A Way to Promote Student Motivation and Autonomy

The case for greater transparency in grading practices in the first year

Vermont’s Landmark College has been exclusively serving students with Learning Disabilities since 1985 when it opened its doors for a dyslexic population of college-ready students. Our mission now also includes those with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and those on the autism spectrum. Landmark serves a specific population of student for whom college success often poses challenges; however, there are other reasons that students may go to college without the necessary skills to realize their full potential, or indeed, stay to finish. This diversity of learners now includes many groups, such as: adult learners and veterans returning to college, “first-generation” students, and those with psychological challenges. Targeted support in the first year is critical for all at-risk students, and teachers at Landmark excel in this area—we have to. With my first-year-experience classroom at Landmark College as my lab over the years, I have worked to develop systems to support students, which include a way to communicate explicit expectations when assigning work and transparency of grading practices.

I have learned from observing my students over the years that motivation increases through self-regulated learning. The process of evaluating, monitoring and finally directing one’s own learning is a powerful one. But students need the information to evaluate—and they need it from us. As teachers, we can make explicit and available—throughout the term—our grading criteria, the assignment and test grades, the missing assignments and the current overall grade for student use. Listing the grading percentages on our syllabus is a great place to start, but is not enough by itself. I decided to try giving my students the tools they need all semester, which I hoped would allow them to independently evaluate and monitor their progress. With some simple techniques for transparency and alignment of my assignment and grading systems, I hoped that my students could ultimately really own the grade they earn.

I have always incorporated a certain level of monitoring and self-evaluating into my freshman seminar course, primarily through self-reflective writing; students respond in journal format to a regular academic “check-in” with themselves. I have them do it during class for the first few weeks of the term: They open the grading program during class and reflect on categories such as attendance, homework completion or class engagement. I also ask them to look at their current overall grade and discuss it (in writing) while including a statement about goals they have set for themselves for the semester. With regular “check-ins,” patterns often begin to emerge by mid-semester, and the reflections provide students with an opportunity to notice these and relate them to their overall grade; lateness or attendance issues may be affecting the grade, for example. Or is it a pattern of homework-completion issues? Low test grades? Noticing and acting on patterns as they arise enables the student to achieve better outcomes by implementating adaptive strategies—in other words, directing their own learning.

These in-class reflections had been working well, but I realized I needed to streamline the information students most need for taking ownership of their learning. I needed to better align the assigning with the grading.

Giving an assignment or a test and then grading it are two sides of the same coin. It has taken me several years to perfect a simple and useful way of marrying the two through a transparent and user-friendly system. I align my assignment language exactly with that found in the grading program. Many professors use a website of some kind for their classes; I use mine to post all of the term’s assignments, among other uses. I also use the college’s grading program, on which all grades are entered. I have discovered that I can join the two easily and quickly by using a simple formula; since standardizing the system is a key component of easy access for students, I did so by making assignments and grades on both the website and the grading program labeled and dated the same way. I number the assignments from #1 all the way to the end of the semester, and each contains the date assigned and name or abbreviated content of the assignment (“HW #5, Feb. 14: Goals Essay”).

For ease, when I write the assignment into my course website, I also add it to the grading program. Now, in both places with identical dates and language, both are easily available to students for cross-referencing, and it’s very little extra work for the teacher. Of course, this would work fine if you have all your assignments listed on your syllabus as well. This system adds depth to my periodic academic “check-ins” because students have the current information they need to fully understand how they are doing in the course—and why—as they move through the term.

Sound easy? It is! Students can open the grading program alongside the assignment language. Where there is a zero next to an assignment, they can easily look up the description and due date on the website by finding the number of the assignment. They can conversely locate the graded assignment and see what they received for it. They can understand immediately how a specific grade affects the current overall grade, and may thus become empowered to ask about opportunities to, for example, revise a paper, or schedule an office hour appointment. Once the students use this system a couple of times, they learn to take advantage of it with regularity to check-in with themselves, and they can begin to become more autonomous in their ability to regulate their own learning process.

Motivation may increase as students have the tools to take ownership of the work and the grade. As a bonus, I no longer have students asking me for an assignment they may have forgotten to write down, a due-date, or how a grade will affect their overall grade; the onus has been squarely placed on the student.

Students who attend Landmark College often need extra support in meeting their potential as learners, especially in the first year. But this system, in the true sense of Universal Design, would benefit any college freshman at any institution. In creating an ongoing user-friendly system for my students, I provided a quick and easy way for them to get a read on how they are doing at any given time as they move through the semester, and I have seen it become a valuable tool for these freshmen, specifically in terms of increasing self-knowledge, self-advocacy and empowerment—goals for any student. By demystifying the grading process, we teachers have the opportunity to offer our students the ability to more fully understand their own learning patterns and therefore to set and achieve their academic goals.

Sophie Lampard Dennis is an associate professor at Landmark College


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