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If online teaching is going to take root, we will need to find better ways to grade students

Enrique Dans
Mar 29, 2020 · 3 min read

As lockdown continues, maintaining normality in as many areas of life as possible becomes a challenge, and it’s no different in academia.

Intention is one thing, but reality is another: when your environment changes drastically, many tasks are disrupted as we try to adapt, and you need to get creative to fulfill the tasks correctly. In addition to Zoom, which is being used by more and more universities, other applications, such as Google Classroom, a free service created by Google for academic environments, has been downloaded more than 50 million times, and has gone from not even being in the top 100 to reaching the top 5 in the download charts in places as diverse as Canada, the United States, Finland, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico and Poland.

But even assuming that both teachers and students are able to make a quick and efficient transition between the classroom and the screen, some tasks are not simple, and require, given their importance, a certain degree of rethinking. One is grading students: how should they be assessed during this exceptional time so as not to disadvantage, for example, those who are technically less-well equipped at home?

At my institution, IE University, the decision was made to ask teachers to only take into account classroom intervention, a criterion generally used by everyone with greater or lesser weight, until the moment when students began to have the option of following classes remotely. This solution, possibly logical when it was taken, is no longer meaningful as the confinement is maintained and we find ourselves with completely developed distance courses, which can present problems such as those derived from the fact that students, who in many cases have returned to their countries of origin, are often in time zones that make it difficult to attend classes for GMT+1. On the other hand, asking teachers who are accustomed to relying heavily on the intervention of students for the development of their classes to suddenly stop taking that into account is not so simple: for example, why should a student who in an online environment makes an effort to participate and manages to ask good questions, improving the overall classroom experience, isn’t rewarded accordingly?

These kinds of decisions are having to be taken in other settings as well: Advanced Placement (AP), the program created by the College Board in the United States and Canada that offers college-level curricula and exams to high school students, has decided to simplify its exams to include only questions about the material covered until early March, and some students, such as those in the Principles of Computer Science course, will not even take an exam in 2020, but will still be able to earn college credit. An understandable decision, but one that may pose problems of fairness compared to students in other classes.

At Harvard, all undergraduate students will be graded “Emergency Satisfactory” or “Emergency Unsatisfactory” in the Spring quarter courses, with the possibility that their teachers will supplement this unusual and circumstantial terminology with a qualitative assessment of their learning. Again, a temporary solution, which may have to be reconsidered if lockdown is extended.

The changes in assessment systems resulting from an exceptional situation such as the present should prompt a radical rethink of how we grade students, possibly based on projects or other methodologies that do not involve traditional exams. Is the exam really the best way to assess a student’s knowledge or the extent to which he or she has taken advantage of the educational process?

Again, as with other aspects of this crisis, the smart thing will be to use the uniqueness of the situation to redesign many of the elements of the teaching process and, above all, as to which variables we evaluate the results of that process. We will see which institutions opt for simple continuity, and which are capable of rising to the occasion.

(En español, aquí)

On the effects of technology innovation on people…

Enrique Dans

Written by

Enrique Dans
Enrique Dans

Written by

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School, blogger at and Senior Contributor at Forbes

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at since 2003)

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