Keep on Grading

Assessing, Supporting Students with Feedback, and Cultivating Classroom Community to Foster Online Student Learning

Quick Steps to Help Students Adapt | Continuing Steps | Additional Resources

Quick Steps to Help Students Adapt

It may feel like you have 10 million things to do all at once as you work to transition to your new online environment–it’s tough to know what to do first and where you can have the most impact. We’ve put together a few ideas to help you move forward quickly, so you can support your students with feedback and continue to guide their learning.

And even though we’ve all moved online, FDC consultants are available to help you–reach out via email to any or all of us, and we can set up a time to think together about your courses.

Communicate | Adapt Assignments to the Online Environment | Keep Accessibility in Mind


Communicating regularly with students can help ease their anxiety as you adapt assignments and assessments to the online environment. Being open to their communications with you can help you determine how things are going and contribute to the sense that you and your students are working together during this tough time.

  • Use Blackboard Announcements or another tool to informally let students know how you will adapt the course to the online environment, how it affects grades and assignments, how they can best communicate with you, and how quickly you will be able to respond. Be as transparent with them as you can about your struggles at this time and be as sympathetic and responsive as you can to theirs.
  • Invite students to share their thoughts, their situations, and their concerns for moving forward using an ongoing discussion forum. Gather student feedback as you think through adjusting deadlines and creating flexibility that may reduce anxiety and help students focus on learning.
  • Use Blackboard’s gradebook to communicate to students about their progress in your course. Doing so will also help you keep track of what needs your attention. Make sure students have instructions for how to access and use the gradebook. Remember to communicate any changes to the grading plan to students.
  • Manage workload by generating a discussion board for frequently asked questions and encourage students to respond to each other. You may also want to wait until the end of the day and review student questions and answer them all simultaneously via announcements in Blackboard or the discussion board.

Adapt Assignments to the Online Environment

Flexibility is important as you consider how to adapt assignments to online learning. If you don’t have your key assignments set up in Blackboard, you’ll need to upload the prompts, questions, or other material in a way that students can access them. If time is too short to create a test or quiz in Blackboard, you can use Adobe Scan on your phone, for example, to scan a page of diagrams, test questions, or other material and upload it to Blackboard. In some cases, you can encourage students to work the prompt or questions together on the Discussion Forum.

  • If you plan to use technologies not supported by UMBC, offer details about how to download the software, how to get help, and alternatives if they cannot access the tool.
  • If students will need support to complete assignments, point them to the Academic Success Center or other resource and encourage them to use these services remotely.
  • If you’re not sure how to adapt or rethink your assignments, reach out for help. Contact us at the FDC for a consultation and consider the suggestions below.

Keep Accessibility in Mind

Students with accommodations for the F2F classroom may have differing needs in the online classroom. And all students may have accessibility issues as well, in terms of reliable internet connection and at-home hardware that functions effectively.

  • Ensure students can complete exams and coursework even without requiring them to attend a synchronous class. Be mindful that students may face timing constraints because of geography, internet or device availability, or familial responsibilities. Offer students alternatives such as extended testing times and workarounds for synchronous group activities. For additional help see the resources below.
  • Help your students negotiate accessibility gaps by linking to the office of Student Disability Services.
  • Use Ally, a tool in Blackboard to identify accessibility gaps.

See the Quality Matters Emergency Remote Instruction Checklist for additional details.

Continuing Steps

Once you have a few key elements in place, you can think through more long-term solutions.

Assigning and assessing student work totally online affords certain opportunities and challenges. Below we offer suggestions for providing meaningful opportunities for students to learn from assignments and demonstrate their learning to you.

Tests and Exams | Written Assignments | Discussion Forums | Grading Structure

Thinking Through Tests and Exams

DoIT has a number of suggestions and resources available for setting up tests online that discourage students from academic dishonesty.

In addition, however, realize that the current crisis and the resulting abrupt transition to online learning generates anxiety in students that may promote inappropriate behavior even in students who would not otherwise engage in it. Think about strategies to lower that anxiety to encourage students to keep learning and behaving with integrity. For example:

Thinking Through Written Assignments

Even when taking classes F2F, students can resort to the internet for quick outs to the complex exercise of writing. Consider the ideas below as ways to encourage their independent work.

  • Think about asking questions that require students to apply their knowledge to real-life contexts. Doing so can make it more difficult for them to Google information and make the work more relevant for them.
  • To check the originality of students’ work, try using SafeAssign. If you haven’t already used the SafeAssign tool in Blackboard, it’s very easy to set up. You can even go back to assignments you’ve already created and add this feature. See DoIT’s FAQs for original Blackboard and for Ultra. Plus, you can use it to help your students to better understand information literacy–ask them to read their SafeAssign reports, analyze if they have used their sources appropriately, and revise before they submit it to you. SafeAssign also works for tests–even tests that you have already set up in the past (instructions and details).
  • Provide feedback via rubrics. Rubrics allow you to make your expectations for students’ learning and achievement transparent. They also help you provide feedback more easily and grade more consistently. Blackboard’s rubrics tool can help you integrate feedback, grading, and assessment. Plus with a little guidance you can use rubrics to guide self and peer review: this can help you to activate your students’ metacognitive skills and encourage them to internalize the benefits of iterative writing and thinking.
  • Consider providing audio or video feedback to allow students to feel more connected to you and allow your tone of encouragement and support to come through. UMBC’s DOIT supports several tools that can help you offer audio and video feedback:
    • Panopto is a screencasting tool that can be used to create a video walkthrough of a student’s assignment. You can show the submission on screen, point to specific examples, and tell students your thoughts conversationally. For more guidance on using video feedback, see this useful article in the Chronicle.
    • For discussions, VoiceThread provides ways to interact with students in multiple modes.
    • Be sure to make any recordings accessible by requesting captioning.

Thinking through Online Discussion Forums

Synchronous or asynchronous online discussions using the discussion tool and/or the Class Collaborate tool can offer students the opportunity to engage with one another in ways that are similar to discussions in your face-to-face class. Online discussions allow students to represent their ideas in writing, which may promote engagement for more reticent students. Asynchronous discussions also allow students more time to think through their answers. But just like in face-to-face classroom discussions, there are challenges to facilitating and assessing participation in online discussions. These challenges may be overcome through advance planning (Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo):

  • Provide structure. Students learn more from discussions that are well structured and for which expectations are clear from the outset. Using discussion strategies such as “Starter Wrapper” or “Save the last word for me” may help students to prepare their contributions. Consider providing an example for students to follow.
  • Clarify expectations. Students need clear parameters for discussion posts (e.g., for content, quality, length, frequency, timeliness, and due dates). You should also clarify expectations around language (e.g. level of formality, use of slang and emoticons, and norms of courteous and respectful behavior). Keep in mind, however, that discussions are meant to foster sharing of ideas: Holding students to a high level of formality and use of standard grammar and spelling may inhibit their ability to formulate ideas.
  • Pose good questions. A good discussion starts with a good discussion question. Avoid questions that read like exam questions. Instead, provide students with an intriguing problem or debate in your field. Ask them to apply course concepts to real-world situations or express an opinion and back up their position by applying course concepts. For further ideas, see this Google doc on 10 Strategies for Engaging Discussions Online that includes a helpful section on question design.
  • Assign grades. If no grade is assigned to a discussion, students are not likely to participate. Having discussion count for 10-20% of the course grade is recommended. It is important to provide clear assessment criteria. Grading can consider frequency as well as quality. Consider using self-assessment strategies such as a participation portfolio, where students submit their three best posts for grading.

Thinking about Your Course Grading Structure

Students will be stressing about grades at this time. Use the Grade Center in Blackboard to keep students up to date. You may want to rethink your grading structure entirely. For example:

  • Think about moving away from high stakes assignments to more frequent low stakes assignments. If you do, remember to adjust your syllabus accordingly. Make sure that you communicate this clearly to students and note that you are doing it to support them.
  • Consider using mastery or specifications (specs) grading. Robert Talbert provides this quick overview to specs grading:
    • “Set up clear standards (“specifications”) for what constitutes acceptable work for each of the assessment types in the class and publish those (with exemplars, if possible) to students.
    • Stop grading student work using points. Instead, just grade the individual items pass/fail or meets specs/doesn’t meet specs based on whether the work is “acceptable.”
    • This is the potentially hard part: If student work doesn’t meet specifications, instead of giving points, give constructive feedback and allow students to revise and resubmit the work.
    • Assign traditional letter grades in the course, but based on the quantity of work that students complete that meets specifications, not on statistical computations involving points.”

Additional Resources

You’ll also find extensive how-to resources at the links below:

For more suggestions about online teaching, please see our Keep on Teaching webpage and DoIT’s Academic Continuity webpage.

This site is a work in progress and is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive. Please consult your discipline’s professional association for best practices designed specifically for your discipline.

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