On Grading and Spreadsheets

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I freely confess that numbers and I do not get along as well as, say, letters and I get along. I started using a spreadsheet for grading calculations very early on in my teaching. In a graduate pedagogy class I noticed a lot of concern about the numeric and mathematical aspects of grading. For instance, how one converts a series of letter-grades for papers, raw scores for quizzes, exams, all of which are weighted with various percentages, to a final letter grade. No one ever actually explained it to us—not in any of three different graduate level pedagogy classes.

I like spreadsheets, though I admit that I did give some thought to how I would calculate grades when I set up my assignments and syllabus at the start of the quarter. I wish I’d had this very useful tutorial by John Selvia on using the Appleworks spreadsheet for grades when I started.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the “Grading Tool” that LMS or Learning Management Systems like Web-CT and Blackboard and Sakai all seem to have. I’ve looked at lots and lots of such tools. Most of them do the job quite nicely, but they’re difficult to set up and frequently so confusing to the teacher attempting to use them that teachers don’t use them. That’s true of me as well; I looked at the LMS tools for grading available to me, and decided it made more sense to just use the spreadsheet. Part of the problem in the Humanities especially, I think, for many of us, especially grad students, is that we have at best a dim understanding of the math, or really, arithmetic, we need to calculate grades with true facility. We know quite well how to assign a letter grade to a paper; it’s integrating the quizzes, the exams and other grades that’s difficult. Another problem is that grading tools seem to be designed by and for people doing grading in the sciences, where they tend to have raw scores, or numeric grades rather than letter grades. That means we have to have a numeric scale for the letters, and then convert them to numbers, possibly even weighted numbers.

There’s no simple solution; yes, better design of grading tools would be good, better Help systems too, but also I think there’s a need for user training that goes beyond what button to click and which options to select. We need to do a better job of teaching grad students, like me, how to do grading, how to do assessment, if you want the jargon, and not just by sitting in a class room chatting about it. We need practical, mentored experience in creating the grading structure, the assessment tools (quizzes, or exams, for instance), experience that goes beyond norming to actually using the numbers. I had a discussion a few years ago with a Psychology faculty member who said Humanities faculty engaged in “fuzzy grading.” Maybe so. I’m not sure that’s a fault, though. I learned a great deal from teachers I worked for, but I’m fairly sure that they weren’t intentionally teaching me how to grade; it was more that I deliberately observed how they did what they did. I wish they had been part of those pedagogy classes, though as I write this I realize none of them use the grading tools either.

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