7Microsoft Office Excel 2010Conditional formatting for grades v targets

So, in my oth­er life I’m actu­ally a sci­ence teach­er, and as it usu­ally gets round that I’m “good with com­puters” I usu­ally get asked to have a look at a few things. Twice in the last few months I’ve been asked if I’d set up con­di­tion­al format­ting in excel to col­our code stu­dent test res­ults com­pared to their tar­get grades. Whilst not exactly related to the core con­tent of this site, it is still DIY tech­nic­al help so I decided to pub­lish a full set of instruc­tions here. Enjoy…

Microsoft Excel Conditional Formatting: Lookup TablesFirst you need a lookup sheet

  • Cre­ate a new sheet in the workbook.
  • Fill in 2 columns – the left with grades (1c, 1b, 1a, 2c etc) and the right with a “score” value (can just be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc)
  • Fill in 2 addi­tion­al columns with a “reverse look­up” which is the same as before but with the 2 columns reversed
  • High­light the full left hand table that you’ve cre­ated, right click on it, and select “define name”. Give it a name, e.g. “look­up”
  • High­light the second table you cre­ated, right click and define anoth­er name. Give it a name, e.g. “reverse_lookup”

Microsoft Excel Conditional Formatting: Define NameCreating the worksheets

  • Now cre­ate a work­sheet for each class, group or year (as suits).  Include a column for tar­get grades and vari­ous columns for test or assess­ment res­ults (e.g. as below)
  • Note in this example that tar­get data is in C3 – C5. Res­ults are in D3 – F5

Microsoft Excel Conditional Formatting: Example Markbook

Building the basic conditional formatting

  • Select cell D3 – the top left of the res­ults data cells. Make sure you are on the “home” tab and click on “con­di­tion­al format­ting” and select “new rule”
  • Select “use a for­mula to determ­ine which cells to format”
  • What we want to do is com­pare the cur­rent cell to the tar­get, but it isn’t quite as simple as that, because of the way excel com­pares val­ues – so we need to use the look­up tables.
  • We also need 5 rules – 2 sub­levels or more below, 1 below, on tar­get, 1 above and 2 or more above. You can cre­ate more rules if you want more detail or less if you just want below, on and above target.
  • The even­tu­al for­mula for 2 sub­levels or more below will be =VLOOKUP($C3,Lookup,2,FALSE)-1>VLOOKUP(D3,Lookup,2,FALSE)

    Microsoft Excel Conditional Formatting: New Rule Formula

  • The C3 in the first part refers to the top tar­get cell, and the D3 refers to the top actu­al res­ult cell. The “Look­up” refers to the look­up table range that we named earlier.
  • To break this down – we’re look­ing up numer­ic­al val­ues for both the tar­get and the actu­al score in the cur­rent cell. Because we want 2 sub­levels or more below we take 1 off the tar­get and say it must still be great­er than the score. The $ before the C of C3 ensures that when we use the same for­mula for oth­er columns they will still be com­pared to the tar­gets column.
  • Now click on format and apply the format­ting you want. I use a back­ground col­our of light red
  • Now we have cre­ated 1 of 5 rules for a single cell.

Microsoft Excel Conditional Formatting: Format CellsExpanding the conditional formatting for multiple rules

  • Next repeat the pro­cess to cre­ate 4 more rules.
  • When all are fin­ished my 5 examples would look as below. Only the com­par­is­on and pos­sible addi­tion or sub­trac­tion change between them. Also note the order (which we come to next)
  • I use medi­um red, light red, yel­low, medi­um green and light green (in that order) for back­ground colours

Sorting the order of the rules

  • Finally, we need to make sure the rules are in the right order, and apply them to ALL the res­ults cells, not just the single res­ult cell D3.
  • Click on the con­di­tion­al format­ting but­ton again and choose “man­age rules…”
  • Make sure the rules are in the right order – as above (medi­um red, light red, yel­low, medi­um green, light green)Microsoft Excel Conditional Formatting: Rules Manager
  • Click in the “Applies to” box and enter the full range of cells which will con­tain res­ults. In my example this is =$D$3:$F$5Put this in all 5 “applies to” boxes
  • This sheet should now fully work with con­di­tion­al formatting

Expanding easily to additional sheets

  • To apply to oth­er sheets simple copy and paste a single cell which already has con­di­tion­al format­ting applied to it, into the new sheet.
  • Then click on the con­di­tion­al format­ting but­ton, select man­age rules, and change the 5 “applies to” boxes to point to the cells of the new sheet which need con­di­tion­al formatting

Leave a Reply


CMChloe Moore

Hi John,

Do you have an example of a sheet you have made? Strug­gling fol­low­ing the steps here!


I would love to re-post this art­icle on my own web­site, would that be okay?

GZGary Zawadzki

Great tutori­al — thanks. I’ve got 3 dif­fer­ent col­ours work­ing per­fectly but the 2 above and 2 below aren’t format­ting to their cor­rect col­ours. They are chan­ging to red and green but not the shades that they need to change to. Any sug­ges­tions please?



JSJon Scaife

Sorry for the long delay in reply­ing Gary — I’ve been busy migrat­ing the site to our new VPS. Did you man­age to get this sor­ted? If you did­n’t then by all means zap me over your excel file to have a look at. I’ll recheck this guide in the next day or 2 to make sure there aren’t any typo­’s or mis­lead­ing parts, it’s been known to happen 😉


I have fol­lowed all your instruc­tions above but none of my cells have gone col­oured?? Any sug­ges­tions where I’m going wrong??

JSJon Scaife

I assume you have pop­u­lated them with data, and the tar­get column is also pop­u­lated with data?
By all means zap me the file over and I’ll take a quick look — I’ve e‑mailed you