Visualising grades: An interesting idea from the Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail ran what looked like a genre piece this morning about badly-written and hard-to-understand report cards–an annual rite it seems to me. But it ended with a side bar that I found quite thought-provoking: what a better-designed report card might look like:

The Globe and Mail’s proposal for a more visual report card.

As I was reading the main article I was thinking about how different a professor’s life is from that of a teacher: on the one hand we issue grades, not report cards, and on the other we (in English at least) write quite detailed comments on individual students’ work many times in the course of the year.

The side bar got me thinking about my practice on both my syllabi and my essay comments: although almost all the infrastructure in my classes (syllabi, testing, work collection, grading, and return) is done online, the actual content and presentation of this infrastructure is very text-heavy and static.

This model report card has a number of really useful visualisations, it seems to me, that I will look into adopting this year:

  • I love the pie chart showing the weightings for different types of student work. It is much clearer than my usual method, a table. I could see this working really well in my syllabi… and helping students by visually emphasising the relative importance of different assignments.
  • I also like the progress bar for assignments handed in (though I’m a little less sure how I might use those). I find that students often don’t really seem to have a strong sense how far along they are in a course: something like this (maybe on pages presenting the assignment?) might help eliminate the surprise that seems to come at the end of the year when students come to ask what grade they need to get on a 30% exam in order to turn their Ds into a B-.
  • The comparative grade and trend indicators would be easy to generate on essay comments, I suspect and also might be quite useful: I often have students who are not aware that their grades are getting worse as the semester goes on and base their sense of where they are on the basis of a good initial grade that turns out in retrospect to be the highpoint of the year for them; and while a “B” means something comparative to me–I get to see everybody else’s grade, after all–I’m not sure students understand it as a meaningful source of comparison. While I release comparative statistics for every assignment, placing the average right on the grade sheet beside a student’s own mark is a much more emphatic way of driving the point home.
  • I’ve never really been a big fan of scatter graphs (I find they take me some effort to read). I’m not sure I could use that anywhere.

Thinking about this does involve thinking about some of the tools available to me: the grading/commenting functions on Turnitin and Moodle (the two main systems I use) are not really capable of building custom visualisations in to the student reports (at least last time I looked). But in most cases, I would be talking about adding a static image to static content.

I think I’ll start experimenting soon!


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