Rebuilding and rethinking your journalism class, Part II: A focus on grades and grading

EDITOR’S NOTE: A couple friends and colleagues were wondering aloud on social media about issues related to grading structure, class building and other similar concerns. When I mentioned I’d been kicking this around for a while for a potential post, at least a half dozen other people hit me with a “please tag me when you get it done” note, so I figured I’d better get this done. Regular posting will resume later this month — VFF

89 Grading/Teaching LOLs ideas | grading papers, teaching, teacher humor

In the first part of this look at building back better in terms of course construction, I outlined key tenets associated with improving student buy in for a class. I also looked at some ways in which you can connect what you want them to learn with the field itself.

If you missed it, here’s Part I.

As much as I said in the first part that you want to shift the focus away from grades, I get that grading is still a crucial part of every course, so let’s look at some ways to deal with grades that don’t come at the expense of learning and skill building:

EXAMINE GRADE APPORTIONMENT: One of the main things that tends to freak students out is the impact of any one assignment, test or project in a class. Students have told me how professors have often used only three or four graded items to determine a class grade. One kid showed me this class breakdown:

  • Test 1: 25%
  • Test 2: 25%
  • Final Project: 40%
  • Participation/In-Class Work: 10%

To me, that seems insane for a couple reasons.

First, if you screw up the first test, you are down one-quarter of the whole class and fighting your way uphill the rest of the way.

Second, if you aced tests one and two, you can still totally screw yourself by bombing the final, as that is almost worth as much as the previous two tests.

Third, in terms of the amount of time involved in relation to the outcomes, it’s completely out of whack. You’re in a classroom, participating and doing work for let’s say 27 class periods (15 weeks, two classes per week). You are in a classroom doing tests for 3 class periods (assuming the final project is like a presentation or a final exam). Is that proportionally logical?

When I started rebuilding my writing for the media class, I did it this way:

  • Small assignments: 30%
  • Big 3 assignments: 30%
  • Midterm: 15%
  • Final: 15%
  • Participation/professionalism: 10%

It probably doesn’t look that much different on its face, but let’s break down how this works:

  • They get about 5 or 6 minor assignments (leads, briefs, AP assignments etc.) that we do in class or out of class, so that’ about 5 or 6%  per assignment.
  • The three big assignments get dealt with both in class and out of class, and they are each worth 10%
  • Each test is only 15%, meaning you can have massive test anxiety and barely muddle through, but still do well in the class if you are more skilled in the small and/or big writing areas.

This approach of spreading the grade gives you the opportunity to help students learn along the way, penalize them for mistakes as you see fit without crippling their grades and generally lowering their anxiety over one big thing.

I have also found that this approach tends to limit cheating. The more value any one part of a course has, the more a student is likely to try to ace that part by any means necessary, which often includes cheating.

LIMIT THE IMPACT OF A FINAL: Classes have almost always placed a significant amount of value on a final exam or a final project, in which the students are required to showcase all of their skills for a huge chunk of the grade.

When it comes to certain disciplines, it completely makes sense to have comprehensive and cumulative finals that are worth a serious amount of a grade. The last thing I want to hear in a doctor’s office is my surgeon or a nurse say, “Yeah, I aced that class. I totally bombed the final, but I racked up a ton of participation points.”

However, that paradigm makes a lot less sense in a lot of classes. Students have told me that some of their history, philosophy, sociology and other gen-ed classes often value the finals at 40, 50 or up to 70% of the course grade.

To me, that’s ridiculous.

I try to keep the finals to as little of the grade as possible, while still making the students value the material that will be on them. I’ve found that in my basic classes, 15% is often good for exams with maybe 20% at most for any bigger pieces at the end.

I also try to lessen the amount of work that goes into a final or a project for a number of reasons:

The kids are burnt to a crisp at the point their finals roll around. This is especially true in the coronavirus era. They’re hanging on by their fingernails, so to hit them with an exceptionally arduous project or drill them with a test that covers the entire semester just seems like a recipe for disaster. It also feels cruel.

I’m burnt to a crisp at the time finals roll around. I’ll admit it: In many semesters, I know I’m not the best version of myself when we get to week 15 out here. I’m tired, overworked, overwhelmed with requests for letters/references/job searches, bleary eyed and cranky. I doubt I’m alone. So if I make a test or project worth 30 or 40% of a grade, I find myself grading each piece like I’m disarming a bomb. Each point I deduct carries so much meaning. I strain to remember if told a student to do something or not do something that now is in the paper and could be costing them points. I worry about everything. That’s not a good environment in which to drop a significant portion of a grade.

The kids have 93 other things they’re doing. Finals week is a conceptually dumb idea to me, in that it says, “Let’s have every class our students take force them to do a major thing, worth a giant portion of their grade, all at the same time.”
It also doesn’t help that students are usually either a) planning for a set of holidays that require them to do a ton of extra things for family and friends or b) planning for a summer/graduation in which they are starting internships, starting jobs, moving out of one apartment, moving into another apartment or otherwise engaging in some sort of life upheaval.
Why should I add to this chaos by doing the same dumb thing as everyone else is, namely, putting a major chunk of a grade into that overly stressful time period and expecting excellence?

Think of it this way: Let’s say you’re moving 10 boxes into the second-floor office of your newly purchased home. Three of the boxes are light and full of pillows, four are somewhat heavy and full of office stuff and the other three are heavy as hell because they’re filled with books you couldn’t stand to part with even though you haven’t read them in 20 years.

How do you approach this? Do you save the heavy as hell boxes for the end, when you’re dead tired and really don’t want to do anymore work? Do you grab the heavy as hell boxes first, when you don’t know the best route through the house or if you can get the boxes where they need to go?

I’d probably pick up a light box, try the route out and see if there are problems. I’d fix the problems, grab another light box and try it again. If the process worked well, I’d grab medium and heavy boxes while I still had some strength left and get through all that stuff as best I could. I’d likely save a light and a medium box for the final couple trips.

That’s the logic I apply when it comes to finals as well.

REVERSE PROCESS OF DRAFTING FOR GRADES: When I took classes from some writing professors, they had us write a story on a given topic and turn it in for a grade. Once we got it back, the thing was usually a mess of copy-editing marks, point deductions and random scrawl in the margins, along with a pretty lousy grade.

We were then told we could rewrite the draft for an improved grade.

What this was supposed to do was show us our problem areas and then give us a chance to improve upon them. What this approach taught me was how to do enough work to grab back enough points in the least amount of work required to get the grade I wanted.

In other words, if the professor deducted 10 points because they thought I needed to go interview another source, I’d let that one go. However, if the professor deducted 2 points for every AP style error and I had 10 of them, I’d just do the style fixes, take my 90 points/A- and move on.

That’s probably why when students would ask me after a poor grade, “Can I rewrite this for a better grade?” what I was hearing in my head was, “Look, I know I did a crappy job here, but if you give me a second chance, I’ll do just enough work to grab back the points I need to get out of here without really pushing myself.”

That’s also why I decided to reverse the process when it came to drafts and grading.

For each assignment, I have them do an ungraded draft. They then turn it in and I take all the drafts, remove the names of the students from them and put them up on the overhead for class review. If they’re short assignments, like leads or briefs, we review everyone’s full assignment. If they’re longer assignments, like stories or press releases, I’ll grab chunks from each person’s draft that represent something good or something bad that a lot of people did in the draft.

After we review the drafts, they get another bite at the apple. They redraft in class, where they have peer editing opportunities. I offer suggestions and I give them at least one set of office hours they can use to sit with me and do more editing. THEN, the final, graded version is due. Not only do they learn more this way, but it eliminates the claw-back approach to lost points.

MARK “COMPLETE,” NOT A GRADE ON YOUR LMS: One of the surest ways to get students to obsess about grades while not learning a damned thing in your class is to post their grades through the Learning Management System (LMS) you use to track them. Canvas, Blackboard, D2L and others all have a grade presentation function that allows you to input the grade for an assignment once it’s done.

If you have an option to just mark something as complete or incomplete in the system when you return graded work to them, I highly suggest you do so.

At one university where I taught entirely online courses, I was required to input the grade in the system and return to the students a marked-up version of their paper as well. About six seconds after I would punch down grades, I’d end up having an email conversation like this:

Student: Dear Professor, I just saw my grade and I don’t understand why it’s so low. I did the assignment and worked very hard on it. I can’t understand how I lost so many points!

Me: Dear (STUDENT), Did you look at the file I sent back to you with all of that information in there? Every error and its point deduction is noted clearly so you can improve the next time. If this still doesn’t make sense after you read through what I wrote, please reach out to me.

Student: Dear Professor, I didn’t bother to look at the file. I saw the grade and I was very upset. I would like you to tell me why you think this grade is representative of all the effort I put in.

Me: Dear (STUDENT), All of that information can be found if you open the file that contains your story and my comments on it. After you read that, please let me know what other questions you have…

(Repeat for at least two more rounds or until I copy and paste the whole (EXPLETIVE) file into an email.)

I set up my Canvas to track assignments as complete or incomplete, which helps students see if they’re missing something. I flip the switch to “complete” when I return the graded piece, which I tell them has the grade in it.

This does two things I think are important:

It forces them to open up the graded story and actually look at what I had to say. They can then see each thing that cost them points or even (gasp!) positive feedback I gave them on certain parts of the assignment. Even if they skip to the bottom where the grade is, there’s usually a good chunk of general feedback there they will run into whether they plan to do so or not. This approach pairs the grade with the rationale and usually makes for a better grading experience.

It stops them from having a grade to stare at the entire semester. In “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton used to joke that he could calculate his earned run average down to the fourth decimal point after each batter he faced. That’s not the approach I want my students taking when they think about grades in my class.
I hate that Canvas calculates a total course grade from a few simple assignments I’ve put in there at any given point in the term. It basically has the students staring at this thing every time they open up Canvas to submit an assignment, check an announcement or otherwise poke around in the class modules. I want them to be less obsessed about their grades in a minute-by-minute fashion, and more concerned about how they are developing in the course.

Students who really want to know what their grades are can actually calculate them by applying their grades to the percentages in the syllabus and doing some basic math. Students who are really concerned but can’t do the math are always welcome to check in with me from time to time as needed.

However, staring at that  89.499382 and wondering nothing more than how to get it up to a 90 for that coveted A- isn’t doing anyone any good.

GRADE FROM POINTS UP INSTEAD OF PERCENTAGES DOWN: If you have to include grades in your LMS, here’s a simple way to make it feel less punitive: Grade from points up instead of percentages down.

Here’s what I mean and why it works better:

If you start with zero points for everyone, and you give them points toward a final grade, this additive approach feels like they’re gaining ground toward something they want (a good final grade in the class).

If you rely on percentages, the fluctuations will almost always lead to lower and lower scores, so it feels like you’re taking something away from them and they’re losing ground (After two easy quizzes, they have 100%. Then they turn in an assignment and get a 90%. Suddenly, they see the grade “drop” overall and they feel like they lost something.)

Here’s the best analogy I have for this: Fantasy Football League scoring.

Every skill player starts with zero points. When a quarterback throws for a touchdown or a certain number of yards, they get points. Same thing with the running backs, receivers and kicker.

The defense, however, starts by giving you 10 points at kickoff. Each time, the opposing offense scores against your defense, you “lose” points from that 10 points. I can’t tell you how many times I was really ticked off at my team because my defense was “losing” me points, even though I knew full well there was no way my D would shut out the other team. Sure, I could gain back points through sacks, turnovers and defensive scores, but that felt more like I was getting back something I had already earned as opposed to receiving additional points.

If you can avoid the sense that you’re “costing me points” through your posted grades, the better the kids will feel about it.


I’m sure there are other things that will come to mind about six seconds after I post this, but I’ll end this here for now. If you have specific questions, please feel free to reach out to me and I’ll be happy to answer them.

Best of luck at the start of your semester!

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

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