Can you calculate your grades by hand?

In college, students and teachers have differing expectations of technology. Teachers typically expect one of two things from online technology:

  1. Increased content consumption by the student, and/or
  2. Decreased grading workload for the teacher.

Students typically expect one of two things also:

  1. Increased access to their teachers, and/or
  2. Increased access to updates on their grades.

There are outliers in both groups, of course. I make a gross generalization in order to make a point-there has been great attention to and investment in educational technology in recent years, but teachers and students are not in agreement on what purposes that technology should serve.

I have written recently about Sophia, an online social learning platform, that relates to the first expectation of teachers and students above.

But on my mind right now is students’ access to updates on their grades.

Every college subscribes to one or another Instructional Management System. Ours is Desire2Learn and it is a mess. (I have complained about it in writing before, and on the radio.)

So I do not post grades on D2L. My students are critical of this and I have wondered why.

I contend that their discontent goes deeper than their expectation of being hyperconnected and instantaneously updated.

I contend that teachers have used electronic gradebooks to make their grading schemes too complex for students to understand. I contend that students don’t expect to be able to figure out their own grades, so they look to D2L to figure those grades for them rather than looking at their scores on work that has been returned to them.

Consider an example.

My first semester at my current institution, I had a student whom I will call Aaron in my Math Center course. The Math Center is where we teach our developmental math courses. It is a carefully constructed machine in which each individual teacher has a narrowly defined role to play, and where there is little autonomy. In particular, the grading scheme is standardized across all sections: 60% tests, 20% final exam and 20% participation points.

Aaron was shooting for an A in the course. He had scored an 89 on the first test, a 65 on the second and he wanted to know what average he needed in order to get the A that was his goal. Our conversation began something like this…

Well, you are averaging 77% on the first two tests. There are five tests for 60% of the grade, so you have 77% of the 24% of the grade determined by these two tests. Let’s assume you get all of the participation points, so you have 100% of that 20% of the grade. So we need to figure out what percent you need of the remaining 36% of the grade that comes from the tests, and what percent you need of the 20% that is the final in order to get 90% or better in the course.

Even I was confused.

So we thought about it algebraically. If we let x be the average on the remaining tests and final exam, then we need to solve the following inequality:


But in order to solve this inequality, Aaron would already have to have passed the course in which he was enrolled.

In the courses I teach outside the math center, I take a different approach. The semester has 100 points. The weighting is built into the point values of each graded item. So if I want exams to be worth 60% of the grade, then I have 60 points to distribute across however many exams I am giving. At any moment in the semester, a student can simply add the points they have gotten, the total points, divide one by the other and consider the quotient as a percent.

I can figure these grades quite easily without my computer and I can answer a question like Aaron’s quickly and easily.

Can you say the same for your grading scheme?

If not, can you defend the complexity of your scheme? Does it serve to motivate, inspire or inform? Or does it serve to obfuscate and to place a barrier between performance and evaluation?

Computerized gradebooks allow us to create complex grading schemes. But that doesn’t mean we should.


6 responses to “Can you calculate your grades by hand?

  1. I like the point you are making here. I see simplifying assessment as important for students AND for teachers. I think we build complex assessment systems to mask deeper problems in our teaching and classrooms.

    On a different note that doesn’t undermine your overall point, guess-and-check would be a much better way to evaluate what that student needs to get. 😉 Well, maybe not better, but how I would solve it, and how my students would solve it. But then again, they still might have a hard time doing that.

  2. I think we build complex assessment systems to mask deeper problems in our teaching and classrooms

    I do think this is one of the motivating factors as well (though unspoken and perhaps unnoticed). Also a complex grading scheme distances us from the judgments we make as we grade.

    On a different note that doesn’t undermine your overall point, guess-and-check would be a much better way to evaluate what that student needs to get.

    Agreed. It was really hard work setting up that inequality.

    It shouldn’t be.

  3. Assigning points to all assessments at the beginning of the quarter/semester is great—if your course is so rigid that no assessments will change during the quarter. I frequently find myself adding or removing assessments to match the needs of the current class of students. Perhaps the problem is that my courses are not as carefully planned, but part is that when teaching I think intensively about the course, and often come up with new things to cover that replace things I had planned to cover.

  4. And yet, gasstation, the titular question remains unanswered.

    Can you? And can your students?

    If not, I would argue for devising a system transparent enough for students to be able to calculate their grades, but with the flexibility you need. It’s probably not my system and that’s fine by me.

    • My grades are all calculated by hand. Actually, not even calculated. I look at the pattern of grades for the 10 or so assessments (fewer in some classes), and the final grade is usually obvious. Occasionally I’ll have to do some calculation to decide between a B and a B- if there is a lot of scatter in their grades.

      I don’t think I’ve ever had a student surprised by a final grade.

  5. Addendum

    Here are some Internet searches that led people to this post:

    how to figure out my grade if tests are worth 60% and labs participations are worth 20%
    test grades are 20%


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