Faculty Focus


Frequent, Low-Stakes Grading: Assessment for Communication, Confidence

After going out for tacos, our students can review the restaurant on a website. They watch audiences reach a verdict on talent each season on American Idol. When they play video games—and they play them a lot—their screens are filled with status and reward metrics. And after (and sometimes while) taking our classes, they can go online to www.ratemyprofessors.com.

It may surprise us to think of it like this, but today’s students grew up in a culture of routine assessment and feedback. Yet when they click (or walk) into our courses, the experience is often quite different: there are few high-stakes grades, big exams, or one-shot term papers. Despite critiques of high-stakes testing – Wideen et al. (1997) said such “examinations discouraged teachers from using strategies which promoted enquiry and active student learning […] this impoverishment affected the language of classroom discourse”—teachers often still see “assessment as an index of school success rather than as the cause of that success” (Chappuis and Stiggins, 2002).

Certainly, grades, when misused as what Filene (2005) calls a “pedagogical whip,” can lead to problems: Grading curves pit students against each other, fostering strategic rather than deep learning (Bain, 2004). High-stakes grading may contribute to grade inflation (Rojstaczer and Healy, 2010). Grading pressures may even encourage cheating.

I offer the strategy/philosophy of frequent, low-stakes (FLS) grading: simple course evaluation methods that allow you to provide students with many grades so that an individual grade doesn’t mean much. FLS grading can work in any course but is especially useful online, as it provides grade transparency for students and creates a steady information flow in an environment in which student-teacher communication is crucial to success. FLS grading can have several advantages:

  • It creates dialogue. Frequent grades can establish a productive student-teacher conversation, and students have an ongoing answer to the question, “How am I doing?”
  • It builds confidence. Students have many opportunities to succeed, and there is a consistent, predictable, open evaluation structure.
  • It increases motivation. FLS grading fits into students’ conceptions—and, perhaps, expectations—of assessment and evaluation: This is the culture they grew up in!

Some teachers may have an “allergic” response to the idea of giving lots of grades, but much “classic” pedagogical thinking (and writing) about grading predates both this culture of assessment and feedback and the teaching technologies now available, especially to online instructors. While some may resist grade-centric approaches, remember, in ideal teaching, perhaps everything is formative and you have small ratio, even one-on-one, interactions with students. Maybe there are even no grades at all. But such ideal environments are rare. We must give grades, so the issue is how we grade to the benefit of students.

The growth of online courses provides additional exigency for FLS grading. I’m always skeptical about those who privilege teacher-student interactions in onsite courses – how often do students talk to the instructor of their 200-student onsite lecture course? – but no doubt a key to effective online pedagogy is making sure you are present for students as their teacher. All students benefit from having a clear idea of their overall course standing, but we need strategies to provide online students with meaningful communications about the course, and what is more meaningful to students than clear grade data?

Frequent grade information also provides motivation, another especially important factor in online student success (i.e., see Schrum & Hong [2002]). Frequent, immediate grade data should help students overcome the inertia of procrastination far better than that delayed reward of the grade far off in week 12.

FLS grading does mean that you will re-conceptualize the grading function in your course, and while FLS grading has a summative micro structure—sure, you give grades—the overall structure is formative. You can remove unproductive grading pressure, encourage intellectual risk-taking, and discourage plagiarism/cheating. And especially online, your overall response strategy will include this grade-based dialogue with your students.

You can still have your major papers and exams, but with FLS grading, a series of low-stakes assignments helps uncover points of intervention long before any high-stakes evaluation. Teachers are busy, but FLS grading can actually result in less work overall if done right, as dialogue occurs through the grades. For FLS grading, you will shift your course requirements, like this:

FLS is about feedback. Really, a high-stakes evaluation structure often precludes a feedback plan: You basically just provide summative evaluation. The meaning of “frequent” will vary based on your teaching style. At one time, I provided as many as five grades per week. I have shifted my approach, clumping various small assignments into one weekly grade so, each week students get one status grade, although I can break that down to individual assignments for them if asked.

I’ll focus on two particular assignment methods: informal writing and quizzes.

Frequent short, informal writing assignments can take many forms:

  • Responses to readings or focused content questions
  • End-of-unit notes on important or confusing points, questions
  • Journals
  • Brief annotations or notes about calculations, charts, tables
  • Metacognition: Have students think through/reflect on reasoning, thinking, writing processes

The technological environment of online learning is a major asset in using short, informal writing. Technology reduces the paper shuffle, easing logistics, and digital writing forums and tools allow students to write to one another, making open dialogue a fundamental course component. Message boards are an easy-to-use and readily available dialogic technology for online courses, and blogs or even wikis can be used to replace notebook-based response journals.

Rubrics provide structure for responding to writing and demystify evaluation – for you as well as the students. A simple rubric for brief informal writing could involve two simple criteria, on a scale of 1 to 5:

  • Demonstration of understanding of a key idea.
  • Writing quality (judged loosely, maybe even as your readerly response to the piece).

When developing a rubric, remember what you want the assignment to accomplish. This is your decision based on your course goals. Don’t outsmart yourself. In line with writing across the curriculum approaches, remember what you’re trying to accomplish when you assign informal writing, and remember what you don’t want to worry about. You do not need to evaluate everything. For instance, if you want to evaluate their understanding of a main idea about a chapter but end up pegging them for dangling modifiers, you will likely become frustrated and may give up on using informal writing at all. Think about simple, specific, often content-oriented goals you want to assess. Rubric performance language/levels can be simple, excellent to poor, and reflect a range of responses. You can use rubric creation tools like Waypoint Outcomes or Rubistar.

Quizzes (as I’ve written about previously in The Teaching Professor [2004]) need not be a pedagogical stick. Quizzes should be easy to create, take, and grade. They should have a specific objective. For instance, I always give straightforward, weekly online reading quizzes, almost at this level: “What large sea mammal is featured in Moby Dick?” I just want them to read.

Technology again simplifies logistics, easing both assignment submission and grading. Course management system (CMS) assessment tools allow for simple quiz features like question sets so not all students receive the same questions, and I use the basic simplicity, frequency, and low-stakes aspects of my quizzes to discourage cheating.

The primary question most teachers have is this: How do I give lots of grades without breaking my back? Again, use a simple grading scale for individual assignments: 1 to 3, 1 to 5, 1 to 10, or even a check/check plus system. You can share/display grades in a CMS grade book. Remember, the object is creating grade-centric feedback, and the time payback comes when students do not constantly have to reach out to you about class performance; they already know, and when they do raise questions, the conversation is more focused than, “So, how am I doing in this class?”

Filene (2005) said, “For better or worse, grades matter; the challenge is how to make them work for your purposes.” FLS grading can demystify course assessment, letting your online students know how they are doing. Done right, it can result in less work/stress for teachers, helping identify struggling students early. Communicating meaningfully with every student is a teaching challenge, but a stream of FLS grades allows student to know where they stand so they can better reach their goals in our courses.

Chappuis, S. and R. Stiggins. (2002). Classroom assessment for learning. Educational Leadership. September: 40-43.

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Filene, P. (2005). The Joy of Teaching. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Rojstaczer, S. & C. Healy. (2010). Grading in American colleges and universities. Teachers College Record. March 04, 2010. http://www.tcrecord.org.

Schrum L. & S. Hong. (2002). Dimensions and strategies for online success: Voices from experienced educators. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 6.1: 57-67.

Warnock, S. (2004). Quizzes boost comprehension, confidence. The Teaching Professor. 5.

Wideen, M.F., T. O’Shea, I. Pye & G. Ivany. (1997). High-stakes testing and the teaching of science. Canadian Journal of Education 22.4: 428-44.

Dr. Scott Warnock is an associate professor of English and Director of the Writing Center and Writing Across the Curriculum at Drexel University.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, 12.3 (2012): 5,7.