Tag Archives: responding

Grading student lab reports (while keeping your sanity)

I love teaching undergraduate labs and watching students grow as scientists. However, I’m not at all excited by the prospect of grading student writing. There are three strategies I wish I had known about before giving my first lab report assignment.

  • Full-rubrics should be written for each writing assignment before the term starts
  • Students need practice and feedback. This can be achieved with short, low-stakes writing assignments, peer-review and scaffolded assignments, which require minimal grading on my part.
  • The biggest sanity and time saver of all was telling students that I am not their editor or proofreader.

Each of those is probably worthy of its own blog post, so this is a brief overview of strategies I’ve adopted to save my sanity while grading lab reports (and other student writing assignments).


1) Full-rubrics

A lab report is usually a long, high-stakes assignment, that is worth a substantial portion of the final grade. A full-rubric is invaluable for streamlining the grading process and communicating expectations to students. A full rubric is not just a check-list of presence or absence of criteria needed to complete the assignment. Instead, for each criteria there is a detailed description of different levels of mastery or quality. Rubrics can be used to give formative or summative feedback, analytical or holistic assessments, or a combination. Another advantage of rubrics is that they help standardize grading across multiple sections of a course that are taught by graduate teaching assistants.

A good rubric is very time-consuming to create, but it has potential to save you many hours when it comes time to assess student writing. [This is especially true if you use an online course management system that has a built-in grading tool (e.g. Canvas Speed Grader). You can link your rubric to the assignment, and give comments and numerical scores for each criterion on the rubric. The tool will add the scores and put them directly into the online grade book. Hooray!]

Here is an example of a summative grading rubric from the methods section of a lab report.

Excellent Average Inadequate No Effort
Contains sufficient detail for the audience to validate the experiments Contains clear descriptions of all necessary steps for the reader to be able to validate the experiments without having to contact the author for more explanations. Descriptions of the experimental methods are provided, but some minor steps are missing so the reader will not be able to validate the experiments without further assistance. Descriptions of the experimental methods are provided, but one or more key steps are missing so the reader will not be able to validate the experiments without major further assistance. Descriptions of methods are so poor that the reader cannot grasp what experiments were done OR no description included at all.
Includes brief description of how data were analyzed (equations, statistics etc.) A clear description of how data were analyzed, including all relevant steps and calculations. A description of how data were analyzed but is missing some steps or calculations. A poor description of how data were analyzed and is missing substantial steps or calculations. Reader is unable to understand how data were analyzed OR no description is given at all.

 Resources to help you get started on your own rubrics


2) Practice and feedback

Students sometimes tell me that they are “not very good at writing”. My reply is that writing is a skill and as a skill, it requires practice, practice, practice. To this end, I use a mix of short, low-stakes writing assignments and scaffolding.

Low-stakes writing assignments are short, informal assignments that are designed to help students reflect on what they have been learning or doing, but don’t require much grading effort from the instructor. It’s important to give students the rationale for the assignment and present it as equally important as larger assignments, even though it’s worth fewer points. One popular example is a “minute paper.” These are brief in-class written responses to an instructor-posed question. Some sample prompts that align with writing a lab report:

  • What was the most surprising result from your experiment?
  • In your opinion, what would be a good follow-up experiment to yours?
  • What relationship did you see between ____ and ____?
  • Would you agree or disagree with this statement __________?
  • List the keywords, phrases and databases that you are going to use to search for references for your lab report.

Examples of other low-stakes, minimal grading assignments are timed “free-write” (write everything that comes to mind about the topic from memory for 5-10min), journals (separate from lab notebooks), outlines, or concept maps.

Scaffolding refers to taking a larger assignment and breaking it into smaller parts. I have my students write their lab reports in stages over five weeks. Each stage they receive formative feedback from me and/or go through peer-review. At each stage they are also required to explain how they incorporated feedback from the previous stage. By breaking a large assignment into stages, I can provide more detailed feedback so that their final lab report is more polished and easier to read.

Resources to help you with low-stakes assignments and scaffolding:


3) You are not the editor or the proofreader

Fixing spelling, punctuation and grammar are the student’s responsibility, not yours. Yes, students need to know when they have made technical errors, but it shouldn’t consume all of your time. One strategy is to simply make an X or other mark at the end of each line that contains an error. It is then the student’s job to analyze their writing and find the error. Another is to edit one paragraph and then instruct the student to look for similar errors throughout their writing.

Focus your time on making meaningful comments about content, especially on early drafts. Some of the most helpful comments are actually questions. For example, rather than tell a student to delete a sentence, ask the student how that sentence helps their argument. It is easy to overwhelm students with too many comments, so prioritize which comments to give. Don’t forget to give students positive feedback about the strengths of their writing! We tend to focus too much on the weaknesses.

Finally, plan ahead for how much time you realistically have for grading, and how much time you’ll need to grade each submission. Set a timer to keep yourself on track. If you find that one submission is taking too long, set it aside and take a break.

Resources to help responding effectively to student writing





Nancy Aguilar-Roca is an assistant teaching professor at the University of California, Irvine in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She studied respiratory and cardiovascular physiology of air-breathing fishes for her PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and did a postdoc in evolutionary genomics of E. coli at UCI. She currently runs the high-enrollment upper division human physiology labs and is in the process of revamping the course with flipped lab protocols and more inquiry based activity (instead of “cookbook”). She also teaches freshman level ecology and evolutionary biology and is interested in using online ecology databases for creating inquiry-based computer activities for this large lecture course. Her other courses include Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, Marine Biology, Physiology of Extreme Environments and non-majors physiology. At the graduate level, she co-organizes a seminar series for graduate students  and postdocs who are interested in learning evidence-based teaching techniques.  She was recently appointed Director of the Undergraduate Exercise Sciences Major and welcomes any advice about developing curriculum for this major.