet, many would agree that assessment is one of the most challenging aspects of their role. Despite differing beliefs, values, and meanings attributed to grading and grades, teachers’ grading practices should be guided by principles and supported by policies. Inconsistent grading practices among educators, students’ unrealistic expectations of grades, and a trend toward grade inflation may be contributing to both educators’ and students’ concerns. A teaching scholarship project that led to a research study explored nurse educators’ beliefs, values, and practices related to the grading of written academic work. The purpose of this article is to share the findings and the resulting grading guidelines that were developed to support nurse educators’ endeavors to enact equitable grading practices. [J Nurs Educ. 2013;52(9):492–499.]

Ms. O’Flynn-Magee is Instructor, and Ms. Clauson is Emeritus Senior Instructor, University of British Columbia School of Nursing, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

The authors thank Dr. Colleen Varcoe and Ms. Clare Kiernan for their support in reviewing and editing this manuscript.

Address correspondence to Kathy O’Flynn-Magee, MSN, RN, Instructor, University of British Columbia School of Nursing, T201-2211 Wes-brook Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 2B5, Canada; e-mail: kathy.oflynnmagee@nursing.ubc.ca.

Received: October 26, 2012
Accepted: April 10, 2013
Posted Online: August 19, 2013

Abstract

Fair and consistent assessment, specifically grading, is crucial to teaching and learning scholarship and is a professional responsibility of nurse educators. Yet, many would agree that assessment is one of the most challenging aspects of their role. Despite differing beliefs, values, and meanings attributed to grading and grades, teachers’ grading practices should be guided by principles and supported by policies. Inconsistent grading practices among educators, students’ unrealistic expectations of grades, and a trend toward grade inflation may be contributing to both educators’ and students’ concerns. A teaching scholarship project that led to a research study explored nurse educators’ beliefs, values, and practices related to the grading of written academic work. The purpose of this article is to share the findings and the resulting grading guidelines that were developed to support nurse educators’ endeavors to enact equitable grading practices. [J Nurs Educ. 2013;52(9):492–499.]

Ms. O’Flynn-Magee is Instructor, and Ms. Clauson is Emeritus Senior Instructor, University of British Columbia School of Nursing, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The authors have disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

The authors thank Dr. Colleen Varcoe and Ms. Clare Kiernan for their support in reviewing and editing this manuscript.

Address correspondence to Kathy O’Flynn-Magee, MSN, RN, Instructor, University of British Columbia School of Nursing, T201-2211 Wes-brook Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 2B5, Canada; e-mail: kathy.oflynnmagee@nursing.ubc.ca.

Received: October 26, 2012
Accepted: April 10, 2013
Posted Online: August 19, 2013

Although grading is “one of the least liked, least understood and least considered aspects of teaching” (Green & Emerson, 2007, p. 495), it plays a large role in teachers’ work life, and its importance cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, our experience shows that students are concerned with perceived issues of inequity among different educators’ grading of their written academic work. Educators share these concerns. We believe that inconsistent grading practices among educators, students’ unrealistic expectations of grades, and a trend toward grade inflation may be contributing to both educators’ and students’ concerns.

These concerns led us to reflect on the importance of one’s beliefs and values about teaching and learning as foundational to enacting best teaching practice. We conducted a teaching scholarship project that led to a research study exploring nurse educators’ beliefs, values, and practices related to the grading of students’ written academic work. The purpose of this article is to share the findings and the resulting grading guidelines that the authors developed to support nurse educators’ endeavors to enact equitable grading practices.

Literature Review

Grading as a Complex Process

The primary purpose of grading should be student learning (Walvoord & Anderson, 2010). Drawing on an extensive survey of the research literature, Black and Wiliam (1998) claimed that learning is significantly enhanced when formative assessment practices are strong and innovative. Yet, Pollio and Beck (2000) suggested that although the purpose of higher education is access to ideas, new ways of thinking, and learning, students’ focus is on obtaining good grades. Thus, assessment and grading may be perceived by students as more important than achieving learning goals (Grainger, Purnell, & Zipf, 2008), which can lead to dissonance between instructor and student attitudes toward grades and learning (Pollio & Beck, 2000).

Grading, as one component of evaluation, is a complex process. Grading is context dependent, with roles in assessment, communication, motivation, organization, and faculty and student reflection (Walvoord & Anderson, 2010). Rust, O’Donovan, and Price (2005) proposed a social constructivist approach to assessment practice. In this view, “everything in the curriculum—the learning outcomes, the learning and teaching methods and the assessment methods—should follow one from another and be seamlessly, demonstrably interrelated” (p. 232). Walvoord and Anderson (2010) stated, “Integrating means teaching what you are grading and grading what you are teaching” (p. 61). Every course should have clear outcomes that inform explicit criteria for assessment and active engagement with the criteria, by both students and educators, to achieve more standardized grading.

The complexity of grading in nursing is heightened by the need to attend to the professional values and regulatory requirements inherent in nursing practice. In 2007, the Evaluation of the Learning Advisory Council of the National League for Nursing conducted a survey on the assessment and evaluation strategies and grading practices used by nurse faculty in prelicensure RN programs (Oermann, Saewert, Charasika, & Yarbrough, 2009). The pass rate on licensure examinations was found to be the most important consideration in faculty decisions about assessment methods and course grading. Faculty ensured fair and consistent grading through establishing standards, completing formal evaluation training, and using multiple reviewers for some evaluation strategies. A key recommendation from the study encouraged faculty to base evaluation strategies on program outcomes, rather than preparation for the licensure examination. According to Shoemaker and DeVos (1999), “If nursing education programs ignore signs of mal-distribution of grades [an excess number of A and B grades in a class], they are not meeting their responsibilities for preparation of graduates capable of functioning effectively as professionals” (pp. 394, 396).

Quality of student work is often subjective, and teachers’ decisions about what constitutes quality work may differ among markers (Grainger et al., 2008). Teachers’ responsibility for accurate assessment of student work requires application of criteria and standards; however, some markers grade holistically first, with a sense that they know what good work looks like. Even when using standardized criteria, different markers can grade the same piece differently when criteria are unclear or open to interpretation. Different interpretations may result in different grades. Grainger et al. (2008) suggested that “real standards are locked inside the marker’s head and have not been explicitly stated to students” (p. 135). They also asserted that a group of markers might focus similarly on technical and content knowledge components when marking but have different interpretations of the quality of the student work. According to Sadler (2005), judging the quality of student work is based on the marker’s personal expectations and how the student has performed in relation to other students. Sadler also posited that assessment and grading do not occur “in a vacuum” but are bound up in professional judgments, along with background criteria-based or norm-based frameworks (p. 177).

Giddens and Lobo (2008) studied differences in the evaluation of a standardized written paper in nursing and found extreme variability in scoring and comments among markers. More comments targeted grammar and format issues than substantive concerns. Markers with academic teaching experience scored the paper lower than those with no prior academic teaching experience. The authors concluded that inconsistency and variability among faculty markers is most evident when evaluating a standardized paper but may not be obvious when multiple papers are graded. They recommended additional support and education regarding the evaluation of written papers for faculty, especially for novice educators.

Knight (2002) argued that summative assessment in higher education is in disarray, as it is difficult to know what grades really mean and thus it is “risky to treat them as reliable” (p. 275). He asserted that because much about learning is both complex and indeterminate, it is optimal to “provide the conditions for good learning and…trust the process: good learning engagements will have good outcomes” (p. 276). Given the varying perspectives on what constitutes complexity in grading, it is important to consider how grade inflation is related to effective grading practices.

Grade Inflation

Grade inflation in higher education has been a concern for at least four decades throughout university and college systems (Winzer, 2002). Grade inflation is variously defined as “upward drift of grades” (Summerville et al., 1990, as cited in Winzer, 2002, “The Problem,” ¶ 2), too many As and Bs in a class (Shoemaker & DeVos, 1999), and “an increase in GPA without an increase in ability” (Bejar & Blew, 1981, as cited in Winzer, 2002, “The Problem,” ¶ 2). The literature documents inflated grades occurring in a variety of institutions and disciplines, including general arts and sciences, business, education, and engineering (Abbott, 2008; Anglin & Meng, 2000; Kamber & Biggs, 2004; Kezim, Pariseau, & Quinn, 2005; Mansfield, 2001; McAllister, Jiang, & Aghazadeh, 2008).

Factors shown to influence inflation of grades include corporate models of academic governance; inconsistent institutional standards and grading policies; use of student evaluations of teaching in reappointment processes; student mindsets of entitlement to good grades; older, mature students; faculty workload with large classes; and faculty knowledge of and preference for evaluation methods (Winzer, 2002). Mansfield (2001) suggested that “grade inflation has resulted from the emphasis in American education on the notion of self-esteem…. The purpose of education is to make students feel capable and empowered” (¶ 13). Martinson (2004) posited that the most significant factor related to grade inflation is the institutionalized use of anonymous student evaluations to measure teaching performance of faculty. He questioned, “Do student evaluations of teaching contribute to a cultural mindset” (p. 49) of getting good teaching evaluations by not expecting too much of the students?

Grade inflation has harmful effects related to inability to recognize superior work, less discrimination among levels of student performance, unfair assessment of student accomplishments and devaluing of student effort, and disturbed student views of their competence (Abbott, 2008; Kamber & Biggs, 2004; Winzer, 2002). Ultimately, students may lack the necessary competencies required for future and career success (McAllister et al., 2008).

Grading and grade inflation are documented issues in schools of nursing in North America (Scanlan & Care, 2008; Seright, 2007; Shoemaker & DeVos, 1999; Walsh & Seldomridge, 2005). Although the literature is sparse, specific implications for nursing include compromise in the ability to predict success on national licensure examinations, reliance on grade point averages for admission to graduate programs, students with poor critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and inability of graduates to function effectively as professional nurses (Shoemaker & DeVos, 1999). In addition, relevant issues in nursing programs include faculty’s beliefs about satisfactory performance and relevant grades; subjective grading of clinical practice; reluctance to fail students in clinical practice; the preponderance of part-time and casual clinical instructors; and discrepancies between theory and clinical course grades (Scanlan & Care, 2004, 2008; Walsh & Seldomridge, 2005).

Although the literature addresses the complexities of grading practices and the issue of grade inflation, there was minimal exploration of nurse educators’ perspectives about grading students’ written work. In the current study, we sought to address this gap.

Method

As a framework for the study, we drew on both the scholarship of teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning (Boyer, 1990; Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing, 2006; Hutchings, Huber, & Ciccone, 2011; Hutchings & Shulman, 1999; Shulman, 2011). According to Hutchings and Shulman (1999), the scholarship of teaching is “the mechanism through which the profession of teaching itself advances…. As such [it] has the potential to serve all teachers—and students” (¶ 17). The framework guided the study in two ways. First, it supported our intention to examine the scholarly teaching practices of a community of educators. Second, it offered the potential to contribute to nursing education scholarship more broadly.

We designed a teaching scholarship project to explore educators’ beliefs, values, and practices related to grading students’ academic written work. Assumptions guiding this project were that faculty do not talk about their beliefs and values related to grading and inconsistent grading practices existed. The purpose of the project was to engage in scholarly dialogue about grading to enhance grading practices within our school. Several informal focus groups revealed a range of diverse beliefs and values about grading, a variety of grading practices, and concerns about the lack of consistent grading among nurse educators. These inconsistencies led us to design a qualitative research study. The goal of the study was to explore and develop guidelines for grading students’ written academic work among nurse educators in a western Canadian university school of nursing. Ethical approval was obtained from the university’s research ethics board.

All faculty in the school of nursing were invited by e-mail to participate in a focus group. Thirteen individuals, constituting approximately 33% of all faculty, from a variety of ranks, with a range of teaching experiences, and across both undergraduate and graduate programs agreed to participate. Two focus groups lasting 1 to 2 hours were held with seven and six participants, respectively. Focus groups were audiorecorded and transcribed verbatim. Focus group questions included:

  • What are faculty’s beliefs and values underlying their grading practices?
  • What are faculty’s perceptions of effective grading of students’ written work?
  • What grading approaches could be used to foster consistent grading practices?

Focus groups offer a rich source of data (Kevern & Webb, 2001; McLafferty, 2004) and are especially useful when addressing sensitive topics (Streubert Speziale, 2007). However, it is also useful to consider Thorne’s (2008) view that the social nature of focus groups may “privilege the kinds of data that people tend to feel more comfortable expressing in the social domain, and substantial private, ‘politically incorrect’ or diverse material would be unlikely to surface” (p. 132). Not only are these potential issues important to consider in the context of the inquiry, but they are also essential to keep in mind when choosing a facilitator for the focus groups. As Krueger and Casey (2000) reminded, when selecting a moderator for focus group interviews, consideration should be given to a variety of factors, including perceived power differences, because they may hinder communication. In the current study, the authors were colleagues of the participants and one of the authors (M.C.) was in an administrative position at the time the focus groups were conducted. Therefore, although both authors were present, an external moderator facilitated the process.

Thematic analysis was used as a way of organizing the data into meaningful clusters or themes (Cameron, 2009). Although themes can be challenging to find—in part because of their abstract nature—“once identified [they] appear obvious” (Morse & Field, 1995, p. 139). As described by Morse and Field (1995), the authors identified themes by immersing themselves in the data, reading and rereading the transcripts, reflecting, writing notes, summarizing, and remaining open to the possibility that more than one theme may be present. Through an iterative process of interpretation and dialogue, the authors came to a place of thematic agreement.

Findings

Analysis of the findings revealed themes about grading that reflected participants’ beliefs and values underlying their grading practices and their perceptions of effective grading of students’ written work. Many ethical principles, such as equity, confidentiality, anonymity, consistency, and objectivity (Canadian Nurses Association, 2008; Murray, Gillese, Lennon, Mercer, & Robinson, 1996), were evident in the findings and, as such, constituted the theme of grading as ethical practice.

Relational practice was identified as a second theme and describes educators’ emphasis on the importance of respecting students’ efforts and promoting their self-esteem, in addition to caring about, sharing power with, and communicating with students. Hartrick Doane and Varcoe (2005) reminded that “being in responsive relation involves both personal and political skills and capacities” (p. 210).

Therefore, the two main themes identified are ethical practice and relational practice.

Grading as Ethical Practice

Numerous ethical principles were strongly evident in participants’ narratives about their commitment to effective grading practices and the challenges they encountered. Educators valued having clear criteria and expectations and communicating them to students and the team prior to grading. Of note, educators’ interpretations of criteria reflected varying beliefs about how students achieve success and whether 100% is even achievable in their written academic work. Simply meeting the criteria could mean either a passing grade or an excellent one. One educator noted:

I tell them that these are the criteria and if they meet all these criteria, then they’ll get an A on their paper and the grade is really going to be dependent on meeting the criteria.

The context for grading included individual marking versus marking within a team. Effective team processes included coordinating team members, developing criteria collaboratively, proactively sharing a range of papers, buddying new markers with experienced markers, and checking and scanning to ensure consistency across markers. When marking alone, participants described a number of approaches to ensure consistency, such as reading all papers twice, rereading the first and last marked paper, and rereading papers with high and low marks. On occasion, workload prevented reviewing papers more than once.

In an effort to maintain fairness, participants questioned whether they should “know or not know” students’ identity. Some participants chose to know the writer because it was relevant to the content of a clinically orientated paper, whereas others chose to maintain students’ anonymity in the interest of fairness and objectivity. For example, as one participant described:

I ask the students not to put any marks or their name or anything on any other pages…. I can sometimes hear the voice, but sometimes I am completely flabbergasted by the way a student has written a paper—[students who] I was sure would be borderline failure and [who] have done beautiful work, and [I also find] the opposite. I really like [anonymity] actually because…I feel more objective, so for me that has really worked a lot better.

Consistency of grading was also influenced by the use of grading systems, standards, and tools. According to one faculty member:

I found it easier to give an A when I had a mark for this and two marks for that, three marks for that…, by the time I gave a mark out of two or one it…always added up to a lot more than if I didn’t have [a specific grading system] and I just went by what an A paper looks like, what a B paper looks like, and then that’s why I found that standard helpful.

Participants described the challenges embedded in grading; however, their commitment to consistency and objectivity by doing it well was strongly evident. They shared their approaches for “getting into the right space” for grading, such as being clear headed and focused, not feeling grumpy, creating blocks of time, ensuring a positive environment without distractions, stopping if frustrated, and when all else fails, “Glue butt to chair.”

Several participants described their commitment to supporting students’ ongoing learning and success; a key finding was the importance—and nature—of feedback. Participants viewed helpful feedback as a hallmark of effective teaching practice as it related to grading. They described what feedback meant to them as educators, in addition to their assumptions about the possible meanings that feedback held for students. Embedded in their dialogue about feedback were descriptions of what makes it constructive and effective, as well as the importance of its congruence with the actual grade. Constructive and effective feedback was identified as legible, individualized, focused on the work and not the person, offered in the right dose, and, as identified in the literature, offered with a sincere “sandwich” approach (Dohrenwend, 2002, p. 43).

Participants valued the provision of feedback both as a process and as a learning opportunity. As one participant said:

I just believe that the written comments I give back are more important than the mark…and I want it to connect fairly with the comments.

Another participant described:

What I’m trying to do is push them to move, to evolve, to… expand their ability, to think and write and put it together in a logical, coherent and…crisp kind of a way, and they haven’t had…feedback before that’s suggesting to them that they’re not able to do that.

There’s no question that ambiguity exists in educators’ perspectives of students’ valuing of the feedback versus the actual mark. For example, according to one participant:

That’s the other thing. You spend all this time marking, and [students] just go for the mark… They don’t seem to read my comments [and], you know, I spent two hours looking at it.

Many of the participants’ stories were linked to ethical dilemmas. The process of considering a mark change was a common example of enacting principles of equity and consistency. One faculty member said:

I was reasonably hard-nosed on not changing, because I think there needs to be a really good reason. Now, certainly, if you’ve added something wrong…, then that is obviously [a] reason to change, but I think a lot of the stuff that students fall into in the way of getting marks changed is because they know that they can and so the squeaky wheel gets the grease…. I think that is dreadful for the teaching….

Another participant offered this perspective:

I say this to the student, if I change your mark then…then, under fairness from my perspective, I’ll need to go back and give all the other students the [equivalent] marks.

Although these findings might imply that standards equate with not changing a mark, one participant identified the importance of acknowledging that:

All faculty has standards. It’s what they translate to in terms of a mark, and I think most people would argue that they’re sticking to their standards. It’s a translation to a mark and what that mark means in this world…that’s a real issue.

Maintaining one’s integrity in assigning grades, based on assessment of the quality of student‘s written work, was particularly challenging for some participants, who explained the implications of resisting grade inflation at the expense of their teaching evaluations. For example:

The issue of whether the faculty member has tenure comes into play, and because it is something that some of us new faculty talk about…you have a leaning toward lower marks, but you actually think about—do I want to risk a grievance here—you look at the paper and think, “this is not a good paper,” but if that student has typically got high marks or…carry a reputation that they will rock the boat more, it’s something I think that we consider, so that’s part of that grade inflation…. Just give [those students] an A.

Grading as Relational Practice

Participants described relationships and conversations with students in which they shared their beliefs and grading practices, as well as invited dialogue about aspects of marking both before and after the actual grading. According to one participant:

I always [am] very concerned about egos and because this is [a student’s] personality, like their soul gets put into papers…for the majority of students, part of them is in that paper and that needs to be protected.

Participants’ knowledge about students’ capacity and strengths led to assumptions about how students’ written work should be evaluated. For example, for some participants, knowing a student as a “good nurse” in a clinical context meant equating the quality of their written work with the quality of their practice. Making allowances for gaps in their academic work led some participants to evaluate students’ written work somewhat subjectively. At a broader level, participants were challenged to reconcile students’ varying performances with the factors constituting professional nursing practice. As one participant indicated:

They may produce beautiful papers, but it’s what are they doing in the clinical area and that’s where I’ve had more of an issue with some of them is whether they really understand what nursing is…so they may be doing A work in the classroom and yet they are getting it in the [clinical setting].

Another participant suggested:

Then you see the opposite of the ones [who] are struggling in the classroom and yet if I was ever ill or my family members were ill that [student is] the person I would want [to provide care].

Participants’ descriptions of conversations with students demonstrated that power was used in particular ways by both faculty and students. Evident in their descriptions were both implicit and explicit notions of power, as well as how power could be used proactively to enhance the relationship, or how it might be used in ways that could detract from the relationship. For example, one participant stated:

Power and balance [exist] within the student–teacher relationship. [For example], …some students actually said that… sort of saying, “You give me a bad mark, and I’ll make sure… that I’ll give you a bad evaluation.”

Students’ requests to discuss their grades also revealed issues of power. Although the opportunity for consultation with students after returning their papers was crucial, participants emphasized a number of processes to ensure the primary focus remained on students’ learning, rather than on negotiating marks. Although such consultation was framed as meeting the students’ needs, issues of power were evident in these processes in that faculty made the decisions regarding when to meet and what would or would not be discussed. According to one participant:

I’m not prepared to hear any comments within the first 24 hours, and I’ve got your paper ahead of time and if you do come and discuss your paper, it’s about the process and the learning…. I will not change your mark.

Participants reported conversations with students that revealed differing beliefs about earning or losing marks. Although students often requested clarification of how they lost marks, the focus of the conversation shifted significantly after participants explained that students earned marks.

In summary, findings revealed two main themes of grading—ethical practice and relational practice—and reflected participants’ commitment to enacting grading practices that are equitable and grounded in their relationships with students. Within these themes, participants viewed the primacy of grading as supporting students’ learning.

Discussion

The academic and practice contexts in which nurse educators enact their beliefs and values about grading are extremely complex. Participants’ narratives about beliefs, values, and practices demonstrated multiple layers of complexity of grading work; yet, educators in this study recognized the importance of not only “doing it,” but doing it well. Such commitment to ethical and relational practice was evident in views of the student–educator relationship as the foundational context in which grading occurs, power between students and educators and its influence on experiences and decisions, and educators’ integrity and commitment to fair grading practices.

Grading is framed within relationships among educators and between educators and students. As conceptualized by Hartrick Doane and Varcoe (2005), “relational practice is shaped by both how you as a nurse choose to be in-relation in any given moment, by the people/families with whom you are in relation, and by the contexts within which you practice” (p. 210). The beliefs and values educators hold about grading influence the ways in which they engage with others within the context of grading conversations and processes. Wallace (2003) discussed practical issues of nursing student assessment, asserting that “relationship is part of the assessment process in nursing practice” (p. 33). Effective faculty–student relationships in practice settings are important for mutually establishing a safe learning environment, providing appropriate learning experiences, setting boundaries for guidance and support, managing potential risks to patients, and ensuring ongoing communication and feedback (Wallace, 2003). The authors of the current study argue that effective student–educator relationships are equally important in the context of grading practices.

The nature of the student–educator relationship also shapes the ways in which feedback is offered and received. Poulos and Mahony (2008) examined health science students’ perspectives about the contribution of feedback to their learning. Their findings revealed that the students’ perceptions of the usefulness of feedback related to how they perceived the educator: “Effective lecturers provided effective feedback” (p. 152).

Teachers’ ambiguity related to knowing or not knowing the student was supported in an overview by Brennan (2008), who questioned the capacity of university teachers to apply objective judgment when knowing student identity. Students perceived to be bright might be marked more favorably than those with less perceived aptitude when expectations are based on preset beliefs or knowledge. However, anonymous processes negate the option to provide individualized feedback to students. Authentic assessment in professional contexts requires that identity be fully known to the individual judging the work (Brennan, 2008). Findings in the current study revealed another potential bias for objective assessment when the quality of a student’s written work was equated subjectively with knowing the student as a “good nurse” in the clinical context. Similarly, viewing “the concept of ‘good nurse’ as synonymous with ‘nice person’” (Wallace, 2003, p. 35) could also reduce the potential for objective assessment and requires attention to valid and authentic feedback within the relationship.

Participants’ perspectives about the ways in which power played out within student–educator relationships were both implicit and explicit and could either enhance the relationship or detract from it. Sharing beliefs and values about grading and inviting dialogue with students about marks and grading processes were demonstrative of educators’ intentions to support students’ learning. What is interesting to consider is when students wanted to discuss or challenge their grades, the ways in which educators established how that would happen constituted a particular enactment of power. Although educators articulated their actions and decisions as fair and equitable grading practices, they appeared to be unaware of how power was enacted in terms of who was calling the shots. Educators decided what would or would not be discussed and whether mark changes would be considered. More than a decade ago, in her analysis of partnerships between students and teachers, Paterson (1998) suggested that equality within such relationships is unrealizable because it involves equality of identity and function. Although the former is achievable in terms of respect and trust, the latter is not because of differing knowledge and experiences. From our perspective, in the context of grading, the power dynamics are influenced by differences between students’ and educators’ experience and knowledge. Few would argue that power is inherent in decisions that educators make when grading students’ work; yet, as reflective educators we must think about how power unfolds in our everyday grading practices and relationships with students.

Educators’ commitment to fair grading practices was strongly evident; however, the concerns raised about the prevalence of inconsistent grading practices challenged their integrity. The importance of clear expectations and specific criteria was described as essential to minimize grading discrepancies and inflated grades; yet, varied approaches, such as marking holistically or using a detailed mark breakdown, were outlined. Sadler (2009) questioned the validity of grading systems, such as rubrics and scoring keys, suggesting that holistic appraisal of written work merits further examination, and skilled qualitative judgments are required to determine the quality of complex work. Woolf (2004) determined that a higher level of shared understanding about assessment criteria and how they are applied is needed, but “absolute mechanical” marking criteria are not possible (p. 489). In his view, using clear criteria does not eliminate the need for fair academic judgment. We concur and suggest that such judgment is one of the most challenging aspects of marking, requiring ongoing development, particularly for novice educators. The integrity of educators’ marking is maintained not only when they adhere to clear criteria and practices but also when there is consistency within intellectual judgments. However, the visibility or transparency of such judgments, and the varying expertise within them, remains an ongoing issue.

Although a primary focus of this study was approaches to consistent grading practices, many participants did not identify grade inflation as a key concern. However, it is clearly described as such in the nursing literature (Scanlan & Care, 2008; Seright, 2007; Shoemaker & DeVos, 1999; Walsh & Seldomridge, 2005), and we believe that grade inflation is linked to inconsistent grading practices. Questions remain. How does grade inflation influence educators’ grading beliefs and practices? Is grade inflation socially constructed, and, if so, by whom? The relationship among the meaning of grades, grading practices, and grade inflation is complex and requires further exploration.

Given the issues and challenges related to grading students’ written work, this study’s findings revealed the need for educator support. The literature recommended strategies for faculty development related to assessment and evaluation, such as sessions about beliefs and values associated with grading, writing workshops, grading rubrics, and a blind review process for grading written papers (Bickes & Schim, 2010; Duffy, Stuart, & Smith, 2008; Luthy, Peterson, Lassetter, & Callister, 2009; Scanlan & Care, 2008). McTighe and O’Connor (2005) and Salend and Garrick Duhaney (2002) also described effective practices to support teaching, learning, and grading processes, but limited discussion outlining specific grading guidelines or policies exists in the literature reviewed.

A clear need exists for specific guidelines and policies to support fair and equitable grading practices so educators will not have to grapple with grading issues and decisions on an individual basis. It is crucially important to understand how one’s beliefs and values influence the relationship between educators and students and to consider the ethical nature of what one does in the context of effective grading. These two broad themes represent participants’ beliefs, concerns, and practices related to grading. Drawing from these themes, the Grading Guidelines were developed to provide more specific direction to support nurse educators’ enactment of equitable and consistent grading practices (Table A; available in the online version of this article).

Limitations

Participation in this study was limited to educators’ perceptions, beliefs, and values in one university school of nursing in western Canada. The study findings do not represent student perspectives, except as perceived by educators. In addition, participants are colleagues who teach, and possibly grade, together, which may have resulted in difficulty for individuals in expressing disparate views.

Conclusion

Although grading is one of the most challenging aspects of an educator’s role, Parini (2008) noted its “unbearable importance” (p. 1). The commitment and integrity educators invest in marking demonstrates their respect for students’ effort, students’ self-esteem, and the learning that should be embedded in their written work. Despite differing beliefs, values, and meanings attributed to grading and grades, educators’ grading practices should be guided by principles and supported by policies. What educators believe about grading, how they prepare to grade, how they actually grade, and what they do following grading are crucial processes. The grading guidelines provide an excellent foundation to enact fair and consistent grading practices and minimize grade inflation.

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