March 16th, 2010

Online Grade Books Provide Transparency, Accountability

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I started using an online grade book as a convenience for myself. Here, finally, was a grade book that couldn’t get lost or stolen, and it would be automatically backed up by the IT department every night. The accumulated scores could also be downloaded directly into a spreadsheet for calculation of grades, a shortcut that reduced the possibility of errors.

At the same time, however, using an electronic grade book took something that had previously been my private domain and opened it up for every student to inspect. This aspect of the technology challenged me to rethink some of my teaching policies. If I wanted to give credit for attendance and participation (and I did), I needed to make sure that I was calculating that in a way that could stand up to direct student scrutiny. Instead of recording a series of cryptic checks, dashes, and check “pluses” into a black book, I had to create a more quantifiable and defensible system for determining these kinds of grades. I soon found that the transparency of an open grade book fostered a healthy level of instructor accountability in my classes.

For students, the open grade book made it easier to follow their performance over the course of the semester, and it opened a new avenue for teacher-student dialogue. At midterm, for example, when students received their grades, they could compare daily and weekly scores with a letter grade summary to see how it all added up. They could ask questions or contact me if they thought a mistake had been made. Being able to review and correct entries seemed to increase my students’ confidence in the grading process. They recognized my good-faith effort to handle grading in a consistent and reliable way.

Online grade books appeal to students
After a couple of years of using an online grade book, I decided to survey students about their perspectives. Over two semesters, I collected anonymous responses from 71 students in three different sections of the same course. Only 28.1 percent of these students were using an online grade book for the first time in my class, so the majority had taken other courses in which teachers used this technology. I was curious how frequently they checked their grades online. I found that 58 percent of the students surveyed checked their grades a couple of times a month, and 20 percent answered that they checked them a couple of times a week. Only one student reported ignoring the grade book completely.

When asked about grade accuracy, 76 percent said they never found any mistakes in the recording of their grades, but 7 percent found mistakes without reporting them and another 15.5 percent said that they reported mistakes and I subsequently corrected them. I do record attendance and daily homework assignments, so there are many opportunities for mistakes or misunderstandings (students who come to class after I check attendance or hand in homework without their names on it, for example). Learning that 16 students out of 71 experienced some kind of error in the grade recording process was somewhat alarming, but it also confirmed the value of the transparency that an electronic grade book provides.

I was encouraged that 85.9 percent of my students agreed or strongly agreed that “[t]he online grade book gave me a clearer understanding of my status in the course this semester.” In a section left open for additional comments, students reported that they appreciated being able to track their progress in the course and having a clearer picture of their performance throughout the semester.

Based on these survey responses and my own experiences with the online grade book, I’ve come to believe that this electronic tool is more than a convenience. It has created a new level of accountability and student-instructor communication in my classes. The technology is easy and it offers many advantages while requiring no more effort than does a traditional paper grade book. This transparent approach to grade recording seems to be one digital innovation that can be recommended to faculty wholeheartedly.

Tom Schrand, PhD., is the associate dean of the School of Liberal Arts and the head of the Environmental Sustainability program at Philadelphia University.

Excerpted from Online Grade Books: Surprising Accomplishments, April 2008, The Teaching Professor.