Successful Grading in an Online Classroom

This post is part of a series to help you prepare for and navigate online teaching. While you can read the posts in any order, if you are just now building a class, you might want to start here.

In online courses, creating careful feedback is even more important than in F2F classes. This is because the nonverbal feedback we give them in the situation of a F2F class is entirely gone. This is true even if we are teaching synchronously using videos where we see their faces and they see ours. We’re simply not able to pass along the same kind of information nonverbally through video.

That means we have to find other ways to give feedback, which typically means that we are giving more written and scored feedback than in F2F classes. And we have to give it more often and with a faster turnaround time to ensure that students 1) are getting it regularly and 2) are getting it quickly enough to apply it to future work. This is especially important in shorter-term, intensive classes.

That translates into more grading.

Class size, course level, and learning outcomes are the factors that most influence how much graded work you assign and the depth of feedback you give it. In general, I aim for at least two graded assignments each week:

  • Something that helps measure their comprehension of the assigned texts (including lectures, films, podcasts, etc.) such as
    • an exercise set (ideally automatically scored so that they can get instant feedback)
    • a quiz with objective comprehension questions
    • a reading journal where they explore ideas
    • notes directly taken on the assigned text (handwritten or produced with any number of digital note-taking tools)
    • a weekly response essay
    • a study aid, such as flashcards, an outline, or sample quiz questions that they create
    • The point is that it shows you that 1) they read/watched/listened and 2) they mostly understand the key points.
    • Autograded work that is resubmitted gives them the chance to correct their errors; even if it is not allowed to be resubmitted, if the answer key includes explanations of correct an incorrect answers, then they learn. Additionally, when at least one assessment focuses on comprehension, then you see what they are missing–and if the whole class is missing it, you have identified a gap in your own teaching of the content.
  • Something that asks them to build with it, such as
    • a discussion board post where they discuss or debate rather than answer questions related to comprehension (yawn!)
    • an example they have built or identified that illustrates a concept (like a submission to a class photojournal)
    • an interview with a research participant that demonstrates that they can apply the concepts
    • a recorded demonstration of a skill taught that week in class
    • writing that applies that module’s lesson to an example of their choice that they focus on all semester

I recommend that one of these two assignments is

  • of low point value and another of high point value
  • something that students can re-submit to improve their grade based on feedback, either because it is autograded or because you allow them an additional attempt later in the semester
  • something that is autograded or graded as complete/incomplete (to help you)
  • something other students also give feedback to, so they are getting multiple perspectives on their work each week

Finally, I recommend that you set aside a single day to grade for each of your classes and sticking to that schedule. I have previously recommended Sunday at 11:59 pm for student deadlines, in part because it’s important to grade work quickly and you don’t want to have to grade on weekends. I recommend grading Monday mornings after you do your own writing but before you open your email.

Of course, how much time you spend grading depends on your class size, the number of assignments you give, their complexity, and student need. Since you are grading multiple assignments per week (probably more than in a typical F2F course), provide minimal feedback on assignments that assess comprehension; just correct any significant misunderstandings, and consider doing so in an all-class setting, like an announcement or an email. (“I see that many of you missed the quiz question about X; be sure to return to pages X-X of your textbook and minutes X-X of last week’s lecture. You might also find this additional reading helpful [link]; I’ve added my notes to it, and I encourage you to pay attention to X in them.” Or “I wanted to share Jessica’s great response paper, with her permission. Notice how she…”) Then focus more substantial feedback on their personal work; it’s okay here if much of your feedback is just encouragement rather than critique, especially if they are working on a skill that you expect them to get better at as the course progresses.

I aim to return student work in all my classes three days after submission. On some lengthier assignments, this may not be possible; be sure, in those cases, that the following week’s work does not depend on feedback. For example, if you require students to turn in a bibliography one week and a paper the next, if the bibliography takes you a week to grade, you cannot expect students not to repeat any errors in it in the final paper. In that case, consider assigning the bibliography earlier in the semester.

A final point: Make grades on assignments invisible to students in your LMS until you have graded all students’ work. Otherwise, you’ll get emails from panicked students who hear from their friends that grades are ready when they are not. And you will able to go back and recalibrate grades on the first samples you graded if you later discover that your grades were too harsh or too easy.

Above, The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli shows a troll-like resting on a woman’s chest. She is thrown over a bed, her arm and heads danging from the edge. A black horse with glowing eyes and flared nostrils peeks from behind a curtain. Yes, grading can feel like this.

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