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Fair Grading and Course Assessment In the Online World

written by: James Ballou•edited by: Jacqueline Chinappi•updated: 1/1/2010

Online course assessment can include a number of common characteristics that instructors can use to improve or build their own grading framework. Understanding each of these characteristics provides the instructor with a foundation upon which student performance can be assessed fairly.

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    Every good grading system has a few components in it that are shared with all other good grading systems and yet there are infinite numbers of grading approach variations. Each system that is employed by an instructor that effectively assesses the performance of students is fair, consistent, clear and flexible. This article examines the framework of such a system and provides advice for instructors who are building their own assessment systems for an online course.

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    The Framework

    Effectively assessing the performance of students relies on accurate and well designed grading system The grading system is the framework in which instructors work. Each instructor has a set of rules that guide the way they grade and good instructors communicate those rules to their students. Adhering to the guidelines of the system enables instructors to properly acknowledge the work done by students and prevents diluting the meaning behind specific grades.

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    The Aspects of Fairness

    A strong grading system motivates students to improve their own performance Not all students are “A students.” Instructors who are troubled by a bell curve of grades in their classes should take heart in the knowledge that such scoring is common and to be expected. In fact, if a large portion of each class receives an A the grade has most likely been diluted and instructors may benefit from revisiting their standards. Letter grades are useful tools when employed to help students understand areas in which they are weak. All good grading systems share a set of key characteristics 

    Providing grades as a way to build self esteem is harmful for both the student and the institution. If poor performing students receive an A when their work is significantly inferior to high performing students it is an abdication of instructor responsibility. Worse yet, poor performing students develop a false sense of ability that is likely to cause problems in future classes. Therefore the concept that is the underpinning of each effective grading system is that students must earn what they receive.

    The grade that students receive is less important than the feedback that comes along with it but without the grade the feedback is often overlooked. Therefore, an effective grading system helps to shape student behavior by employing the grade and through coaching. This is more successfully deployed when instructors have a significant number of graded assignments throughout the course that students can use as guideposts along the way.

    Another essential component of an effective grading system is consistency. Where possible, instructors should use a grading rubric to provide consistent and standardized feedback to students. Well developed rubrics help explain the grade and show students specific areas in which they need to improve.

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    The Essential Nature of Flexibility

    When it comes to a grading mechanism that relies on consistency it might sound counter-intuitive to build in a degree of flexibility. This, however, is an essential part of the grading process because the overall idea is to help students master the concepts taught in the class. Without some form of flexibility the incorrect message can be sent to students and the needed improvements may be lost in the struggle over a student’s need for special consideration. Honesty and integrity are never more important than when providing students with an accurate assessment of their performance 

    Some instructors find that flexibility can be provided by establishing multiple dates during which an assignment can be submitted. Other instructors allow assignment exceptions only when a death or hospitalization has occurred. The reason for flexibility is as much for the benefit of the instructor as it is the student. There is a fundamental need for fairness that exists within all people. If an instructor builds a system that is so rigid as to allow no consideration whatsoever the instructor may find that he/she is a prisoner to it.

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    A Reflection of the Instructor's Performance

    As instructors work to build grading systems that are fair, consistent, clear and flexible they work to define those terms in a way that serves the overall educational goal. Instructors should exercise care about what message is being communicated through the course assessment whichthey use online and consider if they are providing proper guidance. Ultimately the system instructors use to evaluate student performance is as much a reflection on the instructor as it is on the student.