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How does grading work when COVID-19 is unfair?

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

When the coronavirus pandemic forced instructors and students worldwide to study and teach remotely, few were ready. Until today, students wrote midterms and final exams in-person on campus with multiple proctors overseeing the whole process.

As an instructor teaching during a global pandemic, assessing student learning effectively and fairly in an online setting may feel like a “sink or swim” situation.

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

COVID, 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.

How do instructors who have little experience using technology conduct meaningful lessons while grappling with technical constraints? Learning technology takes up time needed to prep for class, answer students’ questions, and yes, grade finished 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?

All of these are pressing concerns for instructors grappling with the pandemic.

For example, Patrick Iber, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, taught a large lecture class of roughly 80 students on Latin American history in-class before the pandemic hit.

Like many of his colleagues, he had no choice but to shift his classes online. Iber’s instruction method relies heavily on student interaction within the classroom, ensuring he can meet with students in small groups and work on problems together. He admits that this type of setup was challenging with online learning.

“The biggest challenge,” Iber says, “was maintaining a sense of community around the classroom,” a sentiment that you probably share.

So, how did he adapt to the sudden change?

Online grading approaches during the pandemic

It’s important to remember that your teaching methods need to be adjusted for online grading 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 the pandemic.

Of course, there are some downsides to this method. For 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 the 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 the current challenges of grading students during the pandemic. Nevertheless, they are viable methods for helping students stay on track academically. And in an uncertain time where learning remotely has changed drastically, they are go-to solutions that give students the lifeline they need when they haven’t adjusted to a digital-only learning environment.

Tips to make grading work during the pandemic

To better understand how to make online grading work during the pandemic, it’s 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 won’t work by itself.

Yes, you can still grade students with tests and quizzes, but the rigid structure of in-class instruction won’t 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 through the pandemic

  • 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 is problematic. The memorizing of material alone doesn’t 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: But 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 during the pandemic

Modified grading, streamlining assignments and gaining a better understanding of the technology you’re 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 won’t 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 in just a matter of months. It’s 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.