Making Midterm Grades Meaningful

With the Faculty Assembly’s passage of the new midterm grade reporting policy last week, we’ve gotten some questions about what this means for course design as well as how we might ensure the grades we report are meaningful and accurate reflections of our students’ progress. This week’s post will try to answer those questions, as well as provide some food for thought as you think about your spring courses. Since a short post can’t cover everything in depth, we invite you to come by the CETL if you’d like to dive deeper into any of this. 

As we heard at the assembly meeting, a good three-quarters of instructors have already been reporting all students’ midterm grades (as opposed to just Ds and Fs). The new policy represents not so much a change from current practices, then, as an opportunity to think about how we’re assessing our students throughout the terms, and how we’re communicating the products of that assessment with them.  We know that providing regular and timely feedback is an essential practice. We know that an essential part of any assessment process is “closing the loop,” where the results and data generated by the assessment is used to make the next iteration better. What’s true for something like departmental assessment is true for classroom assessment as well. This is particularly true for the first few weeks of a course. We need to provide opportunities for our students to practice and receive feedback in order to improve that practice. Moreover, it’s crucial to provide enough early opportunities to do so in order for students to avoid developing unconstructive habits or have an inaccurate perception of the degree to which they’re mastering our course material.

The new midterm grade reporting policy gives us the opportunity to look at our courses and ensure we’re incorporating these types of feedback practices. Here are some points to consider:

How much of a student’s grade has actually been shaped by midterm reporting?  

Most courses tend to be backloaded to some degree; that is, the “big ticket” assignments (those which make up larger portions of the overall course grade) are often submitted close to the end of the term. This likely means that a significant portion of a student’s course grade is yet to be determined after the first 4-5 weeks of the course, when we are asked to submit midterm grades. The key question, however, is just how much of that grade is yet to be determined. For example, if there hasn’t been any opportunity for students to earn points by the time midterm grades are due, that’s a problem. Ideally, there have been several opportunities for students to have their work assessed by midterm reporting time, and for them to have received feedback (of which their midterm grades will be one part). There’s no hard or fast percentage of a grade that should be determined by this point, but it’s a good rule of thumb to think in terms larger than 10 or 20 per cent.

Not everything has to be high-stakes. When it comes to grades, we often think of assignments like examinations, formal essays, or a series of quizzes as their components. But not every assessment needs to be this type of higher-stakes activity. Rather than these summative assessments, think in terms of formative assessment. This is where students have the opportunity to practice skills or demonstrate their learning in a lower-stakes environment where we can get a sense of process and progress. For reporting a midterm grade, we might include one or two summative assessments (quizzes, the first unit exam, an initial presentation) but also a range of formative assessments–activities that are graded, but are primarily intended to produce feedback and improvement (informal, in-class writing; journaling; reading response papers; problem sets). 

Midterm grades can be conversation-starters with students. The point of reporting midterm grades is to give students an indication of how they’re doing in our course while there’s still time to make any necessary adjustments. If we’re seeing any red flags-students missing assignments or struggling with particular portions of our course material-a low midterm grade is a good way to start the necessary conversations with those students. But we shouldn’t forget the students on the other end of the scale. Since we’re reporting all of our midterm grades, there’s also an opportunity to affirm those students who’ve been successful up to this point in the course. Sometimes, the most powerful-and motivating-conversations a student can have with an instructor are the ones where they’re encouraged to keep doing well and even challenged to improve further. 

Think about “chunking” your larger assignments. Many instructors already engage in this practice-scaffolding a large assignment by breaking it into component parts that students complete throughout the course. For example, a research paper due at the end of the semester might have several components submitted throughout the course: topic proposal, bibliography, outline, rough draft. Reporting midterm grades could be the occasion to consider this type of scaffolding if you aren’t doing so already. Scaffolded assignments provide the opportunity for the exact type of early feedback that makes midterm grades a meaningful measure of progress. It also increases the odds of stronger final projects. Moreover, this type of scheme helps students keep on track, rather than putting everything off till the last week of classes. The most prevalent cause of bad student choices (plagiarism, for example) is the stressed panic caused by this type of procrastination. And scaffolding, or “chunking,” bigger assignments is one of the most effective ways to prevent it. 

Assessment isn’t as effective without good feedback, and learning can’t occur without either. Thinking about the ways in which we can provide that type of feedback to students early in the course-to both identify any problem areas and build motivation-is always a useful exercise. In order for midterm grade reporting to work like it’s supposed to, as an effective method of communication and (if necessary) intervention, there should be plentiful opportunities for the assessment and feedback which comprise those midterms.

The CETL blog will be on hiatus until the Spring semester, but CETL staff will be around through the next couple of weeks to assist with anything you might need as we conclude one semester and prepare for another. Have a great holiday break!

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