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Grading in the CT/NC environment

Committee on Instruction Co-Chairs Lynn Patyk (Russian) and Robyn Milan (Physics), in consultation with DCAL, offer some thoughts on assessment within the credit/no credit parameters this term.
If you would like to share your thoughts and experiences with your colleagues, please contact dcal@dartmouth.edu - we would love to hear from you and share the teaching practices being adopted.

The Credit/No Credit (CT/NC) environment offers advantages and opportunities as well as challenges. It is natural for faculty and students who are accustomed to letter grades to have concerns about CT/NC, especially as it affects faculty’s ability to give more calibrated feedback on the one hand, and student responsiveness to that feedback as it manifests in their motivation, performance, and ultimately, their learning outcomes. There is evidence, however, that the decreased focus on grades that the CT/NC offers may allow your students to focus on learning instead of achieving, and that grades don’t act as the “motivator” that faculty often assume (e.g., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4041495/).

Especially in conditions of remote learning, we want our students to stay engaged, participate, and learn, so our course structure and assignments should be geared toward these goals.

First Steps:

You as the instructor must decide what constitutes CT in your course, and this begins with being clear about your learning goals for your students and devising assessments that demonstrate whether your students have achieved them.  In this time of profound disruption and uncertainty, it is both realistic and compassionate to acknowledge that our goals and our students’ achievement may not be as lofty as usual. 

When you explain your standards for achieving credit in your course, you may consider informing your students that distinguished work may receive acknowledgement through a citation on the transcript. You should also let your students know under what circumstances they would receive NC. These may be:

  • Failure to submit assignments in a timely way;
  • Failure to meet the criteria of the assignment;
  • Failure to participate adequately in discussions or other course activities

*Note: Participation standards and expectations should not penalize students’ varying circumstances, including time zones, remote learning environments, abilities, and degree of access to equipment and/or internet.

If you choose to continue using your usual grading system and intend to “convert” this to CT/NC based on a predetermined cut-off, be transparent with your students in your syllabus and throughout the course about both your grading approach and the cut-off points. Be aware, though, that students who are attached to grades may be disgruntled to have their “A” recorded as merely “CT.” 

Devising Assessments:

Your course syllabus and/or Canvas home page should contain a clear statement of what assessments/assignments you will be using, and your expectations for the assignments. Assignments with different learning goals will likely have different thresholds for CT/NC, and concomitantly, varying degrees of instructor feedback. 

You may want to forego or limit the usual high-stakes assignments of tests, term papers, and exams and instead foreground assignments that emphasize student engagement and learning. For example:

  • A discussion post or voice thread that responds in a thoughtful, informed way to a reading or lecture is a low-stakes way to maintain student engagement and learning.
  • An analytical essay or research paper may be broken down into successive steps, as many faculty already do, each of which has its own rubric and criteria for Credit. 
  • Remote discussions offer different modes of participation, from speaking synchronously to messaging or recording asynchronously. Decide what your threshold for CT for a discussion will be (one comment and one message post per session?) and state that explicitly on your syllabus.  Students may not be able to or feel immediately comfortable discussing live on Zoom, so pairing live discussions with asynchronous or retrospective reflections in Canvas might also merit CT.  

*Note: We recommend recording all live sessions for your own reference as well as for students who can’t attend. Please note the Dean of Faculty’s recommended language to include in your syllabus and share with your students.  

  • To facilitate student  learning through granular written feedback, you might use the Speedgrader function in Canvas to give pointed comments on an assignment and require the student’s response to each comment in order to receive full Credit for the assignment. Speedgrader includes this “response function” for students, who may not otherwise bother to read instructor comments.  To elicit a response, comments are best phrased as explicit questions for students to answer, for example, “What would be a better word?” instead of “awkward” or “How can you restructure your paragraph so that your argument isn’t buried?” instead of “Thesis?” 
  • Faculty could also require students to collect and respond to peer feedback at certain times during the quarter, and also to provide self-evaluations of their participation, engagement, and quality of their work. 
  • Tests/quizzes can be adjusted to CT/NC and serve as summative assessments by determining and making explicit to students the threshold of correct/incorrect answers for receiving credit. To use tests/quizzes to facilitate student learning and improvement over time, consider offering students the opportunity to retake them until they achieve the desired result for CT. The Canvas quiz function is especially handy for creating and administering short, low-stakes quizzes.

A Final Note

Although CT/NC may seem like a blunt pedagogical instrument compared to the accustomed grading scale, it offers the opportunity to experiment with creating different kinds of assessments and feedback for students about their learning. Experiment with what works best to achieve your goals and remind yourself and them to be flexible and open to new ways of teaching and learning.

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