May 1st, 2012

The Online Educator’s Complete Guide to Grading Assignments, Part 1


Students know that in any online course assignments will be required, and students expect the online educator to read the assignments and give feedback that can help them improve their understanding of the subject and improve grades on future assignments in the course. All instructors give feedback—but there is an approach to grading assignments that is merely okay, and another that involves grading mini lessons in the subject matter while also motivating the students to do better. It is this latter approach that must be practiced so that the student can do the maximum learning in the online environment.

The following suggestions (broken into two parts: outside the assignments, i.e., for the course in general, and inside the assignments, i.e., approaches to grading each major assignment) will ensure that you offer students the most useful and positive grading.

Post a worksheet that helps students view your online assignment comments. Many students are new to online courses, and thus have not had experience with assignments being marked and graded online. This could translate into students not having their computers correctly set so they can see your reviewing/tracking feature comments. To minimize this problem, post a sheet—on day one—somewhere in class that students can always access, to give them instructions on how to properly set their computers to view your comments.

Send the students an email indicating that you expect the first assignment grade to be their lowest of the course. Students are often shocked by their first grades in a course, especially if they are new to college, new to the subject (or have not taken a course in the subject for quite some time), and/or you are the type of instructor who is especially thorough. These low grades can be discouraging, but you can offset this by posting an announcement that lets students know you expect their first grades to be the worst in the course (as they have not had prior feedback or assistance from you), and that what is most important in your course is their overall improvement. Further, tell the students that rather than being upset by the grade they should use it as a guide to help them improve. Add that you are not concerned about it because you know the students will simply build on it and become better.

Be sure there are ample resources available to assist students throughout the course. Students will have textbooks and other course-mandated resources, but anything additional you can add to help students understand their lessons in the course, and thus give them as much information as possible to do quality assignments, is a huge plus. Remember that any course set up by a school offers information for the general class; it is you, the instructor, who can augment these resources through additional readings, helpful websites, audio/video clips, and other items that offer additional insights, explanations, and information on the subject(s).

Prior to each upcoming major assignment, post motivational and reminder announcements. Start off each week or session prior to the next major assignment with an announcement, using an audio file such as .mp3 or creating audio using NanoGong, to personalize your concerns and interests in students doing well. This message reminds students of major errors you have seen in the most recent assignment, your suggestions for doing well on the next assignment, and the connection between this academic assignment and their real world of work. This last item is especially important, as it is a nice link between what may seem like work to merely get a grade and preparation to enhance their efforts in the professional workplace.

No matter how clear and detailed your comments, expect students to write “I-don’t-get-it” emails. You could win a Nobel Prize for assignment feedback clarity and students will always write to you about how they are confused, don’t understand, or need more clarification. This is a great thing, actually, and seldom has anything to do with your feedback not being good enough. Rather, you have students who really are interested in improving, to the point that they want to fully understand what you’ve pointed out. These students have taken the time to ask for more feedback (with some exceptions, the ones who really don’t care are not going to take the time to ask for additional assistance). Even if the student’s primary reason for asking is to receive a good final grade in the course, this gives you an opportunity to teach a bit more. So be sure to respond to the student in a timely manner by email, audio message, or phone.

Note: Part 2 of this article will appear on Thursday.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 17 years and has a national reputation in the subject, and in writing about and conducting workshops on distance learning. He is currently putting the finishing touches on two online-teaching books.

Excerpted from Teaching Online with Errol: The Online Educator’s Complete Guide to Grading Assignments. Online Classroom (April 2011): 6,8.