It used to be that teachers filled out paper report cards and periodically sent them home with students for parents to look at and sign. Those days in many places are largely gone, replaced with online grading systems that students and parents can access whenever they want. This has benefits and drawbacks, both of which are the subject of this post by Jess Burnquist, a teacher and writer who resides in the greater metropolitan area of Phoenix, Arizona and teaches in San Tan Valley. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University and is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU. She has also won a Sylvan Silver Apple Award for teaching. Her work can be read at www.jessburnquist.com.
By Jess Burnquist
Recently I was telling my AP Literature class a story about writing a research paper when I was in high school. I made jokes about learning before internet search bars. Once upon a time, I told my students, Google wasn’t a verb. I assigned their weekend reading and reminded them that if they had any questions about an upcoming assignment to be sure to email me using our online grading/communication system.
As they filed out of class and off to lunch it struck me that when I was in high school, my questions regarding any assignment would have had to wait until the next class or required a visit to teacher office-hours.
Like most teachers, my weekend is a balancing act of family living, typical weekend tasks, and grading/planning for the upcoming week. Two years ago, I was failing terribly at balancing my life and it was impacting my health in serious ways. After a short hospital stay due to complications from asthma, my doctor encouraged me to make a list of obligations that I had taken on and that I could afford to let go. Soon after, I decided to limit how often I would check student emails, and I removed my work email from my phone. My health is much better and I am steadily making improvement in avoiding the 21st Century pressure to be available 24/7.
I wonder, though, am I doing the same for my students? Are online grading/communication and classroom systems putting our students’ mental health and the ability to create work/life balance at risk?
The answer is complex. Most online grading systems such as Infinite Campus, or Jupiter Grades, permit students to access a homework calendar, their current grades, and the ability to send a direct message to their instructors. Ideally, these features exist to help students and teachers accurately track student progress and they serve as a time management tool. The complexity of their usage seems to surface when students become obsessed with their grades, teachers are inconsistent in the usage of the system or slow to enter grades, and when parents struggle to maintain a healthy distance in terms of grade-monitoring and communicating with teachers.
For students who are in pursuit of highly ranked university acceptance and therefore conscious of class rank, checking their grades and percentages on assignments can become an obsessive and unhealthy practice. It reminds me of folks who weigh themselves first thing in the morning and then permit the numbers on a scale to determine their self worth along with their daily outlook. As educators and parents, if our goal is to develop a lifelong appreciation of the learning process, might having access to minute-by-minute percentages detract students from the learning journey and reinforce a product-based mindset?
I began to reach out to my students, their parents and my colleagues to get an outside take on such tendencies. An immediate correlation between constant grade-checking and at-home tensions became clear. Well-meaning parents tend to withhold privileges and, as many of my students disclosed, parents begin to ‘nag’ or ‘harp’ on missing assignments or non-perfect scores. Unfortunately, teachers’ lag time in entering scores or accidentally entering a mistaken score contributes to frequent misunderstandings and frustrations at home as well. This warrants a closer examination. I’ll use myself as a teacher-example.
Currently, I teach five sections of different English classes. Weekly, I’m grading writing assignments, vocabulary/grammar assessments and other miscellaneous class work for 125 students. I should note that my many of my colleagues have far more students, thus far more grading. If teacher meetings, or extra-curricular duties eat into my afternoon prep time—or if one of my own children or myself becomes ill, then grading turn-around time will become delayed. This can be understandably maddening for a parent or student waiting on the results of a high-points value assignment. Equally frustrating is when teachers enter grades in mass amounts a week or so before a quarter ends—a practice that can be devastating to a student if his or her grade is drastically lowered by the amount of delayed scores. Enter the communication element of online grading systems.
A good part of my prep time as a teacher is spent answering student and parent emails. Typically, these emails pertain to grading turn-around, or concern regarding a recent score. Please know that my colleagues and I value student/parent communication and most of us make it a priority to respond within 24 hours of being contacted.
However, it is hard not to feel slighted when the tone of such communication is degrading, or excessively demanding. I have received emails from parents that were accusatory or degrading in tone because a 5 paged essay wasn’t scored the day after it was turned in. Other teachers have reported feeling harassed on a daily, sometimes even hourly basis, about assignments that require a longer grading return, such as a project or lab.
Earlier this year, when I received several student emails that were inappropriate in tone, i.e. Hey girl, can you grade my vocab? Why did I get a 6/10???????? I studied!!! –a teaching opportunity presented itself. I developed a Weekly Letter assignment in which students practice online communication by submitting a brief weekly letter to me about their school week. It has proven to be a fabulous way to get to know my students, and to offer individual feedback on writing conventions and tone/style. Students seem to appreciate my personal responses to their letters, and introverted students, especially, are better able to risk asking questions pertaining to content. To me, this is an invaluable payoff of the online system.
I’ve also heard from students who really appreciate the homework calendar and access to uploaded copies of classroom handouts/notes. This is particularly helpful to students who miss class due to extra-curricular activities such as student council, choir or band competitions, and team sports. And, for students of divorced parents, the online grading system provides easy accessibility and contact options for both parties—I’ve had students express their relief at not having to listen to their parents argue over grade progress and class information. Of course, for the student who has limited access to at-home technology, or who never checks on his or her grades, these positives and negatives may be moot points. Students with limited access must build time into their school day to use a computer lab to stay current. I recently provided the materials for a poetry assignment online and felt horrible when I realized several of my students couldn’t access the work from home. It was a good reminder to consider student needs and timelines for future assignments.
I think the time is now for schools who have not yet done so to consider and to share a Best Practices approach with their learning communities when it comes to online grading systems. For teachers, consistency and timeliness are key. For parents and students, boundaries make a difference.
- Grades, handouts and student/parent communication should be entered as regularly as possible without becoming detrimental to teacher mental and/or physical health. My principal recommends that we enter at least two assignments per week.
- Parents and students should agree on how often grades will be checked and perhaps even develop a protocol for communication with teachers—for example, perhaps a student (if age appropriate) should make the first attempt to communicate any questions regarding grades.
My husband and I have a weekly household budget meeting every Sunday morning. These weekly sessions permit us to hash out any concerns or questions regarding weekly expenditures and we are able to celebrate any financial successes. I have begun meeting with my teenage son and daughter about their upcoming assignments and weekly scores in the same fashion. I think meeting once a week to review their grades is helping my kids to develop autonomy while also giving me the opportunity to model some time management skills and to stay up-to-date on the big picture of their progress.
Ultimately, I’m a fan of online grading systems and the multitude of benefits they offer in the way of extended instruction and communication. Still, we must remember the humans behind the screen. Over-obsessing can be a huge obstacle in the developmental learner and for any overextended teacher or parent. Excessive parental monitoring of grades can impede a young person’s road to autonomy. And, irregular or inconsistent practices of uploading grades and assignments can be frustrating for students who are genuinely making an effort to stay on track.
Education is a multi-faceted process. Gone are the days of the penned-in grade reports, face-to-face meetings, and natural lag times between turned-in and scored assignments. Here to stay are the pressures of daily life and the balancing of work and/or school. A grounded and routine approach to such a balance might be the healthiest way to make our online education systems work best for our students and for ourselves. I suppose, though, if that fails, we can always Google some alternatives.
(Correction: Changing ‘mute’ to ‘moot.’ Misspellings happen.)