Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should — Part 3: Simplifying Grading

In parts 1 and 2 we looked at how Blackboard calculates grades and how it can accommodate complex grading systems. In part 3 I’m going to advocate for simpler grading systems. I’ve heard the argument that calculating grades is simple math that every student should be able to do. And while I agree in principle that the math is easy, exactly how the grade is calculated can get messy fast.

Consider the following grade calculation:

  • Homework – 12 assignments (3 – 10 points, 3 – 12 points, 3 – 5 points, 3 – 15 points), lowest two scores dropped – 10%
  • Midterm exam (100 points) – 20%
  • Quizzes – 5 reading quizzes (3 – 5 points, 2 – 8 points), lowest score dropped – 10%
  • Term Project – project description (5 points), bibliography (10 points), draft (15 points), final paper (40 points) – 30%
  • Final Exam (200 points) – 30%

Here are some confusing points – the homework and quizzes consist of multiple grades of different possible point values, with lowest in the category dropped. A student needs to calculate the percent score to determine which are the lowest grades. Next, are the scores averaged equally or weighted to arrive at the score contributing to the final grade? Similarly, the project components have different point values, this suggests the project score is calculated out of 70 possible points, but is it? Again, there’s ambiguity around weighting.

And while the calculation above could be clarified by indicating when scores are averaged, how they are weighted, the complication leads to uncertainty, both for instructors and students. Instructors need to be certain that the grades that are calculated are correct – that is, Blackboard is calculating the grade as intended. With such a complicated grade calculation, it’s easy to miss an equally weighted calculation for a weighted one unless you manually check the calculations.  For students, the uncertainty that comes with complicated calculations means they often want to meet with the instructor to confirm that their calculations are correct, resulting in more meetings with students to verify how they are doing.

Many years ago, when I was teaching, I used a grade calculation much like the example above. I chose that calculation for no other reason than that’s how other instructors I was teaching with calculated their grades and it made sense to be consistent across sections. I never gave much thought to why at the end of the semester so many students wanted to meet with me to see “how they were doing.” I provided the breakdown of grades so that they could calculate the grade themselves but every term the same requests for meetings. I now realize that I wasn’t always clear around averaging – were the quizzes weighted averages or not.

More recently I’ve worked with faculty in our continuing education program and have been won over to the simplicity of the grade calculations they use for online and hybrid courses. All final grades are calculated out of 1000 points. Instructors can see if they have too many or not enough grades in a category or if a grade column is missing – the total column lists how many points are possible providing an indicator of missing (or too many grade columns). Students can easily see how each assignment contributes to their final grade and can use that information in planning their work.

Since we’re just talking basic math, how might the calculation above be converted to 1000 points?

One interpretation is as follows:

  • Homework – 12 assignments (10 points each), lowest two scores dropped – 100 points
  • Midterm exam – 200 points
  • Quizzes – 5 reading quizzes (25 points each), lowest score dropped – 100 points
  • Term Project – project description (20 points), bibliography (40 points), draft (70 points), final paper (170 points) – 300 points
  • Final Exam – 300 points

Because the initial conversion created grades for the project components that were not round numbers, I adjusted them to be easier to add up to 300 points without a calculator. I also chose to make all the homework and quiz grades equal to make dropping the scores easier, the final value used was derived from overall category value (weight) divided by the number of scores counted in the final calculation.

In Blackboard you can view the grade columns (Full Grade Center>Manage>Column Organization), the categories each column contributes to and points possible:

The Column Organization screen has useful information that can be used to identify errors in a gradebook.

Column organization screen in Blackboard

In the last 6 columns the calculation comes together – Homework and Quiz totals are the totals after dropping grades. The Term Project column is the aggregate score for the items making up the project. I created that column as a double check on the calculation – the components add to 300 points, so I’ve correctly specified the points.  The Final Grade is out of 1000 points, I haven’t missed anything or added columns into the calculation that I don’t want to include. Note, the statement “may vary by student” indicates that if each student receives a grade for all the items, the total will be accurate. If you exempt a grade in the category the grade total may vary.  You need to determine how the grades will calculate if you exempt grades.

In this series, I have discussed how Blackboard columns calculate, how to set up complex grade calculations using the Grade Center, and finally, how to convert a complex calculation to a point totaling system that is easier to troubleshoot mistakes, easier for students to understand, and can reduce student requests to “check their grade” near the end of term.

Stop by Learning Innovation & Technology in Beatty 318 for assistance with your grade center or email lit@wit.edu.