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Finding Solutions for Grading Stress

Grades and the grading process are sources of high anxiety for both students and instructors. I was amazed at the determination with which my online students last spring fought for a few points here and there, especially requests for extra credit. This was a graduate level course, made up almost exclusively of project-based assignments.

From my perspective, the primary value of that particular course was the participation in and completion of project stages, and the continued lessons learned along the way – not in the final letter grade. Since it wasn’t a realistic option to walk away from grading, we all persevered. But I often wondered what it would be like to abandon grading altogether. Would it be more beneficial for students to focus on the work itself and accomplishing tasks without the pressure of grades?

Sources of Frustration

Both instructors and students feel the pressures of grading. Faculty members sometimes feel like they either have to award a lot of good grades or not too many good grades, based on the expectation of their schools, programs, and supervisors. While students are often worried only about the grades they receive (i.e., having all As on their transcripts) not about the work that leads to earning them. Grade inflation has also been a concern in recent years, leading us all to look a little closer at the purpose of grades and the process of assigning them.

Grades provide a kind of incentive, good or bad, for students to complete the tasks assigned to them and upon which their learning learning will be measured. “Will it be on the test” and “is this for a grade” are just two of the questions frequently asked of teachers at all levels. Educator Will Richardson describes the current state of affairs – a system that fosters students focused on their final grade instead of developing learners who are “intrinsically motivated … patient problem solvers … who really love the process and product” of education.

Evaluation and Motivation

The concept of academic grades is ingrained in all of us from early on as part of the formal education experience. But as a recent article from Mary Bart on Faculty Focus pointed out, “grading serves multiple purposes” even though it “typically isn’t a teacher’s favorite part of the job.” Some of these purposes include:

  • Providing instructor feedback: Evaluation of student work by experienced professionals is a key component of the learning process. Grading provides the opportunity for instructors to inform, correct, encourage, and lead students toward improvement in their work. This sort of exchange between student and instructor also helps students to better understand their academic progress.
  • Measuring learning achievement: Institutions, particularly those online, are increasingly asked to provide evidence of student learning and the effectiveness of their courses. Grades as evaluation of student learning are a way to represent levels of student achievement of established learning objectives, as well as to quantify the process.
  • Increasing opportunities: Getting good grades and achieving a specific GPA may be required to continue in a program and graduate, to receive tuition assistance from an employer, and to maintain scholarships and financial aid. Grades are also an important component of graduate school applications and may be considered by employers after graduation.

Making it Work

While grading is likely here to stay, there are a few ways in which instructors and students can consider (or re-consider) the process as they move forward.

Ideas for Instructors

  • Clarify expectations: Through worked examples, rubrics, instructions, and detailed descriptions, the expectations of student work can be purposefully communicated. Bart’s article includes the advice of educator Virginia Johnson Anderson to “construct a welcoming, thorough, and explicit syllabus, and refer to it often.” In an online course this syllabus can be interactive, including links to extended examples and guidelines. Provide information that conveys to the student why each assignment is in the course and what you plan to evaluate when you grade it.
  • Consider alternative approaches: In her post “How to Crowdsource Grading” Duke University professor Cathy Davidson describes a point system that incorporates peer evaluation: “all students will receive the grade of A if they do all the work and their peers certify that they have done so in a satisfactory fashion.” Each of the assignments is worth a specific number of points, and all add up to a total of 100. A combination of strategies may be best in some situations, depending on the context of the course (i.e., subject matter, type of assessments).
  • Stop grading: This is probably not an option in an entire course, but it might be possible for a single lesson or assignment. Educator Mark Barnes challenges us to explore other ways to motivate students and evaluate their work: “Don’t put a number, percentage, or letter on an activity, project, quiz, or test.” And get feedback from your students.

Advice for Students

  • Communicate with your instructors: Are you unsure about what is expected of you in the course, or for a particular assignment? Do you have questions about why you received a specific grade? Take advantage of the communication options available to you in your online course (e.g., email, virtual office hours, discussion forums) and ask your instructor questions to help you clarify any issues that arise, as soon as they arise.
  • Look beyond the course: How will the experience of being a student in each course assist you from more than the grading perspective? Seek out opportunities to gain practical experience, as well as to incorporate projects you may have going on in the workplace. You may be able to work with your instructor to research a topic that will be helpful and relevant to you both in and out of class.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others: While there may be temptation to compare your grades to those of your classmates, focus instead on your goals and those set forth in the course. How are you as an individual learner working to achieve those goals? How are you contributing to student group assignments and discussions as a whole? Broaden your view and become an active participant in all aspects of the course, not just the assignments.
  • Seek balance: As college student Rebecca Wall was quoted in an article for The Dartmouth, “If your grades are good you don’t have to worry about them when you apply for something. But I also like sleeping a lot.” The drive for As usually means some level of sacrifice in your personal life, but it’s also important to take care of yourself in the process.
  • Seek assistance! Your school provides a host of services designed to support you in your course work. Check in with learning centers, your academic advisor, librarians, and your instructor to find out more about the options available. Look for tutorials, workshops, counseling appointments, and resource collections.

Do you worry about grades in your courses? Tell us more about how they affect your work, positively and negatively. And consider sharing your suggestions for online instructors and students.

August 21st, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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