Why Grading Makes Us Anxious Too

anxious cartoon face

anxious cartoon face

Submitted to 2018-2019 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium by Ileana Hernandez, Ph.D., LMHC, Florida International University

“There is nothing more demoralizing than the thought that the countless hours we spend grading might be dismissed as meaningless.” – Elizabeth Barre

Although many students think “they are the only ones who worry about grades,” writes Elizabeth Barre, in a recent blog post, “anxiety about grades is also a central feature of faculty life.” While students often worry about how their grades will affect their progress toward graduation, faculty often worry about whether their approaches to grading are valid, fair, and efficient, or as Barre puts it, “meaningful, moral, and manageable.” This tip explores ways to better align learning and grading, so attention to one translates to attention to both.

Are my grades meaningful?

When considering whether her grades are meaningful, Barre thinks about grades as measures but wrestles with what they are actually measuring: “performance, competency, growth, or effort?” To make grades as meaningful as possible, we must first define clear goals for student learning. Then, we can design assessments (e.g. projects, tests, quizzes, assignments, and so on) that collect evidence of students’ progress toward those goals. If our assessments measure what we intend for them to measure, the grades students earn with their work will align more closely with their progress toward accomplishing the goals of the course–and therefore be more meaningful.

Are they moral?

When exploring the morality of her approach to grading, Barre is really concerned with the issue of fairness: creating “a system of grading that ensures students in similar circumstances will be treated similarly.” Because developing them helps us define evaluation criteria, rubrics are invaluable tools for making grading more fair. They can help keep us focused on the most important aspects of an assignment as we evaluate each student’s work. This helps us to avoid deducting points for minutia irrelevant to the learning goals we’re trying to assess.

Two additional strategies related to fairness are grade norming and “blind grading,” or grading anonymous student work. Grade norming entails working with colleagues in an effort to evaluate student work more consistently. It’s particularly important for instructors working together to grade student work within the same course. To grade anonymously, we can easily use the anonymous grading feature in Blackboard. We can review student work, provide feedback, and assign a grade without seeing students’ names.  

Are they manageable?

Rubrics can also help with the management of grading. Starting with clearly defined criteria for success can improve the quality of the assignments you receive. This clear picture aids students in getting closer to accomplishing the goals on each attempt, allowing for more targeted feedback. Many colleagues have shared with us that dividing up the work of grading (e.g. grading only five projects in one sitting) also helps make the task more manageable and less overwhelming.

Barre experimented with using specifications grading in her course and reported that “the grading was most certainly faster and less anxiety inducing, as I expected it would be.” Her post describes her approach to using “specs” grading in her course, and it also links to several sample syllabi from other courses in which faculty adopted this method.

Rubrics in Blackboard

In addition to anonymous grading, Blackboard also contains a robust rubric tool to simplify grading.

Rubrics can be created for any type of assignment. It is easy to edit rubrics to meet specific needs; they can be copied and modified within a course and exported to share across courses.

Rubrics can be viewed by the students and used by the faculty for point-and-click grading with built-in feedback plus additional space for unique comments.

Blackboard has rubric information on their website for you to learn more. Please note – Blackboard sets rubrics up with criteria in ascending order, from the lowest criteria to the highest or best. If you choose to use Blackboard Rubrics your first step should be to edit those columns so that the students see the highest, or best, criteria first. Your highest expectations should be the guiding force for students to create their best work, which you can then grade fairly and efficiently with less anxiety.

For help developing rubrics at GCC please email GCConline@genesee.edu or Helpdesk@genesee.edu.


Barre, E. (2016) Meaningful, moral, and manageable.  The grading holy grail.  Rice University. Retrieved from: http://cte.rice.edu/blogarchive/2016/2/9/grading


Levine, M. (2014) Specifications Grading. University Times: Pittsburgh, PA.

Submitted by:

Ileana Hernandez, Ph.D., LMHC, Assistant Director for Assessment, Evaluation, and Teaching Assistant Development, Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Instructor, Department of Psychology, Florida International University

Edited by:

Judith Littlejohn: corrected spelling, grammar, and hyperlinks; added rubric information and conclusion.

Image by Pixabay.

Assignment Design Checklist

Careful planning and implementation of assignments will help your students produce th evidence you expect to prove they met your learning objective. Consider using this checklist as a tool to trouble-shoot your assignment design and identify possible areas to refine. Other considerations may be required for your specific assignment, but this will give you a great start, no matter what type of assignment you plan to give.

1 Planning

A) When planning the assignment, decide how it can:

  • Fit with main learning objectives for the course, term, and program
  • Relate to previous work done in this course and past courses
  • Be new and different from the type of assignments given in this course and other courses (go beyond another paper)
  • Benefit from an audience other than yourself (peers, community professionals, librarians, others)
  • Use current topics and current resources
  • Be broken into a series of smaller assignments to avoid overwhelming students (scaffold)
  • Be completed – in groups, pairs, or individually
  • Be completed – in the online or hybrid environment
  • Build on students’ previous experience and current skill set
  • Develop important skills for students, both for your course work and beyond (skills for the workplace, skills for life)
  • Require a reasonable amount of work and be successfully completed in the allotted time, given other courses and demands outside of school
  • Have value to you (will be interesting to grade, lead to a research project)
  • Require a level of commitment you can meet (student support, grading and feedback)

B) Consider the support demands students may have:

  • Identify types of assistance students will require to complete the assignment
  • Contact librarians, community professionals, or other people who can assist you and your students in completing the assignment
  • Arrange guest lectures relevant to assignment process (librarian, community professional, colleagues)
  • When possible, use class time for activities to help students complete the assignment (discuss how to write an annotated bibliography, run lab activities to demonstrate a requisite skill, discuss material related to assignment topic)
  • Decide if students are required to meet with you as they complete the assignment and set times and policies for availability to help students avoid procrastinating

C) Make evaluation decisions by choosing the:

  • Assignment length expectations and due dates
  • Type of feedback to give – written, oral, anonymous
  • Evaluators – you, peers, community professional, librarian
  • Type of grade required (check mark, pass/fail, numeric grade)
  • Parts to evaluate – effort, research process, thinking process, progress, sequence of assignments, drafts, final products
  • Weighting of components – how much is each part worth
  • Turnaround times for grading/feedback to make the assignment meaningful for students
  • Policies for possible problems – late or incomplete assignments, missed meetings, poor group work practices, plagiarism

2: Implementing

A) Prepare an assignment description or handout that:

  • Comprises the key parts –  situation (background information, audience, relevance), task (what to do), stages (a timeline for completing key stages of the assignment), and evaluation criteria (specific grading rubric, special policies)
  • Uses plain language – avoids jargon
  • Provides advice from past experiences with the assignment
  • Explains proper citations and acceptable sources for information – be specific and expect to be taken literally

Have a colleague (preferably someone not familiar with your course) read the handout and identify any unclear instructions and jargon, then revise accordingly. As well, do your assignment before giving it to students whenever possible, so you can identify problems before they do. And, when you distribute the handout in class, take time to discuss it and allow for questions and clarifications about the task.

B) Consider giving ongoing support:

  • Share useful student feedback with the class
  • Keep in touch with support people (librarian)
  • Ask for mid-assignment feedback since no news is not necessarily good news
  • Have a backup plan for areas identified as difficult to complete (i.e., if a resource is hard to get, have a copy available on reserve) – but take care not to modify the assignment too much from the handout because this confuses students

3 Follow Up

After all the assignments have been graded and returned:

  • List 5 strengths and 5 weaknesses of the assignment and suggest changes for next time
  • Ask for evaluative feedback from students and support contacts – find out what worked well, what could be improved, where students had the most difficulty, and how you can better facilitate the process next time
  • Use feedback and experiences to modify assignment plan for the next time

Notice that the bulk of the work is in the first section, planning. The more thought and care you put into planning well-constructed assignments the more opportunities your students will have for success.

Download and use the Assignment Design Checklist.

This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Assignment Design: checklist. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.

Remixed by Judith Littlejohn, October 1, 2018. Edits to formatting, wording, and conclusion; created actual checklist.

Featured image = “Pencil” from Pixabay


“Being There” – Instructor Presence in Online Classes

One of the encouraging messages that emerges from research on online learning is that instructors matter.  In particular, students’ perceptions of your social presence in a course strongly correlates to perceptions of learning and instructor satisfaction (Richardson & Swan, 2003, Swan & Shih, 2005).  Social presence is the extent to which members of an online community perceive each other to be “real” and feel connected to one another (Cobb, 2009). Through intentional development of your social presence, you can help foster a sense of community in your online course, similar to what you accomplish in an on-site course.

Ways to Increase Social Presence in Your Online Courses 

  • Set the tone:

    • Model communication with your students that takes on a less formal, more conversational tone.
    • Address your students by name and share your own personal experiences.
  • Connect faces to names:

    • Consider posting a brief, introductory video of yourself, and ask your students to do the same (jing, snag-it, camtasia, screencast-o-matic).
    • Use students’ names in your communication.
  • Design Online Discussion Questions and Tasks to Elicit Personal Responses:

    • Ask your students to relate course content to their own relevant personal experiences.
    • Encourage authentic assessment by scaffolding assignments in which students relate coursework to their own lives.
    • Have the students share ideas and thoughts about content. Share yours, too.
  • Provide Video Feedback:

    • Quick videos (jing, snag-it, camtasia, screencast-o-matic) in which you point out the highlights of a students’ work and specify where they need to revise show that you care about that individual’s success.
  • Foster Community:

    • Construct discussions and activities to encourage students to collaborate, address the class as a community (using “we”), and acknowledge contributions to the group.
  • Most of all, Be Present:

    • Build relationships through regular interaction, including privately interacting with students
    • provide constructive and prompt feedback
    • encourage students’ knowledge building.

By intentionally monitoring how you project social presence, you can enhance the sense of community in your online course, encouraging your students to meaningfully contribute to the conversation and value the responses of their classmates — ultimately resulting in more engaged, and successful, learning.


Cobb, S. (2009). Social presence and online learning: A current view from a research perspective. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 8(3), 241-254.


Richardson, J. & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Online Learning Networks, 7(3), 68-88.

Swan, K., & Shih, L. F. (2005).  On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(3), 115–136.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Evan Kramer

Keeping Student Stress from Devolving into Distress through Course Design


  • Defining Stress, Distress, and their Origins
  • How Distress Manifests in the College Setting
  • Why Make an Effort to Reduce Distress Among Students?
  • Reducing Distress in the Classroom
  • Further Resources
  • References

Defining Stress, Distress, and their Origins

Stress is an omnipresent feature of most Americans lives (American Psychological Association 2010). The American Psychological Association defines stress as a “pattern of specific and nonspecific responses an organism makes to stimulus events that disturb its equilibrium and tax or exceed its ability to cope” (Gerrig and Zimbardo 2002) .

Stress affects all Americans regardless of age, gender, race, socioeconomic status or prior life experience. Typically those who are experiencing stress report feeling “overwhelmed, worried or run-down” (Alvord et al., n.d.). Now more than ever, college students feel stressed in the campus setting (Yorke 2004). These feelings are particularly acute among first and second year students who may be away from home for the first time and trying to adjust to college life (Misra and McKean 2000).

Stress can be both beneficial and harmful. Stress is beneficial when it leads to the production of energy boosts that increase alertness and help individuals power through high stress situations such as exams and/or work deadlines. This type of stress is typically referred to as eustress. On the other hand, stress is harmful when it is experienced in excess (Alvord et al., n.d.). This form of stress is referred to as distress. According to the American Psychological Association, distress can lead to adverse health outcomes that affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems (Alvord et al., n.d.).

Within the academic setting, causes of student distress may include:

  • Test anxiety, a form of performance anxiety where a person experiences high levels of distress or uneasiness before, during, or after an examination. Test anxiety interferes with students’ ability to perform in testing situations
  • Perfectionism, the need to be or appear perfect
  • Imposter syndrome, a persistent belief or feeling that one is inadequate even in the face of success
  • Stereotype threat, a self-confirming belief that one may be evaluated based on a negative stereotype of a group in which they belong
  • Generalized anxiety, ongoing anxiety and worry that interferes with day-to-day activities

How Distress Manifests in the College Setting

Vanderbilt University’s Office of Wellness Programs & Alcohol Education has identified several behavioral, emotional and psychological signs of student distress. The repeated occurrence of any combination of the following may indicate a student in distress:

Behavioral signs:

  • Academic performance concerns, uncharacteristic changes
  • Declining grades or reduced class participation
  • Incomplete or missing assignments
  • Repeated requests for extensions, incompletes, or withdrawals
  • Increased absenteeism or tardiness
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Apparent memory loss or difficulty concentrating
  • Cheating, rule breaking, or defiance
  • Poor organization skills or trouble with note taking
  • Bizarre, aggressive or morbid comments or written content
  • Expressions of feeling hopeless, helpless, guilty and/or worthless
  • Self injury or other self-destructive behavior

Psychological and emotional signs:

  • Chronic fatigue, falling asleep in class
  • Symptoms of being easily distracted, “spacy,” or a tendency to daydream
  • Nervousness or tearfulness
  • Marked changes in regular habits or activities
  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Signs of intoxication, dilated or constricted pupils, or apparent hangovers
  • Poor or declining physical appearance, hygiene, and grooming
  • Hyperactivity or rapid, pressured speech
  • Extreme boredom, negativism, defensiveness, and secretiveness
  • Comments by others about alcohol or drug use
  • Erratic behavior, sudden mood swings, inappropriate anger, hostility, and irritability
  • Hyper-expansiveness or grandiosity
  • Withdrawal from others or loss of pleasure in everyday activities
  • Talk of suicide or harm to self or others

Why Make an Effort to Reduce Distress Among Students?

High levels of stress:

  1. Affect students’ cognitive capabilities including information processing and memory (Sandi and Pinelo-Nava 2007; Sandi 2004);
  2. Inform the mood and mindset that students bring to the classroom (Felstein 2004); and
  3. Can lead to student burnout and unnecessary attrition, especially among students of color (Smedley, Myers, and Harrell 1993).

Being proactive about managing student stress is beneficial for course instructors and teaching assistants for several reasons:

  1. A stressful classroom climate often increases the personal stress level of course instructors and teaching assistants (Jennings and Greenberg 2009).
  2. Heightened stress among classroom leaders can reduce teachers’ ability to empathize with their students, an especially important issue when teaching in culturally diverse settings (Gault and Sabini 2000).
  3. Decreases in teachers’ ability to empathize with students may eventually lead to compassion fatigue, a form of burnout that is characterized by extreme mental, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion (Schutz and Zembylas 2009).
  4. Compassion fatigue can lead to teacher burnout, or overwhelming feelings of exhaustion, frustration and anger that impairs personal and social functioning and may lead individuals to quit their job (Maslach and Goldberg 1999).

Taking a proactive stance toward student stress also provides classroom leaders with a unique opportunity to help students:

  1. Engage in self-reflection about the ways that stress affects their daily lives including the feelings they bring to classroom, course assignments and interpersonal exchanges with faculty and teaching staff;
  2. Become more personally aware of how to manage stress in order to improve academic performance and position themselves to achieve their professional goals; and
  3. Develop healthy practices with respect to time management, general work practices and study skills.

Reducing Distress in the Classroom

When there is an imminent threat of harm of a life-endangering situation, take immediate action to ensure the safety of the student and others. Call GCC Campus Safety (585) 345-6500 .

In non-life threatening situations, special attention to issues of course design has the potential to reduce unhealthy levels of stress. Options available to course instructors include the following:

Syllabus Construction


  • Stagger due dates for course assignments
  • Include low stakes assignments that help identify students who may need additional instruction early in the semester
  • For course-long assignments, incorporate periodic “check-ins” during office hours or cancel regular classroom sessions to meet with students one-on-one

Making Office Hours Productive

Advise students on how to prepare for meetings with you. You might instruct them to bring appropriate materials, such as their lecture notes, books, homework problems, drafts of their papers, or readings with troublesome passages marked. You might tell them to write out their questions or points of confusion to help clarify and prepare before meeting with you. In addition, remind them that office hours are not an opportunity to receive a recap of a lecture or lesson. Make your sessions with students a chance to continue teaching them, by helping them work through their own confusions or problems. It may be helpful to respond to their questions with further questions that will lead them to their own conclusions. Provide guidance toward problem-solving rather than simply giving students the answer.

For more information, visit the CFT “Office Hours and Email” Teaching Guide.

  • Allow students to have one “do over” that provides students with an opportunity to either correct missed test questions or resubmit a revised paper draft for partial credit
  • Provide a clearly written explanation of your late assignment and extension policies. Source: Pat James Consulting “Samples of online Course Policies” 
  • Describe and/or model “unsatisfactory”, “sufficient” and “satisfactory” classroom participation for students.

What Does Class Participation Look Like?

Sample Participation Rubric:

  • Voluntarily and frequently offering appropriate, relevant, and creative or original responses/interpretations/observations beyond the obvious,
  • consistently offering plenty of effective textual support for observations,
  • involving others in class discussion by asking questions, seeking others’ responses, etc.
  • eagerly and thoughtfully attempting to anser questions,
  • offering follow-up responses, and
  • treating classmates and the professor respectfully

Incorporate multiple methods of assessing student participation in courses where it is a component of students’ final grade (e.g. completing a worksheet of main concepts, themes, etc. and turning in for a grade)


  • Provide students with a grading rubric prior to giving assignments or at the beginning of the semester (View sample rubrics from the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education)
  • Provide grade and feedback for assignments before the next assignment is due

Providing Meaningful Feedback to Students

Use your comments to teach rather than to justify your grade, focusing on what you’d most like students to address in future work.

Link your comments and feedback to the goals for an assignment.

Comment primarily on patterns — representative strengths and weaknesses.

Avoid over-commenting or “picking apart” students’ work.

In your final comments, ask questions that will guide further inquiry by students rather than provide answers for them.

Suggestions About Making Marginal and End Comments on Student Writing

Campus Resources

  • Include links to on-campus and/or online resources that educate students about how to study, write, prepare citations, etc. (e.g. The Writing Lab, tutoring)
  • Alert students to other resources on campus that can aid in stress management
  • GCC Counseling Center

Communication Policy

  • Clearly articulate communication practices and preferences (i.e. email response policy, etc.)

Email Office Hours

If you’ve published office hours, students know when they can expect to find you to ask a question about the class. It would be helpful to them also to know when they might expect a response to an email message about the class. The notice here could be something rather general (e.g., “I generally check email only once a day.”) or specific (e.g., “I will respond to student email messages between 2:00 and 3:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”) You are free to respond at other times, just as you are free to be available for student appointments at times other than your stipulated office hours. But it’s important for students to know when they can reasonably expect an answer to an email message.

Find more ideas on how to communicate with students by visiting  Vanderbilt’s “Office Hours and Email” Teaching Guide.

Course Management

  • Allow students to select which date(s) they will take on a leadership role in class (i.e. leading discussion, presenting their work, etc.)
  • Consult with other faculty members in your department about due dates and assignments they have implemented on a regular basis
  • Ask students to communicate days/weeks that are especially packed with assignments in their other classes at the beginning of the semester

In-Class Meetings

  • Interact with students with an awareness of the effect of one’s body language (i.e. frowning, smiling, etc.) on student behavior and performance

“Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental than our words. Our nonverbal sensors are so powerful that just the movements associated with body language – that is, minus the actual bodies – are enough to engender within us the ability to accurately perceive emotion.”

Source: Psychology Today “How We Communicate Through Body Language”

  • Use affirming language when students provide correct answers, but more importantly, when they make an effort to contribute in class
  • Incorporate ongoing mindfulness practices that provide students with tools to cope with anxiety and stress in the moment

Course Communication

  • Provide students with a syllabus that includes complete course readings, assignments and due dates the first day of class
  • Promptly return student emails, particularly prior to assignment due dates and major exams

Exam Preparation

  • Organize review sessions outside of class prior to tests
  • Hold extra office hours the week prior to an exam or paper due date
  • Establish work groups for students at the beginning of the semester and encourage collaboration when preparing for major exams

Teaching about Learning

  • Schedule periodic workshops that impart skills and information needed to successfully demonstrate learning (i.e. how to construct a thesis statement, how to structure a analytical essay, etc.)
  • Post templates of model work on assignments in conjunction with providing students with feedback on their submitted work

Further Resources

Anxiety and Depression Association of America promotes the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD and related disorders and works to improve the lives of those who suffer from these diseases through education, practice and research.

American College Health Association champions the health of college students and campus communities through advocacy, education and research.


Alvord, Mary, Karina Davidson, Jennifer Kelly, Kevin McGuiness, and Steven Tovian. n.d. “Understanding Chronic Stress.” American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/understanding-chronic-stress.aspx.

American Psychological Association. 2010. Stress in America: Findings.

Felstein, Gary. 2004. “Stress Reacitivity and Vulnerability to Depressed Mood in College Students.” Personality and Individual Differences 36 (4): 789–800.

Gault, Barbara A., and John Sabini. 2000. “The Roles of Empathy, Anger, and Gender in Predicting Attitudes toward Punitive, Reparative, and Preventative Public Policies.” Cognition & Emotion 14 (4): 495–520.

Gerrig, Richard J., and Philip G. Zimbardo. 2002. Psychology and Life. 16th ed. Boston, Mass., United States: Allyn and Bacon.

Jennings, Patricia A., and Mark T. Greenberg. 2009. “The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes.” Review of Educational Research 79 (1): 491–525. doi:10.3102/0034654308325693.

Maslach, Christina, and Julie Goldberg. 1999. “Prevention of Burnout: New Perspectives.” Applied and Preventive Psychology 7 (1): 63–74.

Misra, Ranjita, and Michelle McKean. 2000. “COLLEGE STUDENTS’ ACADEMIC STRESS AND ITS RELATION TO THEIR ANXIETY, TIME MANAGEMENT, AND LEISURE SATISFACTION.” American Journal of Health Studies 16 (1): 41–51.

Sandi, Carmen. 2004. “Stress, Cognitive Impairment and Cell Adhesion Molecules.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5 (12): 917. doi:10.1038/nrn1555.

Sandi, Carmen, and M. Teresa Pinelo-Nava. 2007. “Stress and Memory: Behavioral Effects and Neurobiological Mechanisms.” Neural Plasticity 2007 (April): e78970. doi:10.1155/2007/78970.

Schutz, Paul A., and Michalinos Zembylas. 2009. Advances in Teacher Emotion Research: The Impact on Teachers’ Lives. Springer Science & Business Media.

Smedley, Brian D., Hector F. Myers, and Shelly P. Harrell. 1993. “Minority-Status Stresses and the College Adjustment of Ethnic Minority Freshmen.” The Journal of Higher Education 64 (4): 434–52. doi:10.2307/2960051.

Yorke, Mantz. 2004. Leaving Early: Undergraduate Non-Completion in Higher Education. Routledge.

by Brielle Harbin, Vanderbilt Graduate Teaching Fellow 2014-2015

Adapted/edited by Judith Littlejohn 9/7/18 for GCC – removed some Vanderbilt-specific office contact information, added GCC-specific info/terminology, corrected typos/grammar.

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.