Course progress should be an open conversation

Oftentimes, I have been asked about how I am doing in college by family and friends, and for the most part I know how to answer. I give a general synopsis: I am doing well, like one class a lot, the other not so much, am indifferent towards one professor and learning a lot from another and I can even give them a good guess at where I am at with my grades, which are probably satisfactory. As far as I can tell, my grades are in that range between good and pretty good, maybe a little lesser at times, but likely that they are maybe higher, probably. That is about as well as I know how to tell them, because I have no quantifiable idea of how I am actually doing. At Lawrence University, there is simply no universal way for students to check their own grades.

The current grade-check system that Lawrence uses is sporadic, messy, unclear and, quite frankly, incredibly frustrating. As it stands right now, progress reports come from a hodgepodge of different methods. Official grades, records and transcripts are kept by the Registrar, but the Registrar feels notoriously inaccessible. According to the Lawrence University website, course grades are only made available to students and academic advisors after all end-of-term processing has been completed, which is approximately seven to 10 days after the last day of finals testing. The Registrar posts grades to each student’s Voyager account after the completion of any course and grades “will not be given to students on an individual basis until grade processing is complete, nor will they be given to students over the phone.” In other words, the only time that students can, officially, know how they did in a class is after the grades have become finalized. Anne Norman from the Registrar’s office, who replied to my email interview request, told me, “The University does not collect ‘in course’ grades—grades for quizzes, projects, papers and presentations. How in course grades are managed is up to individual instructors. Some use Moodle, some use other methods, and most, I would guess, expect their students to keep track of their own ‘current’ grade based on returned work and the course syllabus.”

Separating academic records from a universal, university-based system and leaving it all to professors’ own devices comes with a slew of problems. When each individual instructor has his or her own system, grading becomes messy and inconsistent. All too often, the system is almost entirely absent on a course-to-course basis. In my first term at Lawrence, overall grades were absent for two of my three classes. In the class where I was aware of what my overall grade was, I was only given an approximate guess of what my grade would be if I kept working at my current pace. My “approximate grade” was updated at uneven and unscheduled intervals, if at all.

In discussions with over a dozen other Lawrence students, the sentiment was much the same; the majority of instructors do not post or update overall course grades anywhere. Freshman Alex Duvall says, “I can’t find my grades anywhere. My Spanish professors updated course grades both last term and this term, but that’s only because we use an entirely different learning website, apart from Moodle or the school website.” Early in my first term, when I asked my academic advisor how I could track my progress, she simply told me I could do it by hand and explained to me how to calculate my percentage grade. Like Norman says, many instructors put it on their students to know where they are by the professor’s grading standards. In other words, some professors post grades and others do not, but to know where you are, it is best just to be good at having a general feel for it. Ultimately, it is unfair to ask students to learn how to keep up with their grades in addition to having to learn how to navigate course expectations, grading habits, workload and material from one course to the next, from one instructor to the next.

Class Performance Reports are the only current, school-wide system for professors to report grades to students. According to Norman, Class Performance Reports go to deans and advisors as well. Professors are asked to do them at the mid-term reading period. They are also meant for students who have fallen behind and are in danger of failing a course, but again, this method of opening dialogue about overall performance is unsatisfactory and inadequate. Much can change in half a term: struggling students can have a chance to catch up, or passing students can fall behind. Furthermore, performance reports seem like a school wide procedure, but it is evident that professors are not necessarily mandated to update students about their progress. Of the three instructors I had last term, only one completed a performance report. The reports were helpful for gauging my progress and getting some overall feedback, however, by the end of the fall term, I was still in the dark about where I would finish in any of my classes. It was like running a race with no discernible finish line.

Without a grade posting system, students are unable to pace themselves or set reasonable goals about end of course grades. The last few weeks of a term leading up to final exams are a great time for students on the fringe—a high B or high D for example—to know to open dialogue with a professor about how to conquer those final few percentage points. In addition, Lawrence University prides itself on open discussion, honesty and transparency, yet how can students have honest, open and transparent conversations about their grades when said grades are so unavailable? In addition, while any professor may grade and provide feedback regularly on individual assignments, such as papers, discussion grades are a much different beast. Discussion grades are common in almost all courses at Lawrence and oftentimes encompass the entirety of a term and are important to success in any class as a whole. How can a student know if they are contributing enough or too little, by their own professor’s standard, if those grades have no universal way of being made available until the end of the term? Discussion grades should, again, be an ongoing conversation between instructors and students and a campus-wide grading system would help ensure this is the case.

The problem is simple; the solution is simple as well. The university should implement a universal system where professors are expected to keep up-to-date grades, preferably on a weekly basis. It may ask more of professors to keep grades updated regularly, but providing transparency for students in their course progress should simply be a part of the job and a practice in which professors are evaluated. In the same way that students are expected to be timely about turning in work, so should professors be in providing feedback. The system should be used by every professor and student and should be easily accessible. Many professors already use Moodle to run their courses and to have overall grades entered on Moodle would be a possible method. To have all overall grades centralized would be the most economic and efficient way to check grades, such as through a student’s Voyager account. Such a system would grant some peace of mind for students in that they can know where they are and, quantifiably, how they are doing. Secondly, it will improve communication between students and professors about course expectations, making the entire process much more transparent. Lawrence is a unique place in that professors are always readily accessible and able to have open, working relationships with students. An accessible grading system is necessary to keep this open dialogue and provide students a better opportunity to succeed.