SIP 11.12 Compassionate Grading

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Student writing in a notebook.Last month, in the face of a global pandemic, faculty and students from around the country were forced to make a sudden and drastic shift to remote and online learning. Professors who were used to teaching their students in the classroom are now having to conduct their courses on the other side of a computer screen. Students who were used to having regular in-person contact with their professors now must deal with a hodgepodge of methods for accessing course content and in some cases face strictly online instruction devoid of any human element.

Online learning isn’t for everybody, but now everybody is having to learn online. For many students, this has created significant hardships. Some students may not have the skill set to be successful online; others may not have the necessary hardware, software or internet capability. In addition to the basic foundation needed to be successful online, there are personal factors. You have students who have lost their jobs, students who are now homeschooling their children full-time and others who are just trying to cope with a world that has been turned upside down. So what does this mean in terms of grading student work? How can we best support our students during this time of crisis and honor our course-learning objectives and expectations?

Take a SIP of this: compassionate grading

Compassionate grading is a means of supporting our students. It does not mean easier grading. It is not about lowering standards for quality products and learning but reshapes expectations in terms of manageable assignments, innovative delivery and clear communication.

Suggestions for how to implement compassionate grading: 

  • Clear, simple communication is essential. Students need to have straightforward information about what is due, when is it due and how they should submit their work. Examples of this would be weekly email updates, keeping students up to date on course content and due dates.
  • Reduce the number and the complexity of assignments. Think especially about assignments that are far more difficult to accomplish given that libraries and other resources are no longer available.*
  • Create alternates for assignments that are no longer possible. Replace those assignments with choices if you can so students have some control and options, and with less taxing tasks. For examples, see SIP 3.2SIP 3.9SIP 3.10SIP 4.11.
  • Accept late assignments even if that is not your usual practice. We don’t know (and shouldn’t ask) about personal, family, work, etc., obligations outside of our classes. We don’t know why students’ work is late. Is it because they don’t have reliable technology, for example? Now is not the time to hold a hard line about due dates or to ask for explanations. See SIP 10.9.
  • Offer one-on-one help. All of us can create Teams meetings with students to provide tutoring, answer questions, explain directions and support technology challenges. Please make yourself available. Some students will still be reluctant to make appointments or attend office hours, just like under normal circumstances. It’s up to us to ask, again and again: What are your questions? What are your concerns? Do you feel like you understand my expectations? I did this with each one of my students individually, and 100% of them asked questions when prompted and invited.
  • Recognize that “less is more.” Let’s ask our students to complete fewer assignments with higher quality when possible. This will also reduce our workload while we are also stressed about time management and worried about our personal situations.
  • Provide prompt feedback. Now more than ever, students need to know they are doing OK. Respond as quickly as possible to emails, phone calls and assignments when they are turned in. This will reassure students.
  • Focus your feedback on students’ progress toward course objectives, rather than assessing simply to build a grade.
  • You have received a FAQ about the new Pass/Fail and Withdraw options that may be appropriate for some students. Reach out to your department chair if you have questions.

In conjunction with compassionate grading, let’s allow ourselves some “compassionate teaching” generosity (see SIP 10.8). Your class may not be as rigorous as it was before. Your students won’t have the same opportunities for rich discussion, reflection about real-life classroom experiences or access to beautiful and enriching resources. Give yourself permission to say that’s OK.

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of this: compassionate grading

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