Best Grading Practices: A Student’s Perspective

One of the biggest areas of concern for students is their grades. Many students incur a significant amount of stress agonizing over their scores on exams or assignments. Although students must work hard to obtain good grades, there are a few things you can do as an instructor to alleviate a bit of the stress.

Providing clear instructions for assignments and providing accurate, specific, and timely feedback are critical components of an effective grading strategy. It is helpful to provide students with your specific grading policies and procedures in the syllabus at the start of the semester. This information could include the frequency of feedback students should expect to receive, as well as when and how they will receive it. This helps give students a sense of control, as they know when to expect certain assignments to be graded. Providing students with this information also helps you hold yourself accountable for grading in a timely manner.

Another area of grading that can cause stress for students is if some students receive feedback on an assignment before others. A good grading practice would be to release all student grades on an assignment simultaneously, instead of one at a time as they are graded. This way, no student receives feedback before another student. This practice can contribute to feelings of equity and fairness among students.

To utilize this grading practice in Blackboard, go to Full Grade Center. Then, access the column for the assignment and select the dropdown arrow. You can then either select “Hide from Students (on/off)” or “Edit Column Information”. If you choose the “Edit Column Information” option, you will need to select “No” when presented with the option to “Show this Column to Students”. A circle with a diagonal red line should appear next to the column name in the full grade center, indicating that this column is hidden from students.

It is important to remember to take these steps prior to grading students’ assignments. Once assignments for all students have been graded, you will need to go back into the Full Grade Center and make these columns available so that students are able to view their grades.

These are just a few of the many grading practices you can utilize to help alleviate the stress surrounding student grades. They may not work for every instructor, so it is important to determine what strategies work best for your teaching style and course structure.

Fostering Engagement and a Feeling of Community in your Online Course

Distance learning courses conducted through online platforms such as UTC Learn can be an extremely valuable asset to universities looking to expand their student reach. Online learning allows students to complete courses from any location and use technology sometimes not available in a traditional classroom setting. However, advantages of distance learning courses do come at a cost.

One of the greatest disadvantages is a lack of student engagement and feeling of community. Courses held in an exclusively online environment may foster a sense of anonymity and lead to student withdrawal and minimal participation. The “type” of student enrolled in a distance-learning course may play a factor as well: some students might enroll in these courses because course participation is more flexible and they believe it will require less work than a face-to-face course. Thus, disengagement may be a threat from the very beginning.

There are many ways that instructors can combat this disengagement and create a collaborative, cooperative learning community. First and foremost, course design plays a large role. Use the “Teaching Styles” function in UTC Learn to create a welcoming course environment in not only appearance, but course navigation as well. There are many options to choose from, but keep in mind your course should be easy to read and accessible. Engaging courses are easy to navigate, have a variety of assessments, and integrate multiple forms of media such as pictures, documents, and videos.

Possibly one of the biggest factors in engagement is communication, both student-to-student and instructor-to-student. Research shows a strong correlation between using multiple channels of communication and higher engagement (Crumpacker, 2001). UTC Learn offers a variety of tools to foster interaction within a course. Some tools to keep in mind include:

  • Journals
  • Wikis
  • Discussion Boards
  • Blogs
  • Announcements
  • Creation of Groups
  • Assessments
  • Email

Though using these tools through UTC Learn is a great place to start, they are only as good as the work that has been put into them. Instructors can make the most of the tools by leading discussions, asking open-ended questions, providing guidance and feedback, and setting clear expectations of performance. The goal should be to facilitate self-efficacy among students and encourage enthusiasm for the course.



Online Teaching Strategies for Engagement (Blackboard):


Crumpacker (2001) Faculty pedagogical approach, skill, and motivation in today’s distance education milieu. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 4:4.

Optimizing Email

NEWSFLASH! There’s no hard and fast rule that says you must respond to every ding, buzz, or chirp the second after you hear it. Reducing the amount of email you receive is about educating students to read the syllabus and to utilize the discussion boards. Managing your email can be achieved by using tools like filters, rules, and auto replies.

A good first step is to train your students to include the course subject and number in the subject line. Use your email filter to send this email to a separate, course specific folder that you can check on your own schedule. Additionally, create and write in your syllabus an email checking policy – this will prevent multiple emails from the same student, on the same topic.  Also, consider an auto-reply for the “course folder”; for example, your reply could say: “Your email has been received. As a reminder, I check my email …” and then restate the policy from your syllabus.

Another good idea is to require students to include a signature line that matches their name as it appears in UTC Learn. This will take the guesswork out of responding. Don’t waste time trying to figure out who that generic GMAIL account belongs to!

Additionally, get students to actually read the course syllabus.  It sounds crazy, but students will just skim it unless they are held accountable for what they read. Consider giving a quiz on the syllabus information. It will force students to read the document and it will give you an opportunity to troubleshoot any issues at the beginning of the semester.

Create a Frequently Asked Questions item or Discussion Board in your UTC Learn course.  Don’t forget to create a link to that item for the students. Answer any student questions that are relevant to everyone in that public area within your course.  Also, you can ask students to post questions there so other students can see the question and answer, to avoid answering the same question over and over again. Teach students to look for answers there before contacting you. If students are asking questions that you have already answered, and you know that you have posted the information in the public area of your course, refer them back to that area.

Ideas for Faculty: Making the Most of your Summer!

By the time Spring semester ends, most faculty are ready for a short break. Whether you teach in Summer or not, just having a lighter load can make all the difference and allow you to time to recharge.

One of the best ways to fight that burned out feeling, is to set aside a little time to learn something new. That way, when you go back to your classes, you will have expanded your own repertoire of skills and feel good about your personal professional development. I have a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Create a Blog: Maybe you have a favorite blog that you read regularly, but you have never created one of your own. There’s a great little Edublog challenge online that is just for teachers and will help you get started in an easy and non-threatening format. If you don’t want to use their service, you could also just read the ‘assignments’ and do them in your Sandbox that you have access to within our UTC Learn system. That way you can practice in a closed area that no one else sees, but you have full functionality. If you need help, you can send me an email and I will go into the Sandbox with you and create some responses to your posts to help you along. The blog’s style is one of Author’s Post and Comments. Try it out for a few weeks and see what you think!

Read the blog challenge online here:


2.Participate in a Webinar: We have access to many Magna Publication professional development webinars, and are happy to facilitate you and/or your small group in creating an informal event. Do you and  2-3 of your colleagues eat lunch together and ‘talk shop’? This would be just like that but taking it a step further, with materials to make the learning interesting and fun. Let us know if you are interested in this idea by emailing us at and requesting a Magna webinar. Some of our topics available now include:

How Can I Capture Students’ Interest in the First 5 Minutes?

10 Ways to Improve Blended Learning Course Design

Seven Strategies to Enhance Learning through Group Work

How Can I Structure a Flipped Lesson?

Academically Adrift: Findings & Lessons for Improvement ( This is about Relating your Research to UG Education)


3.Finally, maybe you’re interested in reading a great book that will connect you to students for the Fall. One of our campus programs is called “Read2Achieve” and the current book is “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. Just learning a little about the book and its author will help you feel more a part of UTC once students come back and are talking about it! To learn more, view the webpage, and let us know if you have questions:

Hope you have a great and restful summer! If we can assist you with your recharging plans, just let us know by email or phone: or (423) 425-4188!


IclickerGO replaced with REEF polling

If you are a user of audience response systems or “clickers” at UTC, there is a change coming this fall that you will want to know about.  Iclicker is moving from using its own IclickerGO application, that allows use of smart phones as clickers, to REEF polling which is a new mobile-first classroom engagement product.  Some faculty only allow the use of the handheld clicker device in class and do not allow the use of the smart phone application.  If that is you, then these changes will not affect you.  However, if you allow students to use their smart phones as response devices, this change applies to you.

If you wish to allow students to use their smart phones to respond, there are two options to consider.  One, you can completely move to the REEF polling solution and use only smart phones for polling in class. The other option is to upgrade to version 7 of the Iclicker software to allow students to use both in-class clickers and their smartphones.  If you are only allowing use of clicker devices, you do not need to upgrade to version 7 if you don’t want to.

The REEF application is available for iOS devices and web applications (browsers) with an Android version coming soon.  There are a few benefits for students using REEF. One is that they will receive the question and any images associated with that question directly on their device.  They can also view past sessions and use those questions as a study guide to prepare for assessments.  With their REEF subscription, they will be able to use REEF in multiple classes.

The changeover will be rather simple, as students will be prompted to download the new REEF software and create a free account if they try to use IclickerGO after August 15, 2015.  If a student has a paid time or credit on their IclickerGO account, those credentials and that credit will transfer to their REEF account.

For instructors, using REEF is very similar to Iclicker, yet one advantage of it is that response data can be saved in the cloud to be accessed from anywhere.  It works with presentation tools that you may already use and sets up in under 2 minutes.

If you decide you need to upgrade your Iclicker software to version 7, there is a link provided below.  Version 7 has been fully redesigned and includes an integrated gradebook, instead of the Igrader application, improved integrations with the LMS, and the ability to generate excel files of individual or group response data.  However, Iclicker version 7 does not allow questions-on-the-fly as previous versions did.


An overview video:

Further information:

A comparison chart:

Iclicker 6 and 7 download:

Faculty Highlights – Professor Christina Vogel

picture of Kristina Vogel

This month’s faculty highlight is Christina Vogel, Assistant Professor of Art, Painting and Drawing. Professor Vogel received a grant for the Spring 2014 semester to support an experiential learning project for her upper division Drawing VI class (ART4060). Drawing VI is the most advanced level class for drawing, and is a requirement for students who are in the BFA painting and drawing program. Juniors and Seniors in the BFA program are much more focused on self-directed work as opposed to their previous years. Spring 2014 marked Professor Vogel’s first time teaching ART4060, and her focus was to maintain students’ self-directed work while also challenging them to critically collaborate and develop a group exhibition of their work at the Association for Visual Arts (AVA) gallery in Chattanooga. While the exhibition of student work was one of the focal points of the course, Professor Vogel aimed to give her students a real world experience of the multiple steps that go into putting together an exhibit. To support the costs of such a large undertaking, she requested a grant from ThinkAchieve.

Professor Vogel began thinking about the idea of raising the bar for her class and giving them a professional experience in the fall.  She met with Lauren Goforth, the education and exhibitions director at AVA to discuss the project. Lauren was surprised to find out that most students had not previously had an opportunity to display their work at an off campus gallery before, and was excited about the idea. The opportunity would be an invaluable real world experience, and would also require students to utilize critical thinking skills.

One of the great things about this project was the challenge presented when you take a group of nine artists whose work is very different and ask them to come up with a single theme for a group show. Students collaborated and came up with the theme of memory. With such a broad theme, students were able to keep their individual projects unique, and yet still develop a cohesive group exhibition.

artwork from event show.  Picture of a distorted woman in the shadows.

After coming up with a theme, the students were responsible for the whole project. Professor Vogel was available as a guide, but ultimately the students had to make decisions together as a group. This collaboration was a major piece of the class. Students had to meet as a group regularly to decide among other things how to promote the show through exhibition cards and social media, determine the order and best layout of the exhibition space provided by AVA, decide on the details regarding the sale of their work , and develop individual artist and group statements . All of these tasks were activities that they had not previously had to do, and probably had not thought about. These responsibilities were in addition to creating the artwork, and 3 other major projects due in the class.sample program for Professor Vogel's event

Another major feature of the class was critical reflection that students completed before, during, and after the exhibition process.   Students came to hang and ready their design space for the exhibition in August, long after the spring semester. The exhibition had a wonderful turn out, community feedback was excellent, and it culminated with a favorable review in The Pulse.

Though Professor Vogel is not teaching Drawing VI this year, she strongly believes that it is not a stretch for other art classes to be compatible with the ThinkAchieve Initiative. She says “So much of what we do as artists involves critical thinking. We constantly have to give feedback, self-assess, and collaborate. Which are all part of the ThinkAchieve Initiative.”


Faculty Highlights – Dr. Jennifer Boyd


picture of Jennifer Boyd

Dr. Boyd is currently working in her 12th semester at UTC. She teaches ecology and climate change biology. We selected Dr. Boyd for this month’s faculty highlight because of the grant she was awarded in Fall of 2013. Dr. Boyd’s ecology class is coupled with a lab that traditionally required students to conduct experiments on the local flora and fauna. Unfortunately, the experiments were so local they were primarily limited to areas within walking distance of campus. Some of the students studied squirrels in the cemetery while others studied the foliage around campus. In the meantime, Dr. Boyd was conducting her own research on a rare species of orchid that grows a few hours away from Chattanooga.

The species Dr. Boyd is interested in only grows in the area she is studying. She has been concerned for some time that it may be endangered, but currently it is not listed as an endangered species. The rarity of a species does not automatically qualify it for endangered status. In order to register a species as endangered, there must be evidence to support that the population is in decline and the researcher must propose methods for managing the species.

Last year Dr. Boyd decided to incorporate her interest in this specific species into her ecology lab. She did this by asking the students to develop a research plan regarding the rare orchids. The purpose of the research was to determine if the species was endangered or not, based upon national guidelines. It was up to the students to figure out what needed to be measured and how the plan would be executed.

The students decided to map an area where the species is found with a grid system and then count the number of orchids found in each section of the grid. After counting the number of orchids they planned to measure light factors, soil factors and other possible variables in each section of the grid. Unfortunately, upon their arrival at the site they found hundreds of snakes had inhabited the area since the last time Dr. Boyd had visited. She couldn’t safely ask the students to conduct their measurements in the area with the threat of poisonous snakebites.

picture of a copperhead snake in a field

Above is a photo of beautiful orchids and a copperhead.

In order to conduct the research, Dr. Boyd asked for a grant from the Think Achieve program to provide snake-proofing garb for the students. Once the students had the appropriate gear they were able to go in an conduct their experiments in the area.

The experiments didn’t turn up any evidence to support the endangerment of this rare species, but it did provide the students with a unique hands-on experience related to their field. Students are graded on the process rather than the outcome. When the next class takes on the task they will assess the job the previous class did before moving forward. The next experiment will be based upon the strengths of the previous research and will attempt to address alternative hypothesis that were not studied in the previous class.

This assignment is unique for students and professors. The most interesting part about it is that the professor does not have an answer key. Dr. Boyd had no idea how the results would come out when the assignment was over and that made it even more interesting for everyone involved. After all, that is how science works.

Faculty Highlights – Dr. Amye Warren

picture of Amye Warren

In the time Dr. Amye Warren has been with UTC she’s developed some unique approaches to foster critical thinking in her classes. This August will mark her 30th year at the university. This faculty highlight article will outline a few of the innovative methods Dr. Warren has developed to get her students deeply involved in her course material.

One theme that is pervasive throughout all of her classes is the integration of multiple sources. These sources can be from the course textbook, peer-reviewed articles, news articles, videos online or other class readings. Ideally, assignments should include two or three sources that reach across different disciplines. Combining sources provides a unique challenge for students because it forces them to integrate information from multiple authors and multiple topics to a single issue.

For example, Dr. Warren has her class focus on the trial of the Central Park Five, who falsely confessed to violent crimes in central park, New York City. Before studying the case, the students are given research regarding the effects of sleep deprivation on the decision making process. People who are sleep deprived often have a difficult time assessing the consequences of decisions they are making. The students are also given research regarding adolescent brain development and it’s effect on sleep cycles. Once the class integrates these three sources they can develop new insights into the case and follow up by applying what they have learned to their own lives and situations they may have encountered.

The Central Park Five example also applies to another technique that Dr. Warren finds effective for fostering critical thinking in the classroom. This case study is a real life example that the students may be able to relate to. Much of the peer-reviewed literature available makes little effort to apply itself to real life scenarios. Asking students to apply empirical research to real life scenarios can be an effective way to foster critical thinking in the classroom. An additional exercise that can enhance academic research is to ask the students what the research may have missed or how it may could be improved if it were repeated.

Dr. Warren also holds open book or open-note tests in her courses to take the focus away from memorization and direct it towards understanding of the material. Open book tests generally require more integrated answers and less fill in the blank or multiple choice questions.
Using these techniques, the class becomes more valuable for the students and the grading process becomes more interesting for the teacher. Critical thinking can definitely be a win-win situation if it’s approached correctly.

Team-Based Learning

Over the past year and a half, we’ve hosted two campus workshops on team-based learning, also called TBL.  Bill Roberson of the University at Albany does a great job on getting your buy-in on the method, and many folks, including one entire department, have implemented it extensively at UTC.  TBL is much more than “group work”; it is a strategy on which you plan your entire course.  There are four essential components of TBL:  formation of permanent student groups, student accountability, instructor feedback, and assignment design.  To be able to use this approach, your course content needs to be chunked, that is, formed into 5 to 6 modules that take a few class sessions to work through.

For each module in a course, the instructor takes the students through the three TBL phases.  The first phase involves giving individual study assignments such as a readings or online lectures that students do before class (sound familiar – flipped classroom?).  The second phase starts with students coming to class and taking an individual quiz, which is called an Individual Readiness Assurance Test or I-RAT, and turning it into the instructor.  Without knowing how they did on the quiz, they then take a group quiz (Group Readiness Assurance Test or G-RAT) which is the same quiz they took as an individual. During the G-RAT, students hold each other accountability for having completed the pre-work (this may not happen immediately, but will in time).  Once the correct answers are made known, teams can appeal quiz questions if they feel they were worded poorly or have more than one correct answer, for example.  Appeals must be submitted in writing and are signed off by the entire team.  Next, the G-RATs are turned in and the instructor quickly reviews them to see what students need to know more about.  What are the groups missing – what are the gaps in their knowledge or understanding?  This process leads to a mini-lecture only on that material that is needed by students.  Whew, that’s the end of phase 2.

Now phase 3 is the application of the course material through team-based application exercises.  This involves exercises that take 30 minutes or up to a couple of class sessions.  Much like the flipped classroom approach, students become engaged in the content by applying their knowledge.   Ideally, these exercises involve student groups all working on the same problem and reporting simultaneously in class – this gets their competitive juices flowing.  Once the applications are completed, then it’s back to phase one with the next module!

Want to know more about team-based learning?  Contact us for a individual session or check out our spring seminar schedule.

Additional Resources

Team-Based Learning Collaborative.  (2013).  Getting started.  Retrieved from

Florida State University.  (n.d.).  Team-based learning.  Retrieved from


Where do we start?

For the last month, I’ve been analyzing survey data collected as feedback to our student orientation on critical thinking. The qualitative answers vary greatly, but one theme emerges through a majority of the responses. These students are excited about active learning. They frequently say that they are looking forward to college because it’s so different from their high school classes.

Every time I read comments like these I feel satisfied to be a part of this program. Yet, I find myself wondering what the high school experience is like for these freshman before they start at UTC. If this orientation session is the first time they have encountered an instructor that facilitated critical thinking in class, what were they doing before?

Our department was created to account for a deficiency in our students critical thinking skills upon graduation. It’s our job to help integrate critical thinking into the college curriculum to turn this around. The faculty and the students are on board with the initiative, but unfortunately, it’s still an uphill battle.

Critical thinking doesn’t become valuable upon graduation from high school, or middle school, or elementary school. Critical thinking is a fundamental skill that should be cultivated in children from the moment they can talk.

It seems to me that people are hardwired for critical thinking. If you’ve ever spent time with a three year old you’re bound to hear this question. “Why?” In fact, you’ll hear this question until your head feels like it’s about to explode. This is when we angrily shout “Just because!”.

We’re frustrated with unending curiosity because it was taken away from us at the same age these children are now. We’re frustrated because we don’t have an answer and we don’t have time to consider one. Childhood offers endless hours of time to ponder life’s big questions. How do noses work? What’s creates the pictures inside my computer screen? Why don’t we have feathers like birds do?

College is a perfect place to promote critical thinking, but if we are really going to make an impact on the issue we need to start much earlier than the age of 18.

picture of man's head made of puzzle pieces and he is holding a puzzle piece