About two years ago, my wife and I had numerous conversations about her job satisfaction. At that time, she had worked for the same company for over ten years and had taken on a variety of roles during her tenure. She was in a high-level leadership position in a specialty food business. In our conversations, she often expressed feelings of being overwhelmed with work and dissatisfied with the lack of structures and employees available to support her in meeting the demands of her leadership role. The breaking point came as the company restructured the leadership team, which resulted in her taking on the additional responsibilities of an eliminated leadership position. She and I found ourselves asking the question, “How many hats are you wearing at work?” For my wife, it was too many, as the current situation compromised her ability to perform what originally drew her into this business: sharing her passion for food in the specialty food world.

As university faculty, each of us undoubtedly wears numerous professional hats, including but not limited to: teaching courses, holding office hours, conducting research, serving on committees, advising students, and mentoring student research and internships. In addition to these ongoing commitments, faculty often travel to attend conferences, deliver presentations, and review for journals. At Elon University, faculty are evaluated in three broad categories: (1) Teaching; (2) Contributions to Life of the University; and (3) Professional Activity. Teaching is given the highest priority and is described thoroughly in the faculty handbook.

Part of that Teaching description includes a list of eighteen effective teaching indicators. One indicator reads, “Using appropriate and varied methods and strategies of teaching, assessing, and grading.” As I investigated this fairly exhaustive list of indicators in my university’s handbook, I found myself sympathizing with faculty who simply deprioritize working on assessment and feedback in an effort to keep up with the slew of other professional demands that require their energy and time. But there are other tensions around assessment and feedback practices as well. David Carless (2007) summarizes the situation effectively.

“One of the core problems is that assessment is about several things at once (Ramsden, 2003), or what Boud (2000) refers to as ‘double duty’. It is about grading and about learning; it is about evaluating student achievements and teaching them better; it is about standards and invokes comparisons between individuals; it communicates explicit and hidden messages. Assessment thus engenders tensions and compromises. Its multiple demands make its reform difficult to achieve, but in view of the centrality of assessment to the student experience, it is crucial that the area be handled well.” (2)

Assessment and feedback are integral parts of high-quality teaching and represent professional hats we must maintain. Because assessment and feedback often seem arduous and complex, faculty sometimes avoid serious work in these areas. Grading can feel punitive for both teachers and students. Have you ever heard a colleague use the term, “grading jail”? Clark and Talbert (2023) humorously point out that “there seems to be no corresponding notion of research jail or teaching jail (3).

The good news is that there are many approaches to assessment and feedback that both honor the complexity of this professional work and promote engagement, authentic learning, and faculty buy-in (and possibly enjoyment). Recall from a previous blog post, Rachel Forsyth’s appeal for faculty to want to see students’ work and be proud of their accomplishments. Clark and Talbert (2023), authors of Grading for Growth, offer alternative approaches that may work towards these ends. The approaches are based on the use of feedback loops represented in the following image.

A diagram show four boxes that are connected with arrow moving in a loop: Do something -- Get feedback -- Think about the feedback -- Make changes

(reproduced from Clark & Talbert, 2023, 12)

Clark and Talbert claim that traditional grading lacks feedback loops that are essential to authentic learning and better align to ways of assessing performance outside of academia. Consider personnel evaluations in the form of annual reviews in a typical job setting. Clark and Talbert explain that one purpose of annual reviews is to invite the employee into a feedback loop for professional growth. This assessment practice stands in opposition to one and done or “rank and yank” systems (26). We will continue to explore traditional grading and opportunities for improvement using feedback loops in future blog posts.

In summary, inevitable tensions exist around grading. Developing grading practices for the betterment of student growth and learning is a central piece of effective teaching. Do you only wear your “grading hat” when you enter “grading jail,” or is this a professional hat you consistently wear with enthusiasm? Teaching and assessment are intertwined, and faculty should be passionate about both. Let’s strive to wear this professional hat well. The work of Clark and Talbert and others offers us fresh perspectives that may ease some tensions around grading and make it a more enjoyable activity. In the next blog post, we will consider Clark and Talbert’s pillars of alternative grading and begin to explore some specific models of assessment and feedback.


Boud, David. 2000. “Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking Assessment for the Learning Society.” Studies in Continuing Education 22(2): 151-167.

Carless, David. 2007. “Learning‐Oriented Assessment: Conceptual Bases and Practical Implications.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 44: 57-66.

Clark, David, and Robert Talbert. 2023. Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices that Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education. New York: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Ramsden, Paul. 2003. Learning to Teaching in Higher Education. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Aaron Trocki is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Elon University. He is the CEL Scholar for 2023-2024 and is focusing on models of assessment and feedback outside of traditional grading assumptions and approaches.

How to Cite this Post

Trocki, Aaron. 2023. “Inevitable Tensions and Some Good News: Models of Assessment and Feedback” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. October 24, 2023. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/inevitable-tensions-and-some-good-news-models-of-assessment-and-feedback.