Gradebook as guide light: A place to start with backward design

May 17, 2022 By Moodle

As a parent who also happens to be a learning designer, I had a lot of conversations about online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents, students, and teachers did not know where to track student work. Overall they had trouble tracking when, how, and why the student should complete assignments.

During this time I was working in a small liberal arts college as an instructional designer and Moodle admin. It seemed to me that the teachers who had the easiest time with the pandemic were teachers that already had a robust pedagogical strategy in the LMS. Significantly, they had well-developed and designed gradebooks that embodied their desired learnings for students. Their gradebooks often used percentage weighted categories.

Percentage-Category vs. Sum-of-Points

There are two broad grading strategies in most US-based schools. We’ll call them Sum-of-Points and Percentage-Category. Have a look at the two imaginary gradebooks below:

Sum-of-Points

  • Homework – 40 pts
    • HW1 20 pts
    • HW2 20 pts
  • Exams – 60 pts
    • Exam1 20 pts
    • Exam2 40 pts
  • Project – 100 pts
    • Outline 40 pts
    • Slides 60 pts
  • Total — / 200 pts

Percentage-Category

  • Homework – 20%
    • HW1 50%
    • HW2 50%
  • Exams – 30%
    • Exam1 33.3%
    • Exam2 66.6%
  • Project – 50%
    • Outline 40%
    • Slides 60%
  • Total — / 100%

At first glance, they appear to be using different strategies, but in reality they are mathematically very similar. The main difference is the way the teacher has conceptualized weight distribution. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these strategies, but percentage-category teachers typically had only categories and percentages in their syllabus, like this:

Course Grade

  • Homework – 20%
  • Exams – 30%
  • Project – 50%

Whereas teachers in the sum-of-points camp had something like this in their syllabus:

Course Grade

  • Homework – 40 pts
    • HW1 20 pts
    • HW2 20 pts
  • Exams – 60 pts
    • Exam1 20 pts
    • Exam2 40 pts
  • Project – 100 pts
    • Outline 40 pts
    • Slides 60 pts

Teachers with percentage-category grading were able to flexibly add and remove assignments in an emergency without adjusting their syllabus. Teachers that followed the sum-of-points strategy needed to make some awkward changes to their gradebooks to accommodate omitted assignments. I think one teacher had assignments worth 28.57 points after omitting work from a category. Otherwise the overall grade calculation would have been incorrect.
Moodle gradebook is able to accommodate either of these strategies. However, in a world where course plans can change, percentage-weighted categories have an administrative advantage. Even outside of the pandemic we might need to omit an assignment or two. When it comes to staying consistent with your syllabus in times of change, percentage-category makes it a bit easier. Who doesn’t want that?

What is your design strategy?

Let’s take this a step further and talk about instructional design, specifically backward design. In their seminal work Understanding by Design, McTighe & Wiggins remind us to keep our eyes on the guidelight when designing a course. They identify what they affectionately call the “twin sins” of instructional design: activity-focused teaching and coverage-focused teaching.

“The ‘twin sins’ of typical instructional design in schools: activity-focused teaching and coverage-focused teaching. Neither case provides an adequate answer to the key questions at the heart of effective learning.” Understanding by Design, McTighe & Wiggins, 1998

For more information on the specific nature of activity-focused and coverage-focused design, do check out that book (if you haven’t already). For the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that the grading strategy of a course can subtly influence its design. It can also impact how students perceive the class. Take a look at these two imaginary grading strategies:

Activity-Focused

  • Homework – 20%
    • HW1 50%
    • HW2 50%
  • Exams – 30%
    • Exam1 33.3%
    • Exam2 66.6%
  • Project – 50%
    • Outline 40%
    • Slides 60%
  • Total — / 100%

Coverage-Focused

  • Chapter 1 – 33.3%
    • HW1 30%
    • Test1 70%
  • Chapter 2- 33.3%
    • HW2 30%
    • Test2 70%
  • Chapter 3 – 33.3%
    • HW3 30%
    • Test3 70%
  • Total — / 100%

The coverage-focused student sees that there is a set amount of material to cover, but not what the material is teaching them. This may be appropriate, since some textbooks arrange chapters by objective, but this gradebook in particular only tells us that the chapters need to be covered. This leaves out what is covered in those chapters and why.The activity-focused student sees their work in terms of activities – there’s not much content in this gradebook. Students can see they have certain assignments to do, but not what those assignments do for their learning.

All too often the gradebook is an afterthought of the design. The imaginary designers of the above gradebooks may be excellent practitioners of backward design – we can’t quite tell from the gradebook alone. However, a gradebook that is tightly aligned with the outcomes of the course may look a bit different than either of these. Let’s look at an example of an imaginary results-focused gradebook.

Results-Focused

  • Nonfiction Comprehension – 30%
    • HW1 30%
    • Test1 70%
  • Interpreting Fiction – 30%
    • Story Analysis 30%
    • Character Project 70%
  • Grammar & Mechanics – 10%
    • Ex1 – Nouns – 25%
    • Ex 2 – Verbs – 25%
    • Grammar Game -50%
  • Composition – 30%
    • Outline 1 30%
    • Essay 1 70%
  • Total — / 100%

This can also help teachers interested in data-based differentiation. A gradebook indexed to the learning outcomes can help a teacher diagnose what a student needs. This empowers the teacher to support the student with interventions targeted to their needs.In the example above, the gradebook invites the student to consider their grades and their knowledge of the content at the same time. It helps them connect feedback on their work with overall course outcomes. This can help keep the focus on what’s important.

Standards, backward design and gradebook

Many teachers work within common sets of standards. An imaginary 9th grade English Language Arts teacher in the US may use language directly from the Common Core Standards to define grading categories. It might look like this (CCSS numbers included in parenthesis for reference):

Results-Focused + Standards

  • Key Ideas and Details – 25%
  • (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.1)
    • Assignment 1
    • Assignment 2
  • Craft and Structure – 25%
  • (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4)
    • Assignment 1
    • Assignment 2
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas – 25%
  • (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.7)
    • Assignment 1
    • Assignment 2
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity – 25%
  • (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.10)
    • Assignment 1
    • Assignment 2
  • Total — / 100%

Designing a gradebook this way can be the first step in standards-based backward design. There is no reason the gradebook can’t be the guidelight for students and teachers alike. They can use it together to work toward authentic growth and learning. Of course, assignments must be carefully aligned with intended course learnings. But that’s a topic for another article.

At the end of a semester, a well-designed gradebook alone will not ensure your students acquire the knowledge and skills you want them to. At the beginning of a semester, however, it might just be the catalyst for creative, authentic backward design.

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