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Assessment is how we measure learning. Feedback is how students learn, regardless of grades--and is critical in online learning environments. Paired together, evaluation and feedback make for a powerful intersection that informs both student learning and teaching efficacy. In this post, we will focus on the grading component of assessment. How does remote learning affect this intersection when teachers are grading assignments, quizzes, or exams online? 

Many universities debated the merits of grades recently; universities like Carnegie Mellon, Vanderbilt, Smith College, Yale, and Columbia, took the pass/fail binary approach to grading and assessment given the challenges of effective and equitable instruction during crisis learning. 

On the other hand, no one contested the value of feedback. Research from as far back as 1958 states that feedback, rather than numerical evaluations, facilitates learning. Ellis Page’s research “concludes that grades can have a beneficial effect on student learning, but only when accompanied by specific or individualized comments from the teacher” (Guskey, 1994). In more recent research, John Hattie states that high-quality feedback has the potential to accelerate learning, increase the amount of learning, and is thus an effective conduit and strategy for improving student performance (Visible Learning, n.d.). 

A June 2020 Vox article entitled “It May Be That I Never Go Back to the Grading System,” Patrick Iber, associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says that the past semester “has prompted him to revisit the grading system he has in place and consider moving to an even more progressive model for the fall. Iber states, “It’s making me think more deeply about what grades are for and why we assign them and why we have the system that we have in place for them.” 

Assessment and grading have always been challenging; grading is a time-consuming process for instructors. Inequities and biases, too, complicate this intersection; assessment formats favor different learning styles, and exhausted instructors grading late into the night may result in unconscious biases. A team of multiple teaching assistants, too, may be difficult to coordinate and the feedback hard to calibrate. At the same time, grading is high-stakes and critical to student learning and teaching efficacy—and it cannot afford to be overlooked. 

Assessment and grading are undoubtedly more challenging online vs. in-person, but the pedagogical principles remain the same. In fact, the setbacks we face today are an opportunity for innovation. In the case of online grading, we have the opportunity to take a hard look at the value of grades and prioritize equity. 

In sum, there has always been room for improvement to reach the ideals of pedagogical best practices and excellence. 

So what can grading with equity look like in online learning environments?

Deliver Feedback 

Feedback loops promote learning. Students especially benefit from formative feedback and a growth mindset when given opportunities for reflection throughout the learning process. By promoting feedback, which is even more high stakes in online learning environments where learning can be much more asynchronous, we are taking advantage of an opportunity to focus on learning. “Online learning removes some of the channels of information that are available in a traditional classroom, so the teacher needs to rely more on channels like assessment of learning” (Timms, 2017, p. 327). 

Joe Feldman, known for his research on assessment and the inequities therein, recently wrote his recommendations on grading within the context of remote learning. The one thing he advises not changing is to “continue providing feedback on performance.” He states that “teachers should continue to give detailed feedback to students on their performance, to support learning. Teacher feedback could be communicated through online meetings or web-based applications, and will give students valuable insight into their understanding, guidance on how to improve, and motivation to learn and grow.” Feedback Studio and Quickmarks support formative approaches to learning when it comes to the writing process and Gradescope enables and accelerates feedback loops for all types of assessments whether delivered online or in-person. 

Grade Objectively

Rubrics help mitigate bias. In a recent Inside Higher Education article, Kadakia and Bradshaw state, “In the absence of face-to-face guidance, clear criteria for expectations become more important. A good rubric makes those expectations explicit and describes what learning looks like.” Assessment platforms like Gradescope enable a flexible but uniform grading standard that ensures all students understand expectations and how their work was evaluated. Feedback Studio too, incorporates rubrics to help make the grading process faster, easier, and more consistent.  

Mitigate unconscious bias by focusing on the content of an individual answer rather than the students’ overall submission or identity. Gradescope also helps teams of graders to build, maintain, and apply one aligned grading standard for all students, resulting in a fairer learning experience for students and greater consistency across graders. It’s hard to coordinate grading and rubrics with multiple teaching assistants grading completely online--but Gradescope assists in grading objectively, wherever and whenever assessments are graded.

Encourage Learning

When students are graded on a curve, the act of adjusting student grades so that they’re relative to the grades of cohorts, there is an implicit message that students compete with each other, including ones who may be taking short-cut solutions. According to research, “moving away from curving sets the expectation that all students have the opportunity to achieve the highest possible grade” (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). Thomas Guskey’s advice includes eliminating grading on a curve and heading off misconduct by making exams open book, asking questions with higher-order thinking that don’t elicit simple responses, and asking students to explain answers with oral exams via video; Gradescope accommodates a range of student-uploaded materials, including video.

Apply Item Analysis

Item analysis promotes accurate assessment and objective assessment and exam design by upholding data-driven decisions that facilitate student learning and academic integrity. Test what is taught. Teach what will be tested. In the absence of being within the same physical classroom and detecting body language and other intuitive clues, item analysis takes on crucial importance as data becomes the primary venue for information. Item analysis provides insights into whether or not assessment questions are eliciting responses that reflect the learning expected. According to Inside Higher Education, “This process is worthwhile at all times, but it is especially valuable now as exams are being rewritten for the online teaching environment.”  

Item analysis, too, can inform educators if a question is particularly unfair or irrelevant--and with Gradescope, rubrics can be adjusted at any point in the grading process to uphold equity. 

The outcome of equitable grading is motivated students and accurate assessment of their learning, something to which all educators aspire. Online learning environments are an experiment for many--and experiments can be fruitful and push innovation leading to new models of grading equity. 

Want to uphold equity in online grading? Check out Gradescope.
Want to deliver meaningful feedback on written assignments? Check out Feedback Studio.