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I periodically get requests from students to know their "grade so far". From what I can tell, this is becoming more prevalent, and more encouraged by administrators. And there is a box for "Total Grade" in our LMS, turned on by default, which I have to manually disable.

I feel that telling them a number might mislead. For example, this fall, the final exam is split into sections corresponding to the midterms, and students can replace each of their midterm scores by doing better on the corresponding section of the final. Also, there will be an extra credit final homework. So, even if a student is failing "so far", that doesn't necessarily mean that they're likely to fail the course.

What is the best way to address such questions? Be evasive? ("It's complicated...") Give them a number, even if misleading, along with some caveats that they might not read? Or design simpler grading schemes in the future, even if the "complicated" features were intended to be helpful?

A few remarks following the comments:

  1. I have provided them with their grades on every assignment so far, and I have also told them exactly how their final grades will be computed. The issue is—the students who ask, say they're a bit confused about how well they're doing (even though I did my best to explain it clearly), and seem to want an answer like "Your average is 73% so far".
  2. The students should be perfectly capable of assessing their performance so far. But they are overwhelmed, they are struggling, and they are anxious—especially this fall, with the ongoing pandemic, and where I'm teaching online and not face-to-face. And they might be afraid of hidden gotchas—some rule buried in the fine print of the syllabus, which I'm going to call them out on later (I'm not). I can sympathize with my students' desire for a simple answer.
  • Academic, I've edited the additional info you provided in the comments into the question. Please, feel free to make amendments if I got anything wrong. The rest of this extended conversation has been moved to chat. – Massimo Ortolano Oct 23 at 6:49
  • Are there any subjective judgements in how final grades are assigned? For example: Grading to a curve chosen at the end? Setting the passing threshold by fiat at the end? I find that most instructors who obscure mid-term grades do so because they have some subjective adjustment at the end that they want to keep hidden, and can't really predict in advance (and hence neither can students). – Daniel R. Collins Oct 23 at 18:42

12 Answers 12

45

If I were a student, I would prefer your second suggestion: A number along with some caveats.

Basically I would want to know what I have to do in order to pass.

When I taught my first class this summer I was giving my students a number and then a short note which explained that I wouldn't be assigning letter grades until the end of the course, so I don't know their letter grade along with a sentence or two about how I personally think they are doing and what I think they can do to improve. This seemed to work pretty well.

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    If you think they won't read it that closely, put Grade so far: (number) followed by a bold heading, "How you can improve this grade: (explanation)". – user3067860 Oct 21 at 15:17
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    Number and expected weighting percentage of the grade so far so students can see whether they can improve enough to reach the grade they want or need, because sometimes students have higher requirements than just a passing grade for a specific topic -- e.g. because that is a prerequisite for the specialization they want, or because an employer will request that for an internship. There are a lot of cases where failing early, concentrating on other courses and repeating the next year is preferable to barely passing. – Simon Richter Oct 21 at 17:33
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    "number" and "letter grade" are geography-dependent. This is confusing for all the countries (perhaps most of them) where grades are numbers. But I agree with the answer. – Bzazz Oct 22 at 11:16
  • "Basically I would want to know what I have to do in order to pass." - My advisor used to call this the "hunter's principle": imagine that you are a hunter and you want to shoot a target which is very far away. Now, if you aim directly at the target and pull the trigger, you will miss the target, because of the bullet's ballistic trajectory. So you will have to aim higher in order to hit the target. – Marktmeister Oct 22 at 16:08
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    True but it still helps to know where the target is. – user128124 Oct 22 at 16:18
31

I find it helpful to describe the algorithm by which I will calculate the grades in the syllabus. Then, when I get this sort of question, I refer them to the syllabus (Yay! Maybe this means someone will actually read it someday).

By algorithm, I mean something like:

  • You will get 12 homework grades, the two lowest of which will be dropped.
  • Homework grades are all scored out of 64 points (yeah, I'm teaching digital logic, so a power of two).
  • Your homework average will be weighted as 40% of your grade
  • ...
  • The average of your exams will be weighted as 25% of your grade.
  • If your weighted average is above 90%, you will get an A
  • ...

It is sufficiently detailed that students can do the same math I will do. They always know exactly where they stand and exactly how well they need to do to get the outcome they desire.

This process has worked well for me for decades of teaching. I rarely get the "grades so far" question.

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    Thanks. I'm already doing this; some students seem to still be confused. It might just be that the pandemic and the move to online teaching have heightened everyone's anxiety. – academic Oct 21 at 14:51
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    It may even be cool to provide an Excel or Google Sheets document that lets them plug in their current grades and potential future grades so can see what happens. – Captain Man Oct 21 at 15:34
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    Students who are able and willing to do this calculation will get A's, they're not the ones asking these questions. – Noah Snyder Oct 21 at 16:12
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    @academic If you are already doing this, why do you consider (in your question) the option of "being evasive"? Point them to the grading scheme and you're done. Unless you're teaching at an elementary school you really shouldn't be helping them to compute a weighted average. – Servaes Oct 21 at 19:10
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    All my professors at my university did this. It was very helpful to calculate how much you needed to make on upcoming assignments to get your desired final grade. If you are already giving this kind of thing to your students, then maybe you should talk to the ones still requesting their "grade so far" to learn why they are unable to figure it out themselves. Either you have left out some key information, or they are lacking in ability. In either case, the solution should be either update your provided information to include what is missing, or add instructions to walk them through the process. – Herohtar Oct 21 at 21:39
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One solution to this, if you are willing to change the grading scheme, is Cumulative Grading, which I used for many years and explain in an answer to an older post.

The student is always aware of where they are and what they need to do to achieve their goals. I found it very satisfactory and it also reduces complaints about grading.


A search on this site for Cumulative Grading will turn up some more comments on the practice.

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  • I completed a Bachelor's last year and my school's entire grading scheme was this. It was very easy for me to quickly look at my current points, and compare it to the 1100 possible points to find out where I was. I even put a paper on the wall with my minimum acceptable grade (850) and once I hit that I could shift focus to more difficult classes if I needed. – John Herbert Oct 21 at 13:56
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    I'm thoroughly surprised to learn that this grading scheme is not used everywhere; I honestly cannot imagine justifying grading in any other way! – Servaes Oct 21 at 19:07
4

Thats what a syllabus is for. Point them to the grading scheme and they can figure it out for themselves.

Halfway through the semester you could send out emails with their current grade.

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3

The students wants to view their grade. You don't want to provide an incomplete view.

I would recommend giving the student a spreadsheet filled with the data they have so far. This would require preparing a template with the needed formulas, then when a student, copy and paste the results of the evaluations so far in the proper cells.

This is similar to user111388 proposal of giving them a table, but better for the students as they don't need to fill anything or take the effort to calculate their grade. It's already embedded in the sheet, in the way you want.

For example, rather than showing them their "current" grade as if they received a zero on the final exam, the document may show "The student did not take the final exam", forcing them to change the cells with guesses on how well they would do on the final exam, or the different parts. You can even lead them, with questions like "Did the student retake the first midterm on final exam ?" Yes/No ("oh, so I can retake the midterm in the final exam? Interesting" -don't expect 99% to have looked it up on the syllabus-). Or, quite the opposite, make some warnings appear if the filled values seem overly optimistic.

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  • Very nice idea! And for those with the programming know-how, a web form that performs the same calculations in a web browser would make things even easier. I plan to try setting up such a page the next time I teach a lower division class. – Dan Romik Oct 22 at 23:40
1

What I try to do in Calculus 1, is that halfway I will provide an "estimated grade" using my own ad-hoc model which I only explain vaguely and not in complete detail. I then give this grade and explain that it's very common for people to increase/decrease one partial grade (B to B+), somewhat common to increase/decrease by two, but it is rare in practice for people who continue to attend and hand in work to increase/decrease by more than that.

The reason for an ad hoc model is two-fold: if I'm dropping the lowest two quiz grades for the semester I should only be dropping the lowest one quiz grade halfway, and exam scores are a better predictor of final exam scores and the final is overweighted so I need to overweight the midterm exams in the model. By contrast, if I just turn on Canvas's option to show final grades based on the syllabus calculation it will not make these adjustments and so will systematically give grade estimates that are too high.

I think this process gives the students what they want: an estimate of what their current grade is and a reasonable idea of what their final grade is likely to be.

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  • Gotta say this is the first time I've ever gotten 2 downvotes for an answer that I thought was pretty uncontroversial. Makes me wonder if I miscommunicated somehow? – Noah Snyder Oct 23 at 13:59
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    Thanks for your answer, which I find quite thoughtful. The question seems to have attracted a lot of attention from people who aren't frequent users of the site. And judging from the other answers, and from now deleted comments -- some people seem to have misunderstood my question, or think that either I or my students are being very unreasonable (which I don't belive is true). – academic Oct 23 at 18:23
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    One other weirder ad hoc thing, my experience is that in Calc 1 more people do well on Midterm 1 than on later midterms or the final. (I'm not sure if this is me making Midterm 1 too easy, or whether this is students trying extra hard during their first month of college.) So I overweight Midterm 2 relative to Midterm 1. – Noah Snyder Oct 23 at 18:58
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There is a lot of benefit for you going over with a student how they have done so far and what they can do to do better. If, as you say, they can still pass you should be able to explain this to them. Probably you can just have a standard document that you post that explains this. Figure for every student who asks there are 10 that are wondering but reluctant to ask.

Among other things, students need to know if they should withdraw from your class. Many institutions have deadlines by which his must occur. If a student is failing or close to failing, I think you should reach out to them before that deadline and let them know. You may think they know this, but even before the pandemic there were students who were confused, overwhelmed, having other problems which may lead them not to really understand this. (I can say this as a parent as well as a Professor -- it's shocking to me how little communication there is from some faculty and also how hard it is for undergraduates to figure out basic things like are you failing.) There is no point in fooling a student who is going to fail into staying in the class. It's no benefit to you either.

In my experience sometimes the students who are most concerned are, conversely, the pre-meds and other high performers. In their case they want to know what they have to do to get an A, and it's great if you can clarify that.

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0

Use an online gradebook that that enables some level of student access.

My students were able to log in at any time and see their current grade based on all the scores that I'd entered.

There's a bunch of them out there https://myelearningworld.com/top-10-online-gradebooks-to-make-teachers-life-easier/

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0

This is how it is done in France (we have a small set of official school software across the country - all of them are horrible), a screenshot from the portal of my son's school:

enter image description here

I left the first marks because I am proud of him.

What the text pointed by the arrow says (with an exclamation mark at the end):

this information is provided purely as an indication and does not engage neither the teachers, nor the school!

It means that the students get some insight of how well they are doing and how the conversation with the parents will be complicated, but the final mark is something independent.

This final mark is often the actual average, but sometimes teachers will modify it to account for other elements (participation etc. - usually to up it). Whether this is good or not is controversial, but at least you have a case of

  • showing the marks as you go
  • having a clear warning that this is not the final mark
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0

What is the best way to address such questions? Be evasive? ("It's complicated...") Give them a number, even if misleading, along with some caveats that they might not read? Or design simpler grading schemes in the future -- even if the "complicated" features were intended to be helpful?

As a general principle, I'm in favor of maximizing transparency in course procedures, and not minimizing it or being evasive. Sometimes I wrestle with colleagues over this, many of whom argue explicitly for the opposite. Students deserve clear signals about their performance level, and when they need to change direction to achieve success.

For me, I keep very simple grading procedures, and keep the weighted total visible to students in the LMS at all times. Benefits of the simplicity:

  • Makes the grading procedure easy to communicate and understand.
  • Allows students to verify/check grades if desired.
  • Makes the weighted total meaningful throughout the term (no "resurrection" finals as someone put it).
  • Makes it easy to support with a formula in the LMS (e.g., no need to delete or overwrite data for any reason at the end).

Note that I'm working at a community college which is part of CUNY, which implies some important facts about the situation in my courses. One: Despite what some comments assert, it's not a given that our students can take a grading formula and compute their own grades (even from a very simple formula with only three components). In fact, it's possible that no student of mine has ever independently done that. I routinely need to walk inquiring students through the process of taking the formula and substituting known values and coming up with a result.

Moreover, by keeping the formula very simple, and no overwriting of other data at the end, immediately prior to the final exam (which is when the bulk of the inquiries occur) there is exactly one unknown value: the final exam score itself. So when students ask, "What do I need on the final to pass?" they can actually get a concrete answer. As noted, I always need to walk them through the formula and guide them to algebraically solving for the desired final exam score. Generally they are amazed that this is possible, sometimes expostulating with delight, and take photos to document the event, etc. This may be the one and only time for them that algebra has actually solved a concrete problem that they initiated. So this itself becomes one of the capstone lessons in my courses, and I've structured the grading formula in an intentional way to support this lesson and moment of discovery.

Finally, I actually started using the LMS many years ago specifically in response to this issue. On my annual student evaluations my lowest score was in the category of, "Instructor keeps me informed of my progress". So I started using the LMS so as to have the information available to students automatically 24/7 -- and thereafter my evaluations on that item popped up to the top. Students deserve useful feedback like that, especially if they're too weak to make that determination themselves (whether through cripplingly weak math skills, Dunning-Kruger syndrome, or various other reasons).

By keeping the grading process very simple and totally transparent (via the syllabus and LMS), you'll be helping your students with clear information, assisting weaker students who can't even tell if they're in trouble, generally reducing student anxiety, reducing inquiries of this sort, and saving your personal time for more productive pursuits.

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-1

I think it is a reasonable request. And that you should keep running grades for them, off of a point count, along with a calculation of what they need to do to get the next higher grade (or the like).*

This is actually standard at the service academies. Now, granted, they emphasize teaching more than R1 schools do. But still. You might think about just emulating the practice.

*I.e. cumulative grading, not some if-then, option value complexity.

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-2

To give another perspective, I think by withholding their grades so far, you may actually be doing the students a favour.

I had a class where the lecturer didn't give any marks back at all during the semester. You could turn up to tutorials and consulting hours and get as much help as you wanted (within reason of course), but the actual number of your grade, or even the actual assignment was withheld - not by accident either, I distinctly remember getting an email the day after the exam saying we could collect all our coursework. Of course we all whinged and moaned about, but in the end, it ended up being my best subject that year. I was terrified of failing so I put in a lot of effort to make sure I understood the material for the (heavily weighted) exam.

I don't know what the story behind that decision was - that particular lecturer was known for doing things like that, so he could have been making a point to the students and the university for all I know. Maybe it never happened again. But over 10 years later, I still remember the lesson I learnt from that class: sometimes you will be in a position where there will be no feedback and you'll need to commit, so you better be damned sure you're confident in your answer.

As for how to deal with it, if you choose to go that way, just stick to your guns and bear the brunt of the questioning. I don't know how the lecturer handled it himself, but I can imagine him outright ignoring the emails, or simply saying "No."

I will add that this was a third year course, and was compulsory for the major I was taking, so the context may be different to your case.

Edit: To address the top voted comment more visibly, I never said no feedback ever. Feedback is a very important tool for gauging your understanding. Feedback doesn't have to exclusively come from graded assessment either. I'd argue far and away the best form of feedback comes with engaging in the course: taking advantage of the resources given to you! Further to that, the fear I had of failing came from (I'll be honest here) having a habit of not taking the best approach to learning, basically relying too much on graded assessment as my only practice and feedback. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but I'll wager I'm not the only person who has ever fallen into that trap.

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    Your idea of good pedagogy is refusing to give any feedback and, in your words, terrifying them into performing well? Sounds like an email to the dean. – user3932000 Oct 21 at 8:07
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    If a professor did this at my university the department head would be buried under emails from students complaining. There are two reasons for this 1. You are not motivating students to perform well, you are (as the comment above said) "terrifying them into performing well" and 2. At our university, if you fail a course twice, you are blocked for that course indefinitely. Which is why if you sign out of the course up until half of the semester passed, it does not count as a failed attempt. Students definitely need to know where they stand, even if it's just an approximation. – technical_difficulty Oct 21 at 10:01
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    I like this idea. University was supposed to be about learning to study on your own, part of which is knowing how well you understand something. We've gone too far in the direction of complicated bargaining with students for meaningless points. They should learn to think independently and to be able to assess their own weaknesses. The professor in the story might have taken a bit too far, but I tend to think that the opposition started the fight, by going too far in the other direction. – Simon Oct 21 at 13:02
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    @Simon: A student who takes a course the first time can most of the time not reliably judge if they have the knowlege a course absolvent has. That's why there are grades and a grade in between would exactly tell the students if they are doing well enough. – user111388 Oct 21 at 14:08
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    In that case @user111388 I know some students you might be interested to meet... – Simon Oct 21 at 14:14

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