Hit them hard, early, and often. That’s how a good teacher assesses learning. Might sound mean, but I think the “standard” 3 tests 1 paper class is actually meaner. To be honest assessing student learning is one of the things I struggle with the most, but knowing when to assess and how high to set the bar is crystal clear to me. This week I’ll be discussing what I mean by hit them hard and next week I’ll cover the early and often portion.

I call my approach to grading, rather dramatically, “instilling the fear of god.”1 As soon as possible you need to assess student learning, grade it uber-strict, and provide lots of written feedback that tears down every thing that could be improved. While you should be a tough grader in regards to the number of points you give the students work, your written feedback should be graduate level detailed. Tell them everything they could improve and show them in your written feedback that expect the world from them. To be as explicitly clear as possible, don’t give all your students Ds and Fs, but write feedback all over their work.

For this to work and if you want to avoid a student revolt, you have to repeatedly offer support to your students. When I hand back the first assignment to students I tell them that,

“This first assignment wasn’t exactly what I am looking for and many of you are going to see that you got a grade that you aren’t used to getting. But I want you to know that I will be happy to meet with each one of you during office hours or by appointment to go over your assignments and help you develop strategies to do well in this course. Keep in mind this is just the first assignment and I know that all of you can do very well in this course if you put in the hard work.”

After I hand the papers out I typically get a handful of panicked students and I sit down with them and go over my feedback in detail and provide LOTS of encouragement. My feedback hits like a ton of bricks, but my face-to-face interaction is all “you can do this”. You need the right balance of challenge and support for this to work. If you are going to go nuts on the challenge side of things with your written feedback, then you have got to be enthusiastically supportive in your face-to-face interactions.

“I don’t have time to give graduate level written feedback on every assignment,” you may be thinking right now, but hear me out. To reap the benefits of this approach you only have to do this one or two times at the beginning of the semester (And keep in mind this is typically when faculty are least busy). Your setting a tone of excellence and ideally you are implanting that uber-strict grader voice in your students heads. The approach is to “instill”, or maybe implant is the right word, the expectations you have for your students. I’ve found once students know what you expect of them, they will start to expect it of themselves.

Maybe I sound like a jerk and you are hoping that if you can “win over” your students with kindness they will like you and want to work hard for you. Maybe that’ll work, I dunno. However, keep in mind that my approach is to be Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hide. Be tough in your written feedback and supportive in your verbal feedback. Also, It’s better to have your students think you’re a bad ass and then ease up on them then it is to be a softy and then be like, “come on guys!” about their rigor. Flex early, not late.


1. Now this sounds like I have delusions of grandier and a hierarcial approach to teaching, but remember it’s just a catchy name to make it easy for me to remember.