Assignments and Exams

"Assignments and Exams Icon"Sections:

Essential Principles of Assessment

Assessments should, above all, be designed with intended learning outcomes in mind, and should be linked with clear guidance and communication to students about learning and expectations. As a TA you will likely be involved in preparing students for their assessments, checking in with students during or throughout an assignment, as well as designing and using rubrics or a marking scheme to grade assignments and exams.

"TA Tip Icon"TA Tip: Although many assessments are chosen and designed by the course instructor, there is often a chance for TAs to assist with the continuous improvement of assignments within a course. Consider the principles below for designing an assessment; are there ways in which you might suggest areas that course assessments could be modified to improve student learning?

  • Articulate a purpose statement for each assignment/assessment; identify the ways it relates to the learning outcomes
  • Communicate clear expectations for learning: What knowledge or skills can students expect to gain through the assignment?
  • Guide students toward meaningful and productive engagement with course material
  • Weigh all assignments to the relative importance of the outcome(s) they assess and the expectations you have for student time-investment
  • Distribute assignments/assessments in ways that provide students with ongoing feedback on their progress
  • Use a variety of assessment methods and offer options to students when possible
  • Balance the assessment scheme in a way that respects your, and your students’, schedules and time

"question mark"What are the difference between formative and summative assessments? Formative assessments provide ongoing feedback on students' learning throughout a learning experience. It is constructive in nature and can help student identify areas of strength and weakness focusing on providing the learner with areas of improvement. Examples of formative assessment might be feedback from a TA on their thesis statement  or outline for a paper, a short readiness assessment quiz, or exit ticket. Summative assessments are typically at the end of a course or when a section of course material is completed. Often summative assessments are designed as final essays, projects or exams.


Effective Grading and Feedback

As TAs, a central part of our role is providing feedback on student work. Given the amount of students we are typically responsible for, it is essential that we strike a balance between providing effective feedback and staying within our contract hours. Whether the feedback is provided formally or informally, in writing or verbally, in the classroom or online, it is essential that feedback helps students to understand the strengths and areas of improvement in their work. Providing effective and efficient feedback requires narrowing our focus by establishing clear priorities and adhering to best practices. 

“Feedback is about guidance. Diagnosis of what is wrong can be part of the process, but it must be accompanied by clear suggestions for improvement: ‘Here’s what’s wrong and here’s how to fix it.’ The goal is to leave students with a clear message about what they must do to improve future submissions.”

-Better Writing Feedback

Why provide feedback?

  • To offer information and direction for future assignments
  • To justify a grade
  • To help students learn

Establish goals for your feedback:

  • What do you want students to learn?
  • What are the grading standards?
  • What is the purpose of the assignment?

Effective feedback is feedback that:

  • Facilitates student learning
  • Reinforces what students are doing well
  • Identifies areas for improvement
  • Motivates: coach don't criticize
  • Recognizes that we are never done learning how to write
  • Doesn't overwhelm the student
  • Helps students see their writing from the reader's perspective
  • Helps students see their work as entering into an academic conversation

Strategies for effective feedback:

  • Make feedback timely and relevant to the goals of the assignment
  • Be specific. Avoid vague comments like "awkward" or "great!"
  • Focus feedback on higher order concerns (thesis, structure, transitions, academic integrity, etc.)
  • Generalize lower order concerns (sentence structure, punctuation, word choice, spelling, etc.)
  • Ask questions to prompt student thinking
  • Offer examples of how to fix recurring issues
  • Point out what was good about something well done.

Tips for more efficient marking:

  • Find what works for you: some graders prefer to grade in large chunks, while others prefer to grade a limited amount each day.
  • Go back and review the first batch of assignments you graded. Ensure that you have been consistent across all students.
  • Prioritize feedback based on context and the course instructor's objectives
  • Pick your battles. Don't try to fix everything. Focus on areas that students and learn and improve for the next assessment.
  • Use a timer and stay within your TA contract hours.

"Learm More Icon"Where do I learn more? For a comprehensive resource on providing effective feedback, check out the Faculty Guide: Effective Feedback, prepared by the Queen's Faculty of Health Sciences, Faculty Development Office.


Developing and Using Rubrics

"Tips for Using Rubrics PDF image: PDF is available below in availbale resources"
Tips for Using Rubrics, CTL 2019

Rubrics are useful for students, TAs, and course instructors. For students, rubrics create transparency by outlining assessment criteria and specifying the skills students are required to demonstrate. For TAs, rubrics can clarify and expedite the grading process, and provide justification in the case of grade contestations. Course instructors are typically responsible for creating and providing rubrics for TAs. If there are no grading rubrics in your course, you may consider asking the course instructor if you can participate in building a rubric together.

There are many different types of rubrics:

  • Analytic rubric: provides a separate score for each different criteria; often some criteria are weighed more heavily than others (ex. thesis (25%), paragraph structure (30%), integration of academic material (35%), and grammar (10%)).
  • Holistic rubric: a single score is provided for the assignment. All criteria are considered together (holistically) and are not differentially weighted.
  • Generic rubric: Adopt a one-size-fits-all approach and are universally applied to all assignments in a course. It can be more challenging to use a generic rubric as it doesn't take into account the context of the assignment and the specific learning goals.

What makes a good rubric:

  • Transparency: it should be clear to both students and the TAs exactly what the assignment is looking for and the particular skills that students are expected to demonstrate.
  • Flexibility: Expect to revise your rubric for future iterations of the course/assignment.
  • Integrated into assignments: Provide students with the rubric before they start the assignment and ensure that assignment instructions line up with assessment criteria and how the assessment will be graded.

"Connect to tech icon"How To in onQ:  Rubrics in onQ - OnQ Support, Queen's University




Benchmarking Sessions

Benchmarking (or calibrating) sessions are most common in large course that will have many TAs grading assignments. These sessions will usually be run by a head TA or the course instructor, and are used to ensure grades and grading criteria are consistent across TAs. Benchmarking can be especially useful for first-time TAs or TAs new to the course content, as these sessions can provide them with the resources and support to feel confident in their grading and the quality of feedback they are providing to students.

Facilitating a benchmarking session:

Prior to the session:

  • Acquire several samples of student writing, preferably a range of different work.
  • Ensure that all TAs have the original assignment guidelines, as well the grading criteria and/or a rubric for the assignment.

During the session:

  • Discuss the assignment guidelines and evaluation criteria; what is the assignment is asking students to do? If there is a rubric, what are the most heavily weighted aspects? What should you be prioritizing when grading?
  • Select one of the student work samples. Have all TAs read through the assignment on their own, making a couple comments and assigning a tentative grade.
  • Discuss the grades and justification for each grade as a group. Comment on strengths, weaknesses, overall impressions of the assignment, and how the marking criteria impacted the grade given. Discuss the comments you would give the student to provide constructive feedback.
  • Based on the discussion, come to consensus for what grade the paper receives. Try to ensure everyone is within a grade step.
  • Repeat the steps above with another assignment, a third if possible.


Writing Pedagogy

Writing can help students deepen their critical thinking abilities and foster active engagement with course concepts. Although we often think of writing as primarily associated with the Humanities, writing pedagogy can be effectively incorporated across the disciplines. Writing pedagogy is not just about increasing the amount of writing that students are doing. Writing pedagogy is guided by the idea that writing is a form of thinking and is intrinsically connected to the generation and deepening of ideas. Therefore, writing activities should be selected and implemented with purpose. Think about how the activities you select align with learning objectives for the course, and communicate the purpose of those activities clearly to your students.  

How to start implementing writing pedagogy in your teaching:

  • Scaffold assignments: Recognize the importance of formative feedback throughout the writing process, and encourage students to revise their work. Scaffolding can also help instructors make adjustments in their teaching based on the common errors or gaps in understanding that they observe in student submissions.  
  • Help students build rhetorical knowledge: To think rhetorically, students need to develop a sense of audience - they have to know who their readers are, what their readers already know, and what kind of an impact they want to have on their readers. Instructors can help students build rhetorical knowledge by specifying the audience and purpose for each writing assignment, and can engage a variety of genres in their courses, helping students understand the different functions and structures of each.  
  • Use active learning and low-stakes writing: students learn best when they are engaging with course material, whether individually or collaboratively, through both formal and informal writing activities.

To find out more about incorporating writing pedagogy into your teaching, check out "Ten Ways to Enhance Your Writing Pedagogy". In it, Educational Developer Dr. Robin Attas lists ten ways that you can enhance your writing pedagogy, including: starting or ending class with 1-2 minutes of writing, and designing assignments so that expectations are clear to students from diverse writing cultures.

"Pencil leaning on an open lined notebook with a small metal pencil sharpener and pencil shards beside it"

Low-stakes writing

Also referred to as exploratory writing, freewriting, and unstructured writing, low-stakes writing is a great way to help your students develop a writing practice in a non-intimidating format. Some benefits of low-stakes writing include encouraging students to actively engage with course material, higher levels of participation, the ability to assess student learning on an ongoing basis, and encouraging an understanding of the messy and processual aspects of writing.

How to use low-stakes writing:

  • At the beginning of class to reflect on the week's topic.
  • During class to refocus a discussion.
  • At the end of class to prompt reflection and check understanding.

How to facilitate low-stakes writing activities in your courses:

  • Introduce and provide rationale for the activity.
  • Present the writing prompt both orally and visually.
  • Make next steps clear: will students have to share their writing? Will it be graded?
  • Set clear time limits.
  • Debrief the activity afterwards.

Examples of low-stakes writing assignments:

  • Clearest point/muddiest point: At any point during a lecture or tutorial, have students write down the clearest point (what they have most clearly understood from the lecture/week’s readings) and the muddiest point (that which they are most uncertain about).
  • Ticket out the door: At the end of a lecture/tutorial, ask students to summarize what they learnt during that session.
  • Explain a concept: Ask students to explain a course concept as though they were talking to their grandmother. This can help students consolidate their understanding and also develop a sense of audience.
  • One-minute paper: Ask students to write for one minute on a specific prompt or question. The prompt should be open-ended enough to promote student thinking.


Designing and Proctoring Online Exams

Online exams are a new avenue for everyone at Queen’s University. As a TA, reach out to your instructor and feel free to ask questions concerning your roles and responsibilities as a TA, and if proctored exams will be used in your course. Your role as a proctor might be to assist in the supervision of students writing an online test/exam and to ensure the test/exam proceeds according to your instructor’s guidelines.

Here are the best practices to ensure a successful proctoring experience:

  • Clarify your role and responsibilities with your instructor prior to the test/exam.
  • Clarify the students’ responsibilities and expectations prior to the test/exam.
  • Test your computer and the online platform before the test/exam begins.
  • Be online and ready 5-10 minutes before the test/exam begins.

What proctoring might require (depending on your course/instructor):

  • Students might be required to take the test while being recorded by video.
  • Students might be required to show university identification to verify their identity.
  • Students might ask you questions regarding the test/exam.
  • Ensure accessibility/accommodations are available for students who require it.
  • Reminding students of the time/time left for the test/exam.
  • Ensuring students uphold academic integrity guidelines.


Regrade Requests

It is fairly common for students to ask for additional feedback on their assignments or to ask for a regrade of an assignment. Below are some tips to help you handle regrade requests effectively.

  • At the start of term, check with the course instructor to find out their policy for regrading assignments. Often this policy will be outlined in the course syllabus and regrade requests will be passed on to the instructor or head TA who will deal with the request accordingly.
  • Consider implementing a policy that requires students to wait either 24 or 48 hours after the assignment feedback is returned to them, before requesting a regrade or reaching out for additional feedback or clarification on their assignments. Students are sometimes reactive when they first receive their grades, and may feel differently when they have had some time to sit with and consider the TA comments and feedback.
  • Consider requiring students to fill out a regrade request form that requires them to articulate the reasons why they believe they should have a higher grade and how their assignment meets the feedback and the expectations of the assignment.
  • Regrade requests happen. They are not indicative of the time and effort that you have put into grading the assignments, nor do they reflect your ability as a TA.