Implementing Negotiable Grading Schemes

Article by Amy J. Kabrhel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Chemistry & 2022-23 Instructional Development Consultant

For years I have seen students enter my courses on the first day of classes eager to engage with the course material who then slowly stop doing the homework but still perform well on the exams. I wondered if this was due to exhaustion, being overwhelmed with other demands on their time, or, frankly, just laziness. On the flip side, I have had students who rock it on the homework and fumble on the exams. I know they have learned the material being assessed but their ability to show me what they have learned via my exams is hindered. There are several reasons for this (undiagnosed learning disability, test anxiety, lack of sleep, etc.), but after 16 years of teaching in higher education, I have finally decided to make my course grading scheme more equitable for the wide variety of students I see in my courses. In Fall of 2022, I implemented a negotiable grading scheme in my CHEM 211 (Principles of Chemistry I) course as detailed below.

Negotiable Grading Scheme for CHEM 211
#1-Consistency Commander #2-Exam Rockstar #3-Quiz Master #4-Final Boss
Exams (4): 40% (10% each) 56% (14% each) 24% (6% each) 40% (10% each)
Final Exam: 15%

(equiv. to 1.5 exams)

21%

(equiv. to 1.5 exams)

9%

(equiv. to 1.5 exams)

25%

(equiv. to 2.5 exams)

Online Homework

(42-lowest 2 dropped):

20%

(0.5% each)

5%

(0.125% each)

40%

(1% each)

15%

(0.375% each)

Pre-Lecture Quizzes

(37-lowest 7 dropped):

10%

(~0.33% each)

3%

(0.1% each)

12%

(0.4% each)

5%

(~0.17% each)

Discussion (4 graded): 5% (1.25% per graded week)
Project: 10%

#1–Consistency Commander: Tends to maintain consistent and successful study/learning strategies across the semester, appreciates the use of homework and quizzes to regularly check in and keep motivation up.

#2–Exam Rockstar: Prefers to spend time studying for exams, does not place a high priority on weekly check-in assessments (homework and quizzes).

#3–Quiz Master: Places a high priority on weekly check-in assessments (homework and quizzes) to regularly keep up with the material, places a lower priority on exams.

#4–Final Boss: Prefers synthesizing knowledge across the term and proving their knowledge acquisition at the end of the semester on the cumulative Final Exam, places a lower priority on weekly check-in assessments.

In this negotiable grading system, students select the grading scheme that best matches their abilities, learning preferences, time constraints, and anxieties. On the first day of classes last fall, I introduced these grading schemes, described each in a bit more detail, and then asked each student to fill out a small sheet of scratch paper with their name and their preferred grading scheme. I made it clear that they were not locked into this scheme on Day 1 but that by reflecting on their choice at the beginning of the semester, they knew where to focus their efforts. After Exam 2 (approximately halfway through the semester), we revisited the grading schemes, and students locked in their scheme for the semester.

On Day 1, half of my students picked #1-Consistency Commander and the other half picked #3-Quiz Master. This did not surprise me since a large number of students have some form of test anxiety. However, after seeing their exam scores on Exams 1 & 2, which were quite good this fall, and seeing how a few of them had started not completing the homework and pre-lecture quizzes on time, a few students switched to #2-Exam Rockstar. After the Final Exam, I calculated each student’s final course grade in each grading scheme (easily done via Excel) and found that most students had picked the scheme that best matched their skills and learning preferences. A few, however, had a higher grade in a scheme different than the one they had selected. I discussed this with them (via email or in person) to help them reflect on their metacognition and to help them get a better sense of their strengths (and weaknesses) as a college student. They were very appreciative of this, and I believe this will help them realize where they may need to focus more of their attention in courses that do not use negotiable grading schemes.

This spring semester, I am using a similar negotiable grading scheme in my CHEM 212 (Principles of Chemistry II) course. Most of my CHEM 212 students took CHEM 211 with me last fall, so they were anticipating this grading system, and when I introduced it on Day 1, they were very thankful. Many of them stated that they wished more of their professors used this system, which is what prompted me to write this blog post. I think negotiable grading schemes are a wonderful way to make your course more accessible and equitable to our students who come from varying backgrounds with unique skill sets that speak to some assessment types more so than others. In addition, negotiable grading schemes give students agency in your course and a feeling that they have more control over their course grades. They can more easily balance their workload and put their efforts into the assessments that matter most to them. As you can see from my schemes presented above, all assignments are still included in each overall scheme; it is their weight that changes. In some cases (e.g., Discussion and Project for my course), the assessment is too important for it to have varying weight from scheme to scheme. This can express to students the value of certain assessments.

One minor drawback is that Canvas can only show one grading scheme. I chose #1-Consistency Commander for the scheme I put in my CHEM 211 Canvas page. This means students who chose a different grading scheme had to see me (or email me) to know what their current grade was on their chosen scheme. Thankfully, if you keep your Excel grade book up to date, this is not too difficult to communicate to those students.

Overall, I found this method of grading liberating for students and wonderful for student-instructor rapport. As mentioned, I am using this method in Spring 2023, and I plan to continue using this method in most of my courses from now on. If you have any questions for me about negotiable grading scheme, I would be more than happy to chat with you about them.

Revising—and Reframing—Your Teaching Philosophy

Article by Tara DaPra, Assistant Teaching Professor & 2022-23 Instructional Development Consultant

Why should you write a teaching philosophy? Chances are, you already have, even if it was way back in graduate school or when you applied for the job you now hold. But if you are going up for promotion, as many of us in the teaching professor category may now do, or if—happy days—someone nominates you for a teaching award, your teaching philosophy may need updating. You may be dreading this. You may continually move it to the end of a long list of more pressing tasks. You may ask yourself if anyone will really read this. Leonard Cassuto says what many of us are thinking when he writes, “Teaching philosophies account for some of the most tiresome reading that academe has to offer (and that’s saying something).” But must they be? Rather than a chore or a high-stakes assessment, why not re-frame what a teaching philosophy can—or perhaps should—be? What if you instead treated your teaching philosophy as a celebration of your time in the classroom and a vision for the future?

In an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, James Lang argues that teaching philosophies “fall under the genre of creative nonfiction,” a genre of writing that privileges techniques like voice, narrative arc, and compelling details while insisting on a non-negotiable commitment to the truth. Lang warns writers of teaching philosophies not to fall into the default mode we so often see in student writing—telling rather than showing. So instead of regurgitating your course learning objectives or points from your CV, Lang advises that we zoom in and describe a day when those objectives were lived in a particularly meaningful way. He writes, “Readers remember and respond to your stories, not your explanations.”

Another hallmark of creative nonfiction is to distinguish between what the writer knows and does not know—and to lean in to the latter. In her essay “Memory and Imagination,” Patricia Hampl writes, “It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.” Teaching philosophies are, essentially, a personal essay, a space for writers to puzzle over a complicated question and attempt to answer it from many angles. The word essay itself means “trial.” What, then, is the question you most want to discover, as it relates to your teaching? What parts of that question have you answered and what parts remain a mystery?

Writing a teaching philosophy can help us to reflect upon and articulate our ideas about what makes for effective teaching. And doing this can help to ensure that what we do in our classes is consistent with those beliefs—but it can also acknowledge pieces of the teaching puzzle that we have yet to fit together. And so, while teaching philosophies should certainly highlight a teacher’s strengths and successes, good teachers might also acknowledge what they hope to learn next.

If you’d like to read more about writing effective and reflective teaching philosophies, CATL has gathered some resources.

Making Impactful Use of Canvas Analytics in Your Course

Like many websites, Canvas collects data from users as they navigate their courses. Thankfully, unlike many websites, Canvas collects this data not for the purpose of selling it to advertisers but for the purpose of presenting it to instructors. Canvas presents collected student activity data in a course page titled “New Analytics,” which contains charts and tables designed to help instructors make use of this data. While New Analytics contains well-organized representations of course data, it does not prescribe specific actions or provide a formula for making use of the data. In this post, we summarize the data available in New Analytics and recommend ways you can interpret it to take actions in your course that can help improve student outcomes. 

Detecting Course Trends 

New Analytics Window

New Analytics can help reveal trends in student achievement from assignment to assignment and student engagement from week to week. After launching New Analytics from the course navigation menu or the button on the right side of the course Home page, you’ll see a series of tabs across the top of the page. The first two tabs, “Course Grade” and “Weekly Online Activity” have data views that can help you identify course trends. The Course Grade tab has a chart which shows the average grade for each assignment in your course. Each assignment in your course will be represented by a dot on this chart. The dot’s position on the y-axis represents the average grade for that assignment. A quick glance at this chart can help you identify the assignments where the class atypically excelled or struggled and help you confirm—or refute—suspicions you developed about performance trends while grading assignments. Thinking critically about why the class might have been more or less successful on a particular assignment can lead to ideas for course design improvements. A close look at a successful assignment may lead to insights on what works well in a course; a close look at a less successful assignment may reveal a need to incorporate scaffolding assignments and additional support. Clicking on an assignment’s dot on the chart will reveal additional statistics, including a grade distribution chart and the number of missing and late submissions. 

Clicking the Weekly Online Activity tab will show a chart of the average page views and course participation actions during each week of the course. Viewing this chart can help you identify whether engagement with your Canvas course is waning, holding steady, or growing. Beneath the chart is a table of course resources which shows how many students have viewed each item, how many overall views it’s received, and how many times a student has participated (a list of the actions Canvas counts as a “participation” can be found in this Canvas guide). You can sort this table by any of its columns to identify which elements of your course get the most and least engagement. If an important resource in your course isn’t garnering as many views as you’d like it to, ask yourself “why?” and consider ways to either guide your students to that resource or phase it out and incorporate its key content into the resources your students are reliably viewing (Clum, 2021). Look at the resources that have gotten the most views and participation and check for commonalities to gain insight on what captures your students’ attention. You can click on any data point in the Weekly Online Activity chart to open a panel that shows activity data filtered for that specific week. The data in this panel can give you an idea of whether students are keeping up with the pace of your course or whether they are still working through older resources. 

Checking on Individual Students 

New Analytics can also help you identify students who may benefit from an intervention from a professional adviser because they have disengaged with your course or never engaged at all. The Students tab of the New Analytics page shows a table with the following statistics for each student: 

  • Current grade 
  • Percentage of assignment submissions made on time 
  • Last date of a participation action 
  • Last date the student viewed any page in your course 
  • Count of total page views 
  • Count of total participation actions 

You can click any column header on this table to sort the table by that column. Looking at this table during the first few weeks of a term and sorting it by “Page Views” can help you quickly identify students who have not engaged with the Canvas course. Students with no or very low page view counts have not engaged with your course. You can issue an ad-hoc alert in EAB Navigate to request that UW-Green Bay’s professional advising team reach out and help set a student on a path to academic success. 

Clicking on a student’s name in this table will open a student-specific data view that shows that particular student’s assignment grades and weekly activity over time. If you’ve noticed a downturn in a student’s performance or engagement, this view can help back up your observations with data. Comparing a student’s assignment grades or activity with the class average can help you contextualize any trends you see. You can view an individual student’s data alongside the class average on the same chart by adding that student to the filter field above the chart on the Course Grade or Weekly Online Activity tabs.

Sending Smart Messages 

Sending Smart Messages in Canvas

New Analytics also makes it easy to send messages to students who fit certain performance or activity criteria. As you explore the Analytics tool in your course, keep an eye out for the message icon that can be found on most of the tabs and panels. Clicking this icon will begin composing a Canvas Inbox message which you can send to students that meet a customizable criterion related to an assignment grade, weekly activity, or engagement with a specific resource. Here are a few examples of the types of messages you can target through New Analytics: 

  • Check-in with students who haven’t yet viewed the course this week 
  • Send congratulations to the students who did well on an assignment 
  • Encourage a growth mindset for students who struggled with an assignment and point them to helpful resources 
  • Remind students who have missing assignments to make a submission 

These quick instructor encouragements and interventions can help your students stay engaged with the course and on-target to reach their goals (Bostwick & Becker-Blease, 2018). Especially in online asynchronous courses, sending these targeted check-in messages can help establish your presence and ensure that students know you care about their success. 

Try It Out!

Coupling the data in Canvas New Analytics with the observations you make while teaching can help you make accurate judgments about what works well and not so well in your course. It can also help you identify when a student needs some additional support, and the incorporated messaging tool makes it easy to follow-up. We encourage you to open the New Analytics page in your Canvas courses, explore the data within, and ask yourself whether what you see aligns with your assumptions of how students experience your course. Try sending a congratulatory message to the students that excelled on an assignment and a friendly reminder message to the students who owe you work. We’d love to hear about your experience exploring and interpreting the data! Please feel free to reach out to us at CATL@uwgb.edu to tell us your story, ask a question, or request a consultation!

References 

  • Bostwick, K. C. P., & Becker-Blease, K. A. (2018). Quick, Easy Mindset Intervention Can Boost Academic Achievement in Large Introductory Psychology Classes. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 17(2), 177–193. https://doi.org/10.1177/1475725718766426 
  • Clum, K. (2021, May 14). Using canvas analytics to support student success. KatieClum.org. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://katieclum.org/2021/05/14/using-canvas-analytics-to-support-student-success/ 

Evidence-Based Frameworks and Strategies for Keeping Students Engaged

Keeping students engaged in their learning throughout an entire semester is a challenge that exists across all disciplines and modalities. Though the ways in which you implement strategies for increasing student engagement might vary because of these factors, the good news is that the underlying principles remain the same. Below are some of the key methods and strategies that have emerged as common themes across many studies on the relationships between teaching practices and student engagement.

Foster a Culture of Growth, Trust, and Belonging

Part of a student’s engagement in a course is tied to the affective domain of learning, or a student’s thoughts and feelings about their own learning. Does the student feel like they belong in this learning environment? Are they respected by their peers and the instructor? Do they see their instructor as an ally in the learning journey, or as an adversary?

One aspect of the affective domain is whether an individual has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. The Center for Learning Experimentation, Application and Research at the University of North Texas has a great list of growth mindset interventions instructors can implement. It is worth noting, however, that research seems to indicate the effectiveness of these interventions is contingent on the instructor’s mindset as well. Studies have shown that instructors with a greater growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset) have smaller racial achievement gaps and inspire more student motivation in their courses.

The affective domain also includes students’ feelings of belonging and trust. While the degree to which you can affect these feelings has limitations, evidence-based practices usually boil down to how you interact with students and facilitate interactions between students. A few examples include using a welcoming tone in your syllabus, modelling inclusive language, and taking the time to get to know your students’ names. Even in asynchronous classes it is important to build trust with your students. For example, you might want to consider using a week-one survey to provide your students with an opportunity to tell you about themselves.

Break Up Lectures & Add Opportunities for Active Learning

When there is a lot of content that needs to be disseminated across the duration of the semester, lectures are a common method for communicating that information quickly and efficiently. But the longer and denser the lecture is, the more instructors risk losing their students along the way due to cognitive load.

One solution is to build pause points into your lectures. Students benefit from structured pauses during lectures as it allows them space to question, process, and reflect on the information that they’ve absorbed. For pre-recorded lectures, the same idea can be achieved by breaking up a long lecture video into multiple short, topical videos (research suggests 6-12 minutes is an ideal length for maintaining student engagement). Fortunately, Kaltura (My Media) makes it very easy to trim and save video clips from right within Canvas.

When adding pauses for students to digest information, it is also beneficial to create opportunities for active learning activities. These activities can be very brief, such as using an anonymous polling tool to check for student understanding during a lecture. For more in-depth active learning, consider making time for small group discussions, written reflections, and other exercises that require students to employ higher order thinking skills. For courses with an asynchronous component, PlayPosit allows instructors to add a variety of engagement activities to pre-recorded lecture videos, while Hypothesis may be useful for incorporating annotation and reflection activities into assigned readings.

Provide Transparency and Support

When a student needs to spend a lot of mental energy figuring out the logistics of how to complete an activity, they have less mental energy left to engage with the course materials themselves. Therefore, transparency and scaffolding are both key elements to designing engaging assignments.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT) framework is designed to help instructors write clear and descriptive instructions for learning materials and assignments. For this framework, lay out the task, purpose, and criteria for each learning activity. If a student knows what they are supposed to do, why they are supposed to do it (how it ties to the course learning outcomes), and how they are going to be assessed, they can go into the activity more confident in their ability to engage with it.

It is common for a student to stop engaging with a course if they feel like they don’t have the means or resources to complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. Proper instructional scaffolding can help counter this issue by bridging some of the cognitive gaps and reducing the number of students that fall through the cracks. For example, if the final assignment in your course is an 8-page research paper, consider breaking up the process into several smaller assignments, such as having students submit their topic, bibliography, and outline at various points throughout the semester. Other ways to provide scaffolding this assignment might include modelling (providing examples of papers that meet the outcomes of the assignment), incorporating instructor or peer feedback for the outline or an early draft of the paper, and providing a robust rubric to guide students on how to meet the assignment outcomes.

Additional Resources

Engaging students is a broad topic that we are only just able to scratch the surface of in this post. Below are some resources for further reading if you’d like to dive in deeper.

Questions?

As always, we welcome you to share your ideas for engaging students by dropping a comment below or emailing us at CATL@uwgb.edu. If you’d like to discuss any of these methods or ideas one-on-one, a CATL member would be happy to meet with you for a consultation as well.

Evidence-Based Approaches to Promoting Academic Honesty

Academic honesty has always been a concern in higher education, but the proliferation of technology has changed the scope and nature of the problem. Students have access to more electronic means to cheat, including AI-generated papers and websites that provide access to test bank questions and answers. Meanwhile, professors can deploy competing technologies designed to search automatically for plagiarized content, lock down browsers during exams, or remotely proctor test-taking.

It should come as no surprise that there are ethical concerns about both academic dishonesty itself and the privacy and intellectual property issues raised by technologies intended to detect or prevent it. In fact, one Canadian professor recently taught an academic course on cheating, and he is a co-investigator on a large-scale study of college student motivations to pay others to do their work.

The SoTL literature on this topic often lags behind the technological advances, but there are some recent studies instructors may find helpful. Duncan and Joyner (2022) surveyed students and TAs about digital proctoring, and although their sample was not representative, their resulting article is definitely worth a read. They provide a nice overview of costs of benefits of the practice, and they also effectively summarize the literature on alternative assessment strategies faculty can employ. Another recent addition to the body of knowledge on academic honesty is a study of six relatively low-tech and brief methods to reduce cheating, such as allowing students to withdraw assignments. Again, there are some methodological issues with the research, but instructors may find the techniques and review of past research on them illuminating.

The issue of academic integrity is complex, multi-faceted, and rapidly evolving given its intersection with emerging technology. Additional examples of relevant SoTL research on the topic are included below. CATL will update this list as we are able. Feel free to contact us with suggested resources as well.

Additional Resources