Lighten your load: Weight grades.

Six weeks ago, my local public school resumed classes. The district decides on a week-by-week basis if students will be fully online, in person 2 days a week and online 3, or fully in person. This also varies by elementary, middle, and high school, so you elementary schools will be hybrid next week while the high school and middle schools will be fully online. It’s… a lot. (Families can also choose to be fully remote for the entire semester, if they prefer something stable.) In 6 weeks, students have already all three modes of instruction.

Some college instructors are likewise facing constant upheaval. Online, hybrid, in-person, HyFlex (the worst of all worlds)… Bring students to campus, send ’em home. It’s… a lot.

It’s also why I recommend weighted grading by categories. If you aren’t using weighted grading this semester, don’t start now–but consider it for spring, when we’re likely to be facing just as much upheaval.

Weighted grading is when you create categories of assignments. All of a kind of assignments belong to a single category, or all components of a larger assignment belong to a category. For example, if you have 4 exams in your class, you would have a category called Exams. Or if students have a major presentation that requires multiple steps, you would have a category called Research Paper. Within each category, there are multiple assignments. for example, under Exams, you would have 4 exams; under Research Paper, you might have thesis statement, working bibliography, annotations, outline, first draft, peer review workshop, second draft, individual conference, and final draft. The assignments within each category could be equally weighted (so each exam is worth 10% of the final grade) or weighted (so the first draft of the paper is worth 2% of the final grade and the final draft is worth 20%).

Lots of us already grade like this, and your LMS makes it easy. Others prefer points, which are generally easier for students to calculate–but only if you are able to perfectly execute the promise you made in the syllabus. In short, a points-based grading system demands that you are precise, and precision is in tension with accuracy. In a semester when you need flexibility, don’t promise precision.

During a semester with lots of potential upheaval, I recommend weighted grading. Here’s why:

Weighted grading allows you to cancel assignments without reducing students’ ability to improve their score in a class.

For example, let’s say you plan on assigning 15 reading journals in the class, with 15% of the final grade for the course coming from this assignment. Rather than telling students “Each reading journal is worth 1% of your final grade in the course,” tell them “Reading journals are worth 15% of your total course grade. We will have about 1 per week, but we could have fewer.” This provides you with the flexibility to cancel a reading journal without changing the total points available in the course. And if you do cancel a reading journal or two, the contribution of each individual reading journal to the final grade changes, but the value of the contributions of all other assignments stay the same. In this case, moving from 15 to 13 journals means that each journal goes from being worth 1% of the final grade to 1.15%–not a big deal at all.

Compare that to a course in which each reading journal was worth 10 points out of a 1000 point semester. As long as you assign 15 reading journals, the impact is still 15% of the final grade. But if you assign 13 reading journals, then the semester is now out of 980 points (assuming you’ve canceled no other assignments). That means that every other assignment now also changes its relative importance in the course. A final project that was previously worth 300 points determined 30% of a final grade; now it influences 30.6% (300/980). And that’s if you cancel 2 reading journals. If you canceled a larger assignment, the impact would be larger.

That difference might not seem like much–unless you are a student whose grade in a course is negatively affected by it.

If you’re nervous about using weighted grading, ask your LMS support team for help setting it up and writing your syllabus. (I’m also happy to review your syllabus–just ask!) They can even help you create a short video explaining to your students how they work (though your students likely have other professors using weighted grades already). All LMS work well with them, and Canvas, in particular, has a handy “What-if” function that allows students to figure out what their final grade would be if they earned various grades on the remaining assignments.

In general, in an online class, no single assignment should comprise more than 10% of a course grade, though a category of an assignment certainly can. (The exception to this would be a cumulative final exam, but, even here use caution and and consider diving into two parts: a timed objective portion and a timed or untimed essay, with one unproctored or each proctored during different times.) The greater the value of any assignment, the more temptation students will face to cheat–and the more work you have to do to authenticate student ID. In practical terms, it’s difficult to proctor a 2.5 hour online final exam; students may not be able to sustained uninterrupted computer access for that long.

Do you use weighted or points-based grades? What do you like about your choice?

Typus Arithmeticae
Typus Arithmeticae (1503), by Gregor Reisch, Freiburg, is a woodcut showing Dame Arithmetic at the center. She hovers over a competition between, at left, Boethius and Pythagoras. Boethius is using a pen and Hindu-Arabic numerals, while Pythagoras uses a counting board of some kind. Your grading doesn’t have to be this complicated: use weighted categories with assignments in the category evenly weighted (so each makes an equal contribution) or proportionally weighted (so those you consider more valuable) contribute more. Then let the LMS do the math for you.

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One thought on “Lighten your load: Weight grades.

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  1. I’ve always weigh(t)ed my grades. For most of my classes, I don’t know how many problems I’ll be giving for homework at the beginning of the semester.

    I’ve also done something different after the last test (but before the last Final Exam), and that is to change the weighting so that students can calculate what they need on the Final Exam to get a certain grade in the class (very common at this point in the semester).

    For instance, if you have two tests (20% each), a Final (25%) and the rest is homework (35%), then instead of making the last two tests worth 65% in total, make them worth 20%*4/3 = 26.67% each and the homework 35%*4/3 = 46.66%. If the grade they get from this calculation is called G, and they want to get a percentage of P
    (90% = A, 80% = B, etc.), then what they need to get on the Final is (approximately)
    4 * P – 3 * G.

    BTW, the Hindu-Arabic numerals were introduced to Europe via a book called Liber Abaci, written by Fibonacci around 1200 AD. (The abacus was used for calculations up until then, with the values converted into Roman numerals.) This is the same guy as the Fibonacci sequence, which is defined so that each number is the sum of the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, …

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