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.