Spreadsheets vs. online gradebooks

One of the things my students like the most about learning managment systems (LMS’s) such as Blackboard, Angel, or Moodle (I’ve used all of these at some point in my career) is the online gradebook feature. I enter their grades online, and students can check in on the web at any time and see their grades and get the info. These things are useful to be sure. But I’ve been wondering if they are the best implement for managing grades. I’ve been wondering if it wouldn’t be better to simply hand back graded work and then have students keep their grades on their own using a simple spreadsheet. Some reasons why I think this way:

  1. Spreadsheets have functionality. I can enter, view, and edit grades in an online gradebook; students can view them; but nobody can perform any meaningful analysis on the data that have been entered. The gradebook is just a two-dimensional list. But of course in a spreadsheet I can not only store and view data but also manipulate it any way I want and play the many what-if scenarios that profs and students alike play. Of course this is not a big deal because most LMS’s allow you to download gradebook data in some kind of spreadsheet-compatible form, but why not just start with a spreadsheet to begin with?
  2. Spreadsheets allow greater choice of implementation of other LMS features. Online gradebooks are often the only redeeming feature of LMS’s, and profs tend to stick with LMS’s they don’t like just to have the gradebook. This often hurts the students, who have to put up with substandard email clients (see this post for more) and file-sharing systems that LMS’s provide rather than use something easier and better-implemented. Or else, profs end up using only the gradebook feature of an LMS and use other software (class blogs, wikis, Netvibes, etc.) for the remainder of what an LMS does (such as posting files and announcements), which can get confusing for students, who then expect the prof to use the features of the LMS.
  3. Having students keep track of their grades with a spreadsheet encourages them to learn about spreadsheets. If you take the approach of expecting students to manage their own grades, and teach them how to use spreadsheets to do this, my experience is that students will be motivated to learn the basics of spreadsheets simply because they care about their grades and because they can now answer on their own all those questions such as “What do I need on the final to get a B- in the class?” One can learn a lot about spreadsheets just by using it as a personal gradebook for one class in one semester. And since spreadsheets are an increasingly important tool for data management in general both in and after school, the more students can learn about them, and the earlier they can do so, the better for them.
  4. Using spreadsheets encourages students to take responsibility for their learning. One of the detriments of online gradebooks is that it removes an important responsibility of learning — managing the outcomes of your assessments — from the student and makes it the instructor’s job. I don’t mind the work of entering grades into a gradebook, but I do think it would be better for students to learn that responsible record-keeping is important and that they should practice it, and I like the idea of students  being closer to their grade data than they are with instructor-managed online gradebooks.

I don’t know if I’m quite ready to completely give up using an online gradebook for these reasons, but I find them to be pretty compelling. What do you think?

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Filed under Course management systems, Technology

8 responses to “Spreadsheets vs. online gradebooks

  1. I personally love the spirit of this post, as I generally like the idea of giving students lots of responsibility and making the system as transparent as possible.

    However, psychology research suggests that, to maximize learning, we should de-emphasize grades as much as possible. Having them update spreadsheets would be a constant reminder of grades and a constant distraction from the math.

  2. Those of us who have graders or TAs have a very compelling reason to use the LMS gradebook: everybody who grades something for a course can record or update grades. I wouldn’t feel comfortable using Google Docs for grades for FERPA reasons, and passing spreadsheets back and forth or even uploading one to some file sharing space is just painful.

  3. Heather McCormick

    We were just having a similar discussion in a faculty meeting and division meeting yesterday. I think that our students should be responsible for keeping up with their own grades, but I do understand the reasoning behind putting grades in an LMS gradebook.

  4. Alasdair McAndrew

    A very good post, as usual! I find the easiest thing for me is to enter the grades twice – once on the LMS system for the students to access when they like, and also on a spreadsheet, for later use. Even though I can download the LMS grades into a spreadsheet, it’s easier just to keep a spreadsheet going. It also acts as a failsafe in case one lot of grades gets lost. This happened last year, when for reasons unknown to me, all the grades on a Moodle course just went missing.

    Although I agree that students should take some responsibility for their learning, most of my students in first year are already so overwhelmed by their course (and most of them are doing mathematics as a requirement, rather than by choice), and I don’t mind making things easy for them.

  5. Will Farris

    First came the paper gradebook, which in many schools is like a legal document, as I used to have to turn them in at the end of the year for safe-keeping. Then came gradebook programs which were really just fancy spreadsheet templates, but I used them anyway to be cool and cutting edge (early 90’s we’re talking here). Finally, the schools sgtarted using their version of all-in-one ERP systems so that the outside world (parents) could access grades and assignments in real time to anticipate problems. Teachers to this day love this because it precludes surprises come report card time and teacher conferences. How many times I used to have to call someone to get the homework assignment! Also, there are those funny things like daily grades, bonus points, and other things that make it into the calculation that students may not remember. Now in higher education I have, as a student, used WebCT, Moodle, Angel, and Blackboard. Better than all these with their convoluted menu trees and confusing formats are teacher personal web pages. Since spreadsheets can be rendered in browsers this is simple enough without having to do any manipulation. Most of my professors have not been real faithful in using and updating these LMS things anyway, and only bits and pieces at that. But the main thing is that there is some way to insure everybody has the same info pertaining to the necessary evil of grades. At St. John’s College in MD they never tell students their grades at all until after graduation, and only if requested. And then it is like pass/fail/honors for a lot of things.

  6. Great post, Robert, echoing some of my own explorations as a high-school teachers interested in assisting my students in monitoring their progress in the courses I teach.

    I began grade-keeping back in the day with a standard paper gradebook, and quickly moved on to trying some of the proprietary grade-keeping programs, but didn’t like the inflexibility (I too like to play with what-if scenarios with students’ grades) and being tied to a single vendor.

    I used an Excel spreadsheet for many years, and find that served best in terms of grade-keeping, but it didn’t easily allow for students to be able to view their individual grades online. The best I was able to manage was to export the spreadsheet to a webpage every other week or so, with student code-names in place of their actual names to give some scant amount of anonymity. While this was a nice idea in theory, students had great fun trying to deduce each others’ identities (based on clues like missing assignments, test scores, etc.) and often as not were successful.

    I gave some thought to developing my own PHP-MySQL based system, but in the end settled for one already provided for free (ad-supported) by http://www.engrade.com . Despite occasional stability issues with that service, it has worked out well for me and my students, and I’m able to export grades from their database as a CVS file for local backups, a factor which is important to me. And that’s where things are for now.

    Two follow-up comments: While I appreciate the idea of encouraging students to track their own grades/progress, the reality of that (at least for high-school students) has always been less than satisfactory. Especially for mid-teen students, the organization and discipline required to do track their own grades, particularly if any kind of category grade weighting is involved, seem to be beyond many students’ developmental capabilities.

    Also, after spending some time playing World of Warcraft a few years ago, I began to wonder if having a “Progress Bar” that students could refer to might not be a compelling way of indicating their progress in a course. It certainly was a focus-point for me in game play: “If I stay up playing for another half hour, I’ll bet I can earn enough points to make it to the next level.” Obviously the primary goal in a course should be learning the material, and not simply “earning points,” but a distressing number of my students (and their parents) equate the two. And I suppose in a well-designed course, there would be a high-correlation between the two values.

    While I would prefer that my students learn the material based on a more internal motivation, I’m not so naive to believe that that’s the case for all of them. And for those students who ARE primarily concerned about their grade, well… I don’t mind if that’s their focal point. My job and desire is to assist them in learning the material, regardless.

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. Well great post and really i can see the difference but as per my concern in online gradebook system it also works well so there are lots of concept and source on new learning really great

  8. Dan

    How could I prepare grade report for particular student in mail merge using Microsoft word?
    Help me out this please