Does your gradebook truly reflect the work you and your students are putting into these assessments? The Center for Professional Education of Teachers at Teachers College, Columbia University shares the “F.A.C.T.S. about grading,” an acronym that presents guiding principles for good gradebook practices. While these considerations were designed with K-12 educators and students in mind, they can also inform and improve our grading practices in higher education to “boost confidence and reduce confusion” (Kang, n.d.).

Gradebooks should be fair

When we refer to gradebooks needing to be fair, we’re mostly talking about the connection between expectations and what students see in the gradebook. For fairness to be achieved, “it is essential to communicate [grading] policies to students clearly and effectively so that they understand how their academic performance will translate to their course grade” (Hirsch, 2021). Your expectations for the course overall as well as for each individual assignment need to be clear so that you could, if necessary, explain the rationale behind a certain grade.

How to make gradebooks fair

Since fairness is tied largely to expectations matching outcomes, developing rubrics is a great strategy to use, as they communicate clearly what students will need to do in order to achieve certain levels of success. Rubrics also inherently have explanations built into the levels of performance, making it easier to provide rationales for certain grades. Additionally, including your grading policy in your syllabus and sticking to it as much as possible promotes fairness in your assessment practices. There are always going to be exceptional circumstances that might require an instructor to make adjustments to a grading policy, but the more closely you adhere to the policy you created before the course began, the easier it is to provide a rationale down the road.

How fairness helps students

Many of us have been in a situation where a student asks why they got a certain grade on their assignment, and being on the other end of a grade dispute can be frustrating or discouraging. With fair grading practices, students can often be reasoned with when those concerns are raised. By pointing to very specific reasons in your syllabus, assessment instructions, and rubrics, it becomes easier for a student to see the “why” behind their grade.

Gradebooks should be accurate

When students open the Grades page in Canvas, does their percentage and letter grade match what they’re actually earning in the course? If so, that gradebook would be considered accurate. There are a number of steps to take within Canvas itself to ensure gradebook accuracy.

How to make gradebooks accurate

In order to make your gradebook accurate, you’ll need to ensure that your settings in Canvas match your grading policies. Here are some items you might want to consider:

  • Make sure your grading scheme is accurate. There are default grading schemes built into Canvas, so be sure to choose the one that most accurately represents how you evaluate student performance.
  • Set up assignment groups. If you’ve ever noticed those extra columns just called “Assignments” in your Canvas gradebook, those columns are tied to the assignment groups in the course. You might need to delete or add assignment groups, especially if you use weighted grades for your course.
  • Make use of zeroes or excused grades. Students can sometimes get the wrong impression about their grades when we leave a gap in the gradebook. If students were supposed to complete an assignment and didn’t, putting that zero in (even temporarily) will catch their attention. If you have policies where you drop the lowest grade for students, you might make use of the excused grade feature. Make use of the “Message Students Who” feature to let students know when you’ve made these kinds of changes.

How accuracy helps students

Students need to be able to make informed choices about their next steps in the course, and this is largely informed by their current grade in the class. By making your gradebook accurate, students will be less confused about where they stand and can take the appropriate steps to improve or maintain their current grade in the course.

Gradebooks should be consistent

In order for a gradebook to be consistent, it needs to be updated regularly and in a timely fashion. Students are often looking for feedback on one assignment so they can make adjustments before their next assignment, so if a lot of grading happens all at once, making adjustments becomes more difficult.

How to make gradebooks consistent

The best thing you can do to ensure your gradebook is consistent is to create a realistic timeline for returning student work and sticking to that timeline. Realistic is the keyword here; think about how much feedback you plan to leave for your students and use that to help inform how long it might take to evaluate an assignment. If life happens and you need to make adjustments, communicate to students what those changes are so they are moving through your course with the most up-to-date information.

How consistency helps students

When the gradebook is updated regularly, students can use that information to make choices that will lead to improved academic performance. Dr. Deanna Geddes with Temple University conducted research on the impact checking online gradebooks had for students in their first year of business programs at the university. Through her research, she found that there was “an academic benefit from students monitoring their classroom performance by accessing on-line gradebooks'' (2009). However, students only receive these academic benefits if they are reviewing grades that are current and timely.

Gradebooks must be transparent

Gradebooks are transparent when students understand what is being graded, how it’s being graded, and what each grade means. This applies both to individual assignments (rubrics or other grading criteria) and the course as a whole (grading policies and grading schemes). Grading philosophies can vary from person-to-person, course-to-course, and institution-to-institution, which is why it’s crucial to explain grading practices to students as often as possible (Quinn, 2013). 

How to make gradebooks transparent

Aside from developing artifacts like rubrics before assigning work to students, you can also make your gradebook transparent by taking the time to clean up your gradebook. In the process of keeping your gradebook current, look for any unpublished assignments that you don’t intend to use and remove those from your current Canvas course. If you have additional assignment groups, those should be removed, as well.

How transparency helps students

We want to empower our students to take ownership and responsibility of their learning and education, to be self-sufficient, and to raise meaningful questions when needed. When gradebooks aren’t transparent, it can feel as though everything in their course is “random” and that they don’t have any control over their own learning, performance, or grades. By equipping students with the knowledge to make informed decisions, students can take ownership of their learning experiences, even when they may make a misstep.

Gradebooks must be for students

Instructors are often the ones working with grades most often–grading assignments, posting grades for students to view, creating rubrics or other grading criteria, etc. Despite the amount of time instructors spend in the grading process, the end result is that the grade shared with students should be for students. In other words, grades should communicate to students what skills they’re developing, how they’re progressing, and how they’re performing. The way grades are discussed in the course should be centered on the learner in ways they can understand (Harris, 2022).

How to make gradebooks for students

As an instructor, it is crucial to provide meaningful feedback so that students don’t just know why they received the grade they did, but also where there is room for improvement or where they’re already doing a really great job. For grades to be student-centered, there needs to be feedback beyond the grade in the gradebook for students to review. Additionally, taking the time to reflect on student experiences can help you improve your gradebook from term to term. If students share with you that they are confused, frustrated, annoyed, etc., rather than getting defensive, it might be worth adjusting your practices so students no longer feel this way.

How student-centered gradebooks help students

Within the academic setting, students who understand the grading process used by their instructors develop feelings of self-efficacy. They can see that the grade they’d like to achieve is within reach by taking certain measures or by adjusting their approach to your course. They can see that they’re not being asked to do something that is far outside of their abilities. They can move through a course believing in their ability to achieve their goals, and they can be motivated by opportunities that will be available to them based on their grades after leaving your course (scholarship opportunities, applying to grad school, etc.).