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Adapting Grading Strategies for Remote Learning

Updated article originally published November 18, 2020.

For years, experts debated whether the traditional grading system works the way it should. Many even argued that the system feels fundamentally broken.

This system is put into perspective because many students and instructors opt for online learning and teaching. This changes the dynamics of the classroom because traditionally, midterm and final exams would be written in person.

Whether you’re teaching an Advanced Calculus course that focuses on the tangible equation, or an undergraduate film study elective, the question is the same: how do you strike a balance when it comes to assessing your students? How do you effectively collect student work and grade it effectively without resorting to multiple-choice exams?

Remote Learning, the Classroom, and the Grading System

The traditional grading system relies on some familiar elements—quizzes, test scores, homework submissions, classroom participation and regular attendance. However, grading with this criteria is dependent on the physical presence and involvement of students and instructors.

Remote teaching involves being heavily dependent on technology which is not always perfect. Instructors need to be able to adapt to potential technical constraints while also figuring out how to go about grading tests and assignments.

How do instructors and faculty accurately assess assignments submitted by students, filtering the Wikipedia or internet-sourced answers from the original analysis from a student’s mind? How do instructors reach students who don’t have access to high-speed internet and a suitable computer?

Online Grading Approaches to Remote Learning

It’s important to remember that your teaching methods need to be adjusted for online marking to be effective. The way you instruct your students online won’t be the same as teaching them in person. You have to account for technical difficulties, learning challenges faced by individual students, file management and more.

Two of the most recognized forms of fair online grading are pass/fail basis grading and the option to drop a course with no academic penalty.

The Pass/Fail Grading Option

Universities throughout North America, Europe and elsewhere have embraced the pass/fail grading system. It works as its name suggests—students are given a simple pass or fail, rather than a percentage value or a letter grade.

The pass/fail option allows students in good standing with their courses to maintain their academic reputation. It also safeguards students from penalization due to circumstances that may affect their performance due to adjusting to remote learning.

Of course, there are some downsides to this method. For some fields of study, a letter (or numerical) grade is important because it can give students a standard on where their work succeeds and where it fails.

One student at the University of Alberta, Ethan Kreiser, started a petition explaining his reason for rejecting the mandatory use of a pass/fail system:

“We as a student base, have paid money to receive a letter grade, not a participation ribbon,” he says. “For students applying to medicine, law, pharmacy, dentistry, grad school, scholarships, and many other fields, not providing the choice could damage their futures.”

Dropping a Course with no Academic Penalty

Some students now have the opportunity to drop a course without facing any academic penalties. This arrangement allows students who have second thoughts about a course grade to drop it before a specified deadline.

However, under certain circumstances, students in universities are being allowed to drop a course without it having any effects on their transcripts. Of course, the concern here is that dropping the class, if it is essential, can impact their future eligibility elsewhere, the ability to finish their degree on time and their career path.

The above are not foolproof options for online teaching, nevertheless, they are viable methods for helping students stay on track academically. They are go-to solutions that give students the lifeline they need when adjusting to a digital-only learning environment.

Tips to Make Grading Work When Teaching Online

To better understand how to make online grading work when teaching remotely, it is essential to understand the Three Bridges of Learning. They revolve around three models—content coverage, personalized learning, and inquiry-based learning.

With traditional content coverage, the instructor presents information in the form of a conventional lecture and textbook summarization. The instructor then grades students employing tests and quizzes, which evaluates what students have memorized.

With personalized learning, the instructor relies on a digital platform and offers content and lessons at a pace and path that aligns with an individual student’s needs. Students are graded based on their effort (primarily on their usage and time spent on the platform) and their growth (number of grade levels completed over time).

Lastly, there is inquiry-based learning, which relies on student collaboration to create projects and solve problems. Instructors measure students based on their process or products—in other words, the solutions to a problem.

With many students now heavily enrolled in distance learning and virtual classrooms, traditional content coverage will not work by itself.

Yes, you can still grade students with tests and quizzes, but the rigid structure of in-class instruction will not work when dealing with students who are limited by their devices. The ideal way to grade students online is to combine elements of the personalized learning and inquiry-based models mentioned above.

How to Make Online Grading Work

  • Grade Students Less Frequently: It may seem counterintuitive, but grading less will make your grading more effective. For example, weekly grading (instead of daily assessment) eliminates the need to chase students down for missing assignments. It allows students to integrate their workload more easily into their schedules.
  • Grade Productivity More Than Material Retention: Relying too much on tests and quizzes while teaching students online may not always be effective. The memorizing of material alone does not mean that your students are learning correctly. However, factoring the time a student has spent using a platform or engaging with the material can give you a much better indication of their participation with the assigned work.
  • Grade More Intentionally: You can still grade them fairly. Based on the time and effort they spend on the course work—which you can measure by their communication with you—you can give them a grade that reflects their potential.
  • Grade in a More Streamlined Fashion: Ultimately, the more steps you can eliminate in the grading process, the fewer hiccups you will deal with online. Using an online grading tool will streamline the grading process, making it easier to leave rich feedback to improve student learning.

Make Online Grading Work

Modified grading, streamlining assignments and gaining a better understanding of the technology you are using and what your students are using will go a long way to improving the experience for faculty and students alike. Grading students differently with an “online first” mentality will not end all pain points students and instructors will have, but it will help.

Instructors and students face the challenge of the traditional assessment system changing significantly when opting to learn remotely. It is understandable for teachers to feel somewhat flustered. But grading students online doesn’t have to feel like a lost cause.

With tools like Crowdmark’s grading software, creating new flexible approaches to grading is possible. It’s possible to assess students fairly without undermining or overlooking their performance.

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