Student Self Grading: Perception vs. Reality

Tara L. Crowell

  Open Access OPEN ACCESS  Peer Reviewed PEER-REVIEWED

Student Self Grading: Perception vs. Reality

Tara L. Crowell

Public Health, Stockton University, Galloway, NJ, USA

Abstract

The purpose of student self-grading is explored to discover not only students’ perception of grades but their experience with self-grading in college. Before student self-grading may be deemed a valid practice of accessing student learning, it is important for researchers to define how students perceive letter grades. Data was collected via a brief email survey from 144 undergraduate Public Health majors at a mid-size liberal arts college. Results indicate that students used three major categories in defining their perceptions of what each letter grade represent – Knowledge, Effort and Assignment, along with three minor categories – Learning, Critical Thinking and Success. Results also indicate that only about a third of participants actually engaged in self-grading in college and out of those who, do about 65% indicate that they graded themselves harder than their professors. These findings have implications for the discrepancies that may exist between professors vs. students’ perception of grade representation and ultimately the effectiveness of student self-grading in the classroom.

Cite this article:

  • Crowell, Tara L.. "Student Self Grading: Perception vs. Reality." American Journal of Educational Research 3.4 (2015): 450-455.
  • Crowell, T. L. (2015). Student Self Grading: Perception vs. Reality. American Journal of Educational Research, 3(4), 450-455.
  • Crowell, Tara L.. "Student Self Grading: Perception vs. Reality." American Journal of Educational Research 3, no. 4 (2015): 450-455.

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1. Literature Review

The profession of teaching, similar to most others, consists of a litany of pros and cons and although the pros many vary amongst professionals, grading overwhelmingly tops the list of cons. The philosophies and approaches to grading are as diverse as the fields of study institutions offer. One such method of grading is student self-grading or self-evaluation. The use and frequency of this type of grading can also take on many forms. However, before a professor attempts to explore the effectiveness of self-grading in the classroom, it is important for researchers to understand how students perceive letter grades and students’ perception of their ability to grade themselves compared to their professor. Thus, the purpose of this study is to explore student self-grading to discover not only students’ perception of grades but their experience with self-grading in college.

1.1. Self-evaluation

Self-evaluation is defined as students judging the quality of their work, based on evidence and explicit criteria, for the purpose of doing better work in the future. When individuals teach students how to assess their own progress, and when they do so against known and challenging quality standards, research find that there is a lot to gain. Self-evaluation plays a key role in fostering an upward cycle of learning. (Maehr & Stallings, 1972; Arter et al., 1994; Hughes et al., 1985; and Henry, 1994). The following diagram illustrates how self-evaluation contributes to learning:

If instructors can teach students to do this, they can contribute to an upward cycle of better learning. There are many possible benefits of the use of self student-grading, peer assessment and self-assessment in the classroom.

Student-grading, peer assessment, and self-assessment are terms that generally refer to “specific judgments of ratings made by pupils about their achievement, often in relation to teacher-designed categories” (Baird & Northfield, 1992, p. 21). For example, professors that allow students to grade tests themselves offer four potential advantages over teacher grading: Logistical, Pedagogical, Metacognitive and Affective.

•  Logistical: time efficient (Boud, 1989); quicker feedback for students (McLeod, 2001) and more detailed feedback (Weaver & Cotrell, 1986).

•  Pedagogical: Judging the correctness of answers deepens students’ understanding about a topic and reading another’s answers provide possible opportunity for students to change their ideas or further develop their skills (Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956; Boud, 1989).

•  Metacognitive: Students become more aware of their own strengths, progress, and gaps (Alexander, Schallert, & Hare, 1991; Black & Atkin, 1996); develop a capacity to take initiative in evaluating their own work (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Faulk, 1995); use higher order thinking skills to make judgments about others’work (Bloom, 1971; Zoller,1993; Zoller, Tsaparlis, Fastow, & Lubezky, 1997).

•  Affective: Affective changes can make classrooms more productive, friendlier, and cooperative, and thus can build a greater sense of shared ownership for the learning process (Baird & Northfield, 1992; McLeod, 2001; Pfeifer, 1981;Weaver & Cotrell, 1986; Zoller, Ben-Chaim, & Kamm, 1997).

Similarly (Ross et. al, 2000) found that there are three kinds of benefits for student learning when students are taught how to evaluate their work. The first is cognitive achievement, especially narrative writing skills. Results indicated that students become better writers by learning how to evaluate their prose; the effects are strongest for the weakest writers. Specifically, self-evaluation training helps the low group the most because they are less certain about what constitutes good writing. All students, however, seem to benefit from the focusing effect of joint criteria development and use. A second benefit is student motivation. Students who are taught self-evaluation skills are more likely to persist on difficult tasks, be more confident about their ability, and take greater responsibility for their work. A final benefit is students' attitudes toward evaluation become more positive when they participate in the process. As students grow older they become increasingly cynical about traditional testing. When self-evaluation is included as a contributor to their final grade, students are more likely to report that evaluation is fair and worthwhile. Thus, evidence supports there is heightened meaningfulness of self-evaluation over assessment data.

Additional studies show support for the idea that student training in developing the skills necessary for accurate grading are beneficial. For example, when students were simply handed a rubric and asked to use it voluntarily, but were given no training in its use, they ignored the rubric (Fairbrother, Black, & Gil, 1995). Or Baid and Northfield (1992) found that when given the opportunity to self-assess using open-ended, qualitative statements instead of formal guidelines, students were terse or obscure to the point of uselessness. One study indicates a teacher noting it took a year for her students to learn to use a rubric to accurately self-assess (Parkin & Richards, 1995). Given these results, it is beneficial when beginning to implement self-evaluation, that instructor provide effective training exercises for grading and initially reduce the cognitive complexity and emotional demands on students.

1.2. “Fairness” of Self-evaluation

One common stereotype regarding self-evaluation is the notion that if students have the opportunity to grade themselves, they inevitable with take advantage of the situation by marking themselves higher. Contrary to that belief, Ross, et. al. (1989) found that students, especially older ones, may do this if left to their own devices. However, if students are taught systematic self-evaluation procedures, the accuracy of their judgment improves. Specifically, when students participate in the identification of the criteria that will be used to judge classroom production and use these criteria to judge their work, they get a better understanding of what is expected. The result is that the gap between their judgments and the teacher's is reduced. Also, by focusing on evidence, discrepancies between teacher and self-evaluation can be negotiated in a productive way and students' propensity to inflate grades decreases (Rolheiser & Ross, 2001).

In addition to uncovering the positive benefit of a taught systematic self-evaluation, other studies have found relevant information with regards to the use of student self-evaluation. For example, the reliability of student-grading was higher when students were rating on achievement rather than on student effort (Boud, 1989); weaker students tended to be more generous in grading themselves, contrary to the effect seen in stronger students (Boud,1989); varying views exist among educators concerning whether girls express less or equal confidence in grading their own papers (Baird & Northfield, 1992); inter-rater reliability is increased by using rubrics with unambiguous scales and by using a small number of categories (five or fewer); self-grading on lower order skills is well correlated with teacher’s grades, but students had more difficulty grading items testing higher order understanding in a study of Greek and Israeli students (Zoller, Tsaparlis, et al., 1997). One study even claimed a relationship between “undermarking” and “overmarking,” with college freshmen being more generous with their own grades than college seniors (Falchikov, 1986).

2. Rationale

Therefore, an overview of past research provides researcher with the following regarding students’ use of self-evaluation.

•  Cognitive Achievement – esp. narrative writing skills

•  Motivation - more likely to persist on difficult tasks, more confident about their ability, and take greater responsibility for their work

•  Increase in Student Attitudes

•  Students' propensity to inflate grades decreases when teachers share assessment responsibility and control.

•  The reliability higher on achievement rather than on student effort

•  Weaker students tended to be more generous

•  Varying views exist among educators concerning whether females express less or equal confidence in grading their own papers

•  College freshmen more generous with their own grades than college seniors

•  Training and support needed in developing self assessment skills

These findings provide positive support and encouragement for the use of student grading in the classroom. However, before instructors employ these types of techniques and train students, it is important to understand students’ current perceptions and experience with self-evaluation. Therefore, for the purpose of the study, the researcher wanted to obtain some baseline data on students perceptions and experience with grading and self grading to answer the following two questions:

•  RQ1: What do letter grades represent?

•  RQ2: What experience have you had with grading yourself in college?

3. Methodology

The researcher sent out a mass email to all Public Health Majors (PUBH students) at a mid-size liberal arts college on the east coast. The author’s sampling frame was all approximately 225 PUBH students for convenience and greater response rate. This channel of communication is frequently used to disseminate information and PUBH students are familiar with these types of requests. The following questions were included in the email, along with a statement including that participation is voluntary. Also, the email included a statement that although their email responses do not allow for autonomy, their identities would remain confidential. A total of 144 students (65% of total number of PUBH students) responded to the email. The researcher that sent out the email teaches several required courses and is director of the required internship; hence, this may have contributed to the higher than normal response rate. The email included the following two questions:

1. How do you define the following grades (you can give an explanation and or example): What does it mean to earn an A, B, C, D or F not necessarily what percentage do you equate to each (i.e. 90-100% is A). What do you believe that earning a grade of an A, B, C, D and F represent? Please fill in below:

A Grade of an "A": 

A Grade of a "B":

A Grade of a "C" 

A Grade of a "D" 

A Grade of an "F" 

2. Have you ever graded yourself in a college class? (mark one) Yes or No

If yes, please explain:

If yes, do you feel you graded yourself (mark one):

Easier than your Instructor About the Same Harder than your Instructor

4. Results

Research question one states “How do student perceive grades?”, based on an N=144, the following results were obtained. Approximately two dozen students just defined with percentages, but the other responses were grouped together to form overarching categories. Results are reported for each of these broad categories, using a bullet list to further explain. In addition, a few specific student statements are provided as examples of students statements in some of these categories for further illustration. The major findings included three categories -- Knowledge, Effort and Assignments; some additional finding found three smaller categories – Learning, Critical Thinking and Success.

Assignments - N = 108 (75%)

•  Completion of assignments

•  Scores on exams

•  Errors on papers, assignments, and homework

•  Timeliness of handing in assignments

•  Level of fulfillment of the requirements of the class / instructor

Effort - N = 100 (70%)

•  Attendance in class (include tardiness and / or leaving class early)

•  Participation in class

•  Amount of time and effort in studying  

•  Reaches beyond minimum requirements

•  Level of application  - bare minimum, what teachers expects, going above and beyond / doing extra

•  Working to the best of your ability

Specific Responses:

•  “An A to me means that you put a full effort and went above and beyond to prepare yourself for the test or assignment or the course of the semester. However, this does not mean for the other grades that you did not.”

•  “If you get a B on an assignment I feel that you put a great amount of work into it. Even though it may not have been A material, this maybe because one did not know what to expect on the assignment given, such as the format.”

•  “A C to me means that you at least looked over / gave minimal effort on the assignment being given and are familiar with what is being taught.”

•  “As for a D and F I feel that shows you were unprepared and did not give sufficient effort into the assignment at a college level.”

Knowledge / Material – N = 31 (22%)

•  Excels in the components being taught

•  Solid grasp of concepts being taught

•  All work was completed and student was knowledgeable

•  Misunderstood / struggled with the major concepts

Specific Responses:

Most knowledge comments didn’t focus on assignments; if they did, it started with a grade of B and below.

•  “A Grade of an "A": Worked hard and took time for each assignment, performed above average; A Grade of a "B": gave the class good effort, may have missed a concept; A Grade of a "C" : gave enough effort to pass, may have struggled to understand concepts; A Grade of a "D" : misunderstanding of major concepts, more effort is needed; A Grade of an "F" : needs assistance in class, may have underlying personal issues.”

•  “To earn an A means that you have earned the best grade you worked hard to get that grade and understood what you learned. A B is still good; you worked hard but didn't get an A but still did well. To earn a C means that you either kind of did not understand the material or you did not work hard enough, it is in between good and bad. To earn a D means that you do not know what you were doing and just barely passed. And to earn an F means that you either do not care to learn the material or you just do not understand the material at all.”

•  “A Grade of an "A": A student receiving an "A" went above and beyond in a class. They mastered the material, and even if they did not understand everything, they tried their hardest to get help and stay on top of everything. They also engaged in the material and try their hardest to learn it.”

•  A Grade of a "B": A student receiving a "B" worked hard in the class, but may have missed a few assignments. They understood mostly all of the material and studied for the exams/quizzes.”

•  A Grade of a "C": A "C" student may have not tried as hard as they could have, or may have only understood a portion of the material.”

•  A Grade of a "D": A "D" student does the absolute minimum for a course that does not count towards their major (since you need a C for it to count)

•  A Grade of an "F": An "F" student never showed up for class, or never participated online. They either failed every assignment or cheated on it.”

Additional Findings

•   Learning - N = 15 (11%)

•  Critical Thinking - N = 7 (5%)

•  Success / Failure as a person and / or future – N = 12 (9%)

Specific Responses:

•   “If it were up to me, there wouldn’t be a grading system. I rather a numbers grading system than letters. I think that grades set people apart, so others think that because they get all A's they are smart and that sometimes isn't the case. A person who gets a D or F, feels like a failure and may interpret that as being dumb and not able to accomplish anything. People who receive C's are content because they are passing and not failing. B is the stability knowing that you’re closer to an A. Students are more focused on the letter grades than knowing the actual content of the material they are suppose to learn for their course.”

•   “Earning an A means being successful and securing your future goals. Earning a B means it is good but attaining your future goals might be a bit ambiguous. Earning a C means lower chance of success. Earning a D means success is unattainable. Earning a F is failure.”

•  “A Grade of an "A": A student receiving an "A" went above and beyond in a class. They mastered the material, and even if they did not understand everything, they tried their hardest to get help and stay on top of everything. They also engage in the material and try their hardest to learn it.”

Research question two states “What experience have you had with grading yourself in college?” based on an N=48, the following results were obtained. Only 48 out 144 (33%) reported having any experience with self-grading in the classroom. Of those 48 students, the majority reported that they feel they graded themselves harder than the instructor. The following are the results:

• Self-Graded – N = 48 (33% of participants)

• Harder than Instructor – N = 32 (66%)

•  “I know when I tried my hardest and I know when I did not.”

•  “I feel like I grade myself a lot harder because I know that I could have tried harder to get an “A”.

•  “When I grade myself, I grade myself pretty hard. I’ll say I could have done better, but I knew I gave my all so after a while I stop beating myself up.”

•  “I normally grade myself harder…but sometimes, I don’t see what the professor sees. If the professor shows me what I’ve done wrong, I am more understanding towards the situation. I just hate it when the professor tells me I am wrong without showing me the correct way, I learn better when corrected.”

•   “Harder than the instructor because I know myself better than the instructor.”

•  Same as Instructor – N = 14 (30%)

•  “I graded myself in my philosophy class based on the amount of effort I put into the class compared to what I learned and how much the professor seemed to care about the success of the class.”

•   “Yes I have graded myself in college classes, and it is hard to say, because multiple times I know what I did and how much time I spent on a project but to a teacher who then sees the work and thinks it's terrible, would think differently. So I grade myself about the same.”

•  Easier – N = 2 (4%)

•  “I have never had to grade myself in college class. However, I consider the busy work being completed accurately and on time and higher value than exams. I would grade easier than most professors because to me test do not mean the most.”

5. Discussion

Past research provides a clear outline for the possible benefits for self-evaluation in the classroom. Self-evaluation / self-assessment is when individuals reflect and monitor their own work process or product (Brown & Harris, 2013). Students’ ability and opportunity to engage in self-evaluation is a central component of current conceptions of the classroom assessment, particularly formative assessment (Andrade, 2010; Leahy, Lyon, Thompson, & Wiliam, 2005), and a number of studies have demonstrated a positive association between self-assessment, learning, and achievement (see Brown & Harris, 2013, for a review). As stated earlier in the article, studies have also shown the techniques and training involved in producing more effective ways to incorporate self-evaluation into the classroom. Finally, research has also provided insight into the discrepancies that exist amongst students when engaging in self-evaluation. However, before instructors develop and implement self-evaluation practices into their classroom, it is important to understand the current perceptions and experiences that students have regarding learning. This study attempts to provide a first look at students’ perceptions of what grades really mean to them and their current experience with grading themselves.

Several interesting findings emerged from this study. First, students appear to focus more heavily on Effort and Assignments rather than Critical Thinking and Learning which holds both similarities and differences from most professors’ perception. Students identified completion and correctness of assignments as the number aspect in defining letter grades. Similarly, most instructors employ the use of assignments as one variable of students’ grades. However, the category of Effort may represent more discrepancies between student and teacher perceptions for many reasons. First, the amount and type of effort you perceive you put into the class can often differ from the instructor’s perception. For example, not only may instructors perceive a students’ effort differently, instructors may also vary on their idea of the amount of student effort required for the class. Second, the correlation between effort and grade may also differ amongst students and professors. Results indicate students tend to perceive a positive relation between the two. However, just because a student may try his/her best, this doesn’t always result in a higher grade, especially in a skills based course. A student may attend all classes, do all the homework, and study hard for the test, but still only get a C, because they computed several mathematical problems wrong. This student would perceive they worked to the best of their ability, but still only answered several questions wrong and ended up with a 77% on the exam.

A second difference worth exploring is between student and instructors’ relationship between grades and Critical Thinking and Learning. Given that the ultimate goal of the course is to increase student learning, it is interesting that students mentioned learning so infrequently when defining grades. Although one can argue that learning is implicit and therefore is not mentioned, the small reference to the actual act of learning is noteworthy and needs further investigation. For examples, do students equate completion of the assignments and getting good grades on the exams as “learning the material”. Similarly, Critical Thinking is one of the main objectives of most college level courses, regardless of discipline, but appeared in students’ responses very infrequently. This relationship is also worthy of exploration. For instance, what are students’ actual level of critical thinking in the classroom and what association do students perceive between critical thinking and grades.

Another difference is between students’ and instructors’ perception on Mastering Knowledge as related to grades and self-grading. Just less than a quarter of the students identified knowledge with grades. These comments focused students’ ability to understand and demonstrate their ability to grasp major course concepts or their lack thereof. This relationship is worth further exploration with self-evaluation given the importance of knowledge as related to grades. If students are not associating level of mastering material with letter grades, the value placed on each of those letter grades certainly takes on new meaning. Thus, understanding students’ absence of “knowledge / learning material” as related to their perception of grades is imperative, especially if students are self-grading.

A final interesting finding regarding student self-evaluation is the degree to which students feel they grade themselves compared to their instructors. A smaller sub-sample (approximately 1/3 of the sample) indicated they have experience self-grading in college. Out of these individuals, about 66% indicated they believe they graded themselves harder than their professor, while 30% graded the same as professors. This contrasts findings from some past studies regarding students tendency towards self-enhancement (e.g., Risucci, Tortolai and Ward, 1989; Kruger and Dunning, 1999; Mattheos, Nattestad, Falk- Nilsson and Attstrom, 2004) which found that most students tended to overestimate their own abilities in relation to external raters. In contrast, a minority of studies (e.g., MacIntyre, Noels and Clément, 1997; Chur-Hansen, 2000; Lind et al., 2002; Rees, 2003; Bryan et al., 2005) found that some students–particularly females, highly competent males and anxious students–tended to under estimate their own abilities.

Although this sample is too small to allow for generalizability, these findings are noteworthy in light of past research and the perceptions that students will “take advantage” of self-grading and inflate their grades. Based on these results, students may actually be harder judges when it comes to which grade they believe they have earned. However, in light of other findings in this study, specifically students’ perception of letter grades, even though students may be grading themselves harder than instructors, students’ letter grades may carry different meanings.

Given that Falchikov and Boud (1989) suggest that self-assessment can serve both formative and summative purposes. Meaning that from a formative perspective, self-assessment contributes to the learning process by focusing students’ attention on the areas that need improvement. Specifically, students can use their assessments to determine the extent to which they meet the designated task criteria or standards and to identify areas of improvement. Second, self-assessment can serve a summative purpose; meaning that teachers can use students’ self-assessments for grading purposes. In order to use self-assessment for grading purposes, in light of the above results, future studies on students’ definition of grades are needed. A noteworthy study would be to investigate the meaning of letters grades by comparing how teachers and students grade the same assignments.

5.1. Limitations

This study has many limitations as far as external validity. First and foremost, this sample is does not serve as an accurate representation of college students. Future efforts would need to be made to select a more random sample of college students that more adequately represent the entire student population, rather than just one discipline. In addition, a larger sample size should be obtained in order to increase reliability and validity. Furthermore, it would be helpful to design a study that provides more than just descriptive qualitative data. Using this study as a basis, future research should design an instrument to attempt to measure students’ perception of grades. Specifically, the amount in which students’ perceive the categories such as Effort, Knowledge, Assignments, Critical Thinking, Learning and Success with each letter grade. From there, researchers can identify any differences that may exist between students and these levels; then, ultimately how these differences may influence student learning and students’ ability and effectiveness with self-evaluation.

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[33]  Zoller, U., Tsaparlis, G., Fastow, M., & Lubezky, A. (1997). Student self-assessment of higher-order cognitive skills in college science teaching. Journal of College Science Teaching, 27, 99-101.
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