By midterms, it can be too late to course-correct. A chemistry professor uses high- and low-stakes grading—and other approaches—to identify problems early.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Spelman College
PhD in Organic Chemistry, BS in Chemistry
Students in the natural sciences might aim to become a doctor, scientist, engineer, or even a distinguished college professor. But one thing is for sure: They will have to go through organic chemistry to get there.
“They call it a ‘weeder’ course,” says Shanina Sanders, PhD. But she takes no pleasure in using her course to see who might not cut the mustard. “I think we should approach grading from a different perspective,” she says. “Where you’re not telling students you want them to fail, but you’re telling them you want them to succeed.”
Challenge: No safety net for struggling students
Organic chemistry plunges students headfirst into the intensive study of carbon—the building block of life on Earth. That means plenty of lectures and labs where students examine, map out, break down, and recombine carbon-based chemical compounds to understand how life is created and sustained. Historically, it has required students to direct their own efforts and monitor their own progress—with mixed results. While some students thrived, others slipped behind.
Soon after Sanders joined the faculty of Spelman College in 2009, she realized that rote lectures, impersonal labs, and infrequent exams put distance between her and her students, and these methods did not provide the feedback they needed to stay on track.
Sanders’s eureka moment came when she attended an education conference that highlighted grading methods designed to serve the kinds of blended learning, flipped classes, and technology-driven methods that are now the backbone of academia. Her experience has inspired the adoption of a wide range of strategies that employ tech tools, practice quizzes, high- and low-stakes options, group grading, and a controversial notebook assignment. These, Sanders says, have helped students monitor their own progress and helped her spot both successful and struggling students early in the semester.
Innovation: An environment of constant feedback
Spelman, an all-undergraduate institution known for its small class sizes, employs an “early warning system” that helps students monitor their progress in classes. Through electronic and digital means, students are kept posted on their homework progress, grade standing, and other academic indicators—well before midterms arrive.
“It lets them know whether they’re passing, not passing, or why they aren’t passing,” says Sanders. “Are they not coming to class? Not turning in assignments? Not doing well on exams?”
The system prevents students from receiving big surprises about their academic performance late in the semester. If a student is failing a class by midterms, Sanders notes, it may already be too late to recover.
Sanders has created a toolbox of grading strategies—high- and low-tech—that augment the school’s larger early-warning approach. Her grading is based on her belief that the earlier students see how they are doing, the better they can identify their weaknesses and adjust course, so they are less inclined to get walloped by a major exam.
“Organic chemistry is already a course that has a bad reputation. Students are scared before they even come in. So we’re trying to make them more comfortable, because they know what to expect, there are no surprises, and they have all the tools they need.”— Shanina Sanders, PhD
Course: CHE 231 Organic Chemistry I
Frequency: Three 50-minute class meetings per week for 15 weeks; one 4-hour lab
Class size: 30
Course description: The course focuses on the principles of structure, bonding, and properties and their connection to conformations, stereochemistry, and reactions of organic molecules. Molecular classes covered are alkanes, alkenes, alkynes, alkyl halides, alcohols, and aromatic compounds. The lecture periods are designed for the discussion of these concepts; to provide the student an opportunity to ask questions; and to teach problem-solving techniques.
CHE 231 Organic Chemistry ISee materials
Lesson: Reimagining grading as a feedback tool
By mixing modern technology with a time-honored respect for constant student feedback, Sanders takes specific steps to infuse each semester’s work with grading flexibility and generosity. Here are some of her grade-boosting grading strategies:
Use tech to quick-check progress
Sanders uses Moodle, Spelman’s online learning management system, to provide a one-stop shop for grades, notes, assignments, syllabi, and pre-class readings. Perhaps most helpful to students’ comprehension: Assignments completed on Moodle can be graded automatically and immediately. This use of modern technology both frees up the professor’s time and helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses.
To check on the comprehension of the class as a whole, Sanders uses polling tools, such as Poll Everywhere, Kahoot, and Nearpod, to send questions to students’ phones and display their (anonymous) answers on a screen in class or on her own computer at a later time.
Separate grading into low stakes and high stakes
Sanders does not view every assignment, quiz, or classroom moment as mission-critical to her students’ experience in organic chemistry. She believes that students build confidence—and douse their fears about the course’s intensity—if she does not grade everything.
“I think it’s important to use a combination of what we call ‘low-stakes’ and ‘high-stakes’ grading. Lots of my assignments are low-stakes, for example, meaning either they’re not graded or they count for a small percentage of the student’s overall grade.”— Shanina Sanders, PhD
“I think it’s important to use a combination of what we call ‘low-stakes’ and ‘high-stakes’ grading,” says Sanders. “Lots of my assignments are low-stakes, for example, meaning either they’re not graded or they count for a small percentage of the student’s overall grade.”
While low-stakes quizzes can be retaken, serving as a tool for test prep (see below), high-stakes quizzes—fully graded and counting more in a student’s average—are given chiefly in class and can only be taken once. She has also adopted a policy of dropping students’ lowest grades on one assignment, quiz, and exam.
Introduce students to practice quizzes
Sanders uses Moodle to create and administer low-stakes quizzes, which include a combination of multiple-choice questions, structural drawing problems, and chemical mechanism questions, all of which are present on bigger exams. Sanders does her best to match the quiz content to the content of upcoming exams.
She typically posts these low-stakes (practice) quizzes for a week, allowing students to take them more than once during that time period. “They get their grade right after taking it,” she adds. “They’ll know what questions they missed, so they can go back and look at that topic again.”
“I try to do one quiz per exam, just to let students know if they ‘have it’ or not, and what they need to do to get there.”— Shanina Sanders, PhD
This means students will be better prepared when they retake the quiz—though Sanders notes that the questions may not be the same on subsequent tries.
“I try to do one quiz per exam,” says Sanders, “just to let students know if they ‘have it’ or not, and what they need to do to get there.”
Use a mix of group and individual grading
Sanders embraces the practice of group grading, meaning that students work in small groups on a shared worksheet, project, or problem-solving task, and everyone in the group earns the same grade. In this type of activity, Sanders can observe each group and ask questions about the problem as they work on it together. If she notices that a whole group is having a particularly difficult time, she might choose to grade all groups on only one question from the worksheet.
She also employs individual grading in a group setting. “This approach works well when organic chemistry students are drawing complex chemical structures,” she says. “Even when students work on this in a group, everyone may not get the intricate detail that is required.” In cases like this, where proficiency is very different among group members, Sanders feels it makes more sense to give each student their own personal grade.
Class participation can also be evaluated in the context of group work, adds Sanders. “There are classes where everybody gets an individual grade [after working on problems as a group] by going to the board, working a problem, explaining it, or answering a question when I call on them,” she says. Other times, she might have one individual serve as a representative for the group’s work, answering a question or presenting their work on the board; the entire group receives the same grade.
Have students put their progress in writing
“Some people say it sounds so high school, and some students don’t like it,” says Sanders. “But I have them keep a notebook, and I grade their notebook.”
Sanders requires each of her students to keep this running journal of class and homework activity over the course of a semester. The notebooks contain students’ pre-class questions, notes on the course lectures, in-class work, homework assignments, and any additional chemistry problems the student might be working on.
“It’s really where I focus if you’re not doing well,” says Sanders. “What have you done—in addition to what I’ve assigned—to help yourself? Are you working on the hard problems, or do you just work the easy problems?” The journal can reveal whether students are attending class, taking notes, and putting forth their best effort—or not.
Though Sanders grades each notebook several times beginning at the start of the semester, she typically will stop grading a successful student’s notebook once she is convinced the student is grasping the material and solving chemistry problems with ease.
“If you make 100% that second time, I can give you that same grade the third time,” says Sanders. “You know how to keep a notebook, and you know what you’re supposed to be doing.”
A positive and flexible approach to grading not only helps motivate students, says Sanders, but also creates an environment of constant feedback that helps her further refine her grading strategies and become a better teacher.
“Because students are getting the feedback, and getting their grades, they always know where they are in the class,” says Sanders. “So, they know, ‘OK, if I did well on this first exam, then I just need to keep doing what I’m doing. But if I didn’t do well, then I need to improve in these areas.’”
The key, says Sanders, is making sure students get the earliest possible indication of success or failure as they take on one of the academic world’s most challenging—and thrilling—subjects.
“We want students to be able to think critically,” says Sanders of the organic chemistry experience. “We want them to be able to analyze things and do problem-solving that’s applicable to life.”