Reconsidering grading in the online environment

As we threw ourselves into teaching online, many of us did not realize that looming around the bend was a challenge that would try a lot of teachers: Grading. While there are myriad reasons that we grade, the pandemic encourages us to rethink these reasons and develop alternative schemes.

Academic grading often has two flavors. The first is a final assessment, where we ask students to show us how well they have learned the material we have presented. This is often more common in classes where the teacher has a body of information to impart to the students. For language teachers, it is more common to use continuous assessment, where a running total of graded work is kept and students accumulate the points to receive the grade they want. Both of these systems have been severely tried with the advent of the pandemic. For the online course, it was difficult to know if students were acquiring the information, making final assessment a challenge. It was also difficult to know if students were adequately completing regular assignments and if they were not, it was difficult to assign a logic to a continuous assessment, given the challenges facing many students in accessing classes. As a further challenge, many of these systems were based on attendance, on the assumption that the student’s presence would be taken into account.

However, the academic model of grading is not the only conceptual model that is available. Consider, for example, a test for a driving license. It is not the role of the tester to determine how good the driver is, the job of the tester is to see if the applicant passes some minimum standard. By setting out that minimum standard and then determining how to award a grade beyond that can simplify online grading.

So here is a challenge. If you were to sit down, what would be the minimum work a student would need to do in order to get a credit in your class? If this work were set up as on-demand, would you need to actually teach or could you simply coach students?

When you set up your class in this way, it has the possibility to transform your syllabus and your teaching. By setting up a minimum requirements in a clear and transparent way, students have a better idea of what is at the core of your course. In this, a number of the technologies that have emerged in the post COVID environment can make this much easier for the teacher. Apps like Flipgrid, Padlet, Nearpod allow the teacher to set out some basic requirements and assign those to students. LMS like Moodle, Teams or Google classroom allow students to upload recordings and other media. And if you have used these, you understand the problems students may have and can anticipate them.

I’ve often noted that in the average class, you often spend 90% of your effort on the lowest 10% of the students. By reconceptualizing your class as a set of minimum requirements as a driving test, and providing additional assignments for students who wish to make higher grades, you can try and shift that effort to the better students and not waste your mental energy trying to evaluate students who are only willing to do the minimum. While it would be great if we could help each and every student reach their full potential, we also have to realize that there is a reciprocal effort required. By reconceptualizing your grades, you can help students who actually are interested in learning and protect your own mental health.

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Joseph Tomei has taught EFL in France, Spain, and Japan at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. In addition to his interest in computer-mediated communication, he also is interested in the application of functional/typological grammar to language teaching, practical activities in the language classroom, and writing instruction, and his doctorate is on the use of metaphor by EFL writers. Contact:

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