Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Midterm Grade Reporting?

Here at NWU, we are required to give our freshmen (and I use the term advisedly) students some sort of grade report during about the 8th week of the semester. We're also required to give all students some evaluative information by the fourth week of classes (that can take many forms, quizzes, short papers, and so forth).

Giving midterm grade reports adds extra math to my life. I don't especially dislike math, but if I have to figure out midterm grades for, say, 30 students, that's not insignificant.

According to the powers that be, students do better in college (that is, they stay from first to second year, and eventually graduate; that's how we count success at the most basic level) when they get midterm grade reports. So the practice is demonstrated to contribute to student success.

A request has come from the students that we give both freshmen and sophomores midterm grade reports.

The rationale are interesting. There's the argument that getting midterm grade reports in the sophomore year will help students in the transition to college. And there's the argument that since many students come in with significant college credits, they aren't classified by the university as "freshmen" during the second semester of their first year, and so don't get grade reports even for their full first year. (Thus the importance of the category "freshman" distinct from "first year.")

I'm sort of torn. Yes, I'm pro-student success, really. But, I want students to transition to college more fully. Part of that transition involves learning to keep track of one's work and learning to do basic percentages. I think those are valuable and important skills, and shouldn't be underrated. Maybe it's the old Peace Corps, "teach a man to fish" thing, but I think that being able to keep track of work and manipulate basic percentages is useful in ways way beyond the college experience.

Then there's time. Let's imagine, for a moment, that it takes five minutes for someone to do the math on a midterm grade. Adding, say 20-30 sophomores to my calculations means I get to spend an extra hour and a half or two calculating midterm grade reports. I keep fairly busy in life, and I haven't yet found a way to add hours to the week, so before I jump to do this, I want to know where I'm going to get an extra hour or so in my week in the middle of the semester. Time is a zero sum game, and I spend a fair bit more than 40 hours working in any given week during the semester, so adding an hour means I don't do something else for that hour.

(I have it "easy" for this calculation because I teach writing type courses with relatively smaller enrollments, 30 rather than 60 students on average. Double the numbers for colleagues in some departments. And, of course, the nursing folks won't much be affected, since they have almost no freshmen or sophomores; same for education departments. If you serve general education in a big way, you'll be sucking it up.)

Now, let's imagine that your average sophomore is taking 4-5 courses, and takes five minutes to calculate the midterm grade for each. That's 20-25 minutes of the student's time. It's not that the time should be any different overall, just that it gets spread over a lot more people. And the student who cares learns how to think about numerical data and such, or reinforces that knowledge. (And, of course, they also save time because they don't have to email the information to the student. Part of the system automatically forwards some information to advisors, too, so we don't have to deal with that on the other end.)

I'm curious about what happens at other schools with grade reporting at midterm. Do you do them? For which students?

Does anyone have research that talks about midterm grade reporting and student success that they could suggest?

And as advisors, what do you do with grade reports you get for advisees?


  1. I can't speak to grading per se, as I'm stuck with nebulous "evaluation" forms for the students and residents that rotate through our clinic; however, my son's school has a program where, after grades are put in by the teacher as the assignments are completed and graded, ongoing grades are automatically calculated and posted to a computer web site. Each student (and parent) is given a user name and access code at the beginning of the year and grades can be accessed at a desired frequency -- even daily. HOWEVER, should the same level of "hand-holding" that is used for middle schoolers be extended to college students? When do we say "Get over it -- you're a grown-up now"? And is the rationale that if a student sees that he's failing at midterm that he'll have the gumption to pull up his grades by the end of the semester? I think not...
    Sadly, though, I feel you may be fighting a losing battle. Good luck!

  2. At my institution, we're obligated to give students marks back on at least one substantial assignment before the drop without penalty date. So that has led to some interesting assignment constructions wherein I can hope to get something marked and back to them by the halfway point of the term.

  3. At Regional U., we're required to submit midterm grades for ALL students. It's a pain, but since I started using the online gradebook function of our course-management software, the actual calculations take no time whatsoever: at the beginning of the term I just set up the gradebook with my preferences (quizzes = 15%, with the lowest one dropped; paper 1 = 20%, and so on.), and then as I enter items the gradebook keeps a running, up-to-date grade for each student.

    The other benefit here is that students can look up their grades at any point, and I encourage them to do so in order to make sure that I haven't accidentally forgotten to log that one homework assignment that got turned in late because of illness, or whatever. Sure, they SHOULD be able to calculate their grade on their own without this, but most don't. With the gradebook, they have no excuse for not knowing how they're doing, week by week, and I've found them largely appreciative of this system.

  4. At my institution, we're only required to do midterm grades for "freshmen." I'll be honest, esp. when we're talking about the only "freshmen only" class I teach, these grades mean very little, as they are calculated without the revisions that they are allowed throughout the course of the semester (I allow revision without penalty, so any grade I give at midterm means almost nothing. It calculates what they've DONE but not what they might do in the course.)

    I'll also say in the other class I teach that caters to freshmen (intro to lit) that the midterm grade seems to mean little to most of them. For those students, I had a few this semester who were at F for midterm, who didn't drop, and who received an F for their final grades.

    I DO think that there is a lot of value in providing evaluation early and often. I think it's imperative for undergrads to show them how you grade before the drop period is over. And I do. BUT. Does the actual letter from the registrar about midterm grades mean much? I'm not sure it does. I think the students who care about grades pay attention to the grades that they are getting whether they get an estimate or not. Or, if they want an estimate, they ask for it. And I can usually eyeball my gradebook and give them an estimate that is close to right for where they are. (I don't use course management software for grading, mainly because I'm much better about keeping a paper record - each student gets their own sheet and I can look at a glance and see how they're doing without math. Sometimes I think the course management stuff is counterproductive in disciplines like English, especially if you have revision opportunities, etc. I do better seeing each student all in one space.

    But so yes, I suppose I believe in grading early and often, but I don't necessarily think that midterm grades mean much at the end of the day. I think other things matter much more in terms of retention - like close contact with faculty, for example.

  5. We are "encouraged" to give some sort of assessment within the first three weeks of the course, so that students can get an idea of their grades and the difficulty level of the course before the drop date.

    Also there is a general culture, at least in my department, of spreading the evaluation over many pieces of assessment rather than just having a final, or a final and one assignment. That way the student gets a lot of feedback throughout the semester.

    But if you are asking about calculating the student's total grade so far for them, when they have access to all the necessary figures themselves, I don't know anyone who does that except for the students who are looking like they will fail. These latter students are the ones least likely to bother working it out themselves, and a note saying, "You do realise that with your grades so far, you would need to get 70% or more in future assignments in order to pass the course" can be just what they need to put them back on track.

  6. We do midterm grades plus evaluative comments on a form that goes back to advisors (for full time first time first years), and the advisors talk with the students. I don't know how useful it is--seems like it is easy to see who's failing most courses or struggling in most, but I don't know how all that info is really used. That said, it is a way to get help funnelled to students who need it.

    But I am increasingly irritated at English students who do not seem to have the math skills necessary to calculate their own grades (at midterm or at the end of the semester). Granted, in one of my regular courses I have a quiz or HW component that is, say, 20% of the grade, and within that category, I will drop the lowest X grades. But still, it's all simple addition or subtraction and then multiplication with percentages to see the final grade. I wish more students could do that more easily.

  7. We are required to submit midterm grades for all students, but as others have mentioned, it's fairly simple to set the gradebook up on our course management software so that there's no actual math required on my part. It is also really helpful for students to be able to access their grades electronically, because that keeps them out of my hair.

    I do receive copies of my advisees' midterm grades, and usually I just skim over them and file them away. If a student is clearly having a problem in a course, I might send an e-mail encouraging the student to see me and reminding him or her of various campus tutoring services available. If a student is struggling in several classes, then I'll try to set up a face-to-face meeting and I might even walk the student over to the Academic Resource Center. I'm not really comfortable with the amount of hand-holding we are expected to do, but the Powers That Be believe it will help retention. I for one would love to see some solid evidence supporting this claim.

  8. Anonymous7:03 PM

    We don't have a drop penalty, per se; students who drop during the add/drop period get a DR, and then they can drop anytime before the 50th day of classes and get a W - there is no difference in terms of the student's GPA. (Although the admin has just changed that because students seem to think a W looks better on a transcript!) And we aren't required to give feedback within a particular timeframe or to do midterm evaluations on any set group of students. We are, however, encouraged to send midterm evaluations at *any* point in the semester for students who are not doing well, and if we have students on academic probation, we get periodic requests from the registrar to do a report on those students.

    These reports go to the student, the advisor, and the dean of the student's class. In my experience, NO ONE pays attention to them! I find this really surprising, since the only students who get them are in danger of failing. If I get any reaction at all, it is that the student drops the class. So while in theory, I think it's a good idea to do these evaluations as soon as it is clear a student is in trouble, in practice, it seems pretty useless.

    In terms of time, why is it our responsibility to point out to students that yes, the Ds and Fs on all their work so far really does mean a D or F for the course? They aren't that stupid, but increasingly, they seem to be that lazy! And like you, Bardiac, I have enough other work to get done!

  9. Even if you don't upload assignments or grades to an online course system, an Excel spreadsheet can work fine.

  10. My university requires that all D and F grades be reported at midterm. Of course, this means you have to tabulate ALL of the grades to figure out which ones are D/F grades so that you don't accidentally overlook a failing student.

    Last semester I had 48 hours notice to complete this process. And I had 98 students in ONE class alone. It was a long couple of days.

    The benefit? Some students do pull up the grade. But mostly they ignore it. Until the day after the final, when it final dawns on them that no, really, I MEANT it when I said they were failing. Sigh...

  11. Artemis, I'd guess that the middle school model is also trying to make sure that parents can easily keep track of what their kids are doing and such so that they can help their kids. The idea is that students will have a realistic sense of where their grade is at, because they sometimes think they're doing better than they are.

    Ancarett, Yep, I make sure to give some small assignments early on in every class so that my students get some feedback. That works out okay, and seems good so far at the research Light cites about students liking more smaller assignments.

    Flavia, I think I need to start using the web-based grade record system instead of good old excel. The thing is, I have no control over the ever changing web-based system, and that irritates me. On the other hand, my old Excel 97 or something works perfectly well.

    Dr. Crazy, I encourage lots of revision for early papers for my first year writing classes, so I'd have a similar problem, I suppose. I agree that lots of feedback is important.

    StyleyGeek, We're required to give some evaluation early on, and I do. It's the doing the math for them at midterm that's irking me.

    Susan, I have to admit, I hate the evaluative comments. I have about 100 students this term; seriously, do I know all of them well enough to say something helpful?

    Bev, I think you've caught on to what I should do. Maybe if I just use the campus grading system, then it won't add onerously to my time?

    Anonymous, I think all these systems would work better if we had fewer students per faculty member. Not really a surprise there, eh?

    Kermit, I tend to keep my grades in a folder, one sheet for each student, and then enter the info onto excel. I think I'm going to have to change to the campus system.

    Holy Cow, Terminal Degree! 98 in ONE class? Did you have some grading help? That just sounds like a nightmare! /comfort

    Thanks for your responses, all. I think those of you who suggest using the campus grading system are probably right. If I take an hour or so to learn it this summer, then I'll be ready to enter stuff in from day one next term, and things will be easier, right?

  12. Nope, I had NO grading help. No TA. But I was required to take attendance. (I sent around a sign-in sheet and I know that students signed in each others' names, but there was nothing else I could do.) I was in a lecture hall with no smart cart, no chalkboard, and no microphone. And did I mention that I was given the assignment to teach this class one week before it began, and in a subject I knew almost nothing about?

    The class will be capped at 50 next year and in a better room. Thankfully.

    But the good news is that I learned to use WebCT, which saved my neck in that class. Can you imagine trying to keep track of 98 homework assignments? (Not that all of the students did the homework, of course...)

    On the positive side, I learned a heck of a lot about the subject matter and about teaching large classes! :)

  13. Terminal, You have my due admiration!