On Grading Students

By Radosław Miernik · Published on

Table of contents


As a part of my PhD studies, I have to undergo (sort of) an apprenticeship by teaching (mostly undergrad) students. I’m about to wrap up my 3rd year, and that marks more than a hundred of them I worked with. That also means I had to have gradeed more than a hundred people already.

On the one hand, as a person who has already (sort of) finished their studies, I don’t really care about the grades cause I know they don’t really matter (with a small exception for scholarships and transferring to different universities). Of course, you’re all welcome to disagree, but that’s my take.

On the other, I really want to feel that I grade them fairly, and that’s… Rather a high ask. Really, that’s actually much tougher than I thought. “They have X out of Y points, it should be trivial!”

Sure, but it may still seem unfair.

Numbers bad

At my alma mater, II UWr, you can get one of the six grades1, i.e., 2.0, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5, and 5.0. As usual, all but the lowest are enough to pass the class. Numeric values have some “statistical upsides”, e.g., it’s trivial to calculate an average of a student, group, course, or even an entire year.

But besides that, I think they’re objectively bad. I’m a programmer, seemingly a “number-minded” person, even I know that “thinking in numbers” does not work when it comes to people. (Even if I’d like it to.)

And while the final grade could be something a teacher2 comes up with at the end of the course, it rarely is. The fact that it can be derived from the number of points you got during that course is the most common grading scheme.

That alone leads to some fascinating (and understandable) student’s behavior of optimizing their time spent on getting those points. Yes, we literally estimate the “hours per point” of the assignments and prioritize based on that.

What’s worse, after doing that for years, I recommend my students to do the same. Not because I think it’s the best way to learn something, but because it’s the best way to save time for things you’re actually interested in.

Words good

What could be better than a number of points? Hmm, how about… Words? And I really mean it – say what they did well, what they need to work on, and how they could do that (some terms to search for, books, or even direct links).

My colleagues and friends tried to convince me that it’s neither feasible nor good for the students and won’t work in the long run. Let’s comment on that.

Progress best?

I wasn’t the most fit person when I started high school. Actually, I was on the opposite side of the spectrum. And as physical education is more of a “sport education” in Poland4, it had to impact my grade, right?

Surprisingly, not at all – I actually got the highest grade! That’s because I was extremely lucky with the teacher. Instead of following the standard grading system, e.g., giving us points based on how fast we ran 100m, how far we threw a ball, or whether we were able to referee a basketball game5, he mostly cared about our progress.

In practice, it was as simple as performing the same standardized tests (e.g., the aforementioned 100m run) not once but three to five times. And the grade we got was based on both the result and the progress. If you were in great shape, then all you had to do was to keep up.

But if you were like me, you had to improve. Even though I finished with results somewhere around the school’s average, I made some fantastic progress, and my teacher valued that. If you ask me, that’s precisely what teaching should be about: making your students do better and encouraging them to keep getting better. Really, that’d be enough for everyone.

We’ll see whether I stay at the university once I’m done with the PhD – that’s not set in stone yet. If I will, I could at least try something similar in my courses. Sure, it will take me a couple of years to figure out how to apply it to computer science, but that’s not a problem.

Closing thoughts

I love teaching. Cliché, I know. But that brief moment when one’s face switches from “thinking hard” to “I get it now” is worth all the time I can give them. And I can assure you, they do value that.

Of course, it takes time to learn it as well. My first year was… Terrifying. I was constantly on the edge whether I was fair, neither too harsh nor polite, did I miss anything… But that’s just a classic case of impostor syndrome.

For a change, let’s end with a quote.

It gets easier…

Every day it gets a little easier…

But you gotta do it every day – that’s the hard part.

But it does get easier.

~ Jogging Baboon


It’s not the same for other universities in Poland or even faculties at UWr. Sometimes, there’s a seventh grade used for distinctions (5.5). I also heard of it being used as a benchmark (“perfect score”).


I’ll stick to calling everyone a teacher, but of course, that includes instructors, lecturers, teaching assistants, adjuncts, etc.


From what I know, it’s not uncommon for universities to have some sort of review system for the lecturers. However, in our case, it comes with a time bonus for course enrollments in the next year, so people actually do fill them in. It’s also truly anonymous, including an explanation of how it works (in Polish).

Technically speaking, you only have to take your ballot to get the bonus, but I see that 50-70% of people actually fill them in. Funnily enough, that matches the average in national elections.


If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend watching Krzysztof M. Maj’s “WF to patologia | Dla każdego coś przykrego #23” (in Polish). He’s also a fantastic promoter of giving feedback instead of points (and numeric grades in general), and he inspired me to write this text.


While I was looking for general guidelines on formal requirements, I found a grading scheme from XXV High School in Kraków (in Polish). They’re a couple of years old, but I’d have a hard time getting a passing grade since I had trouble doing a forward roll.