I’m finally done with grading. Well almost done. I’m still dealing with grade appeals. So what’s on my mind is some suggestions about grading, and I may write several posts on this theme. It is important to give students feedback along the way about what your records show for them, especially if the grade depends heavily on lots of small things like daily attendance or homework. Even for test scores and such it is good to let the students see what your records show. The fact is, we sometimes make mistakes in recording grades. A system that assumes you never make a mistake is a bad system. If a student is going to challenge the accuracy of your records, you’d like that to happen in a timely fashion, not after grades have been submitted. And you shouldn’t be happy about students getting the wrong grade just because they didn’t challenge you. One way to give students feedback is your school’s on-line grading system. I don’t use ours because the interface is slow, clunky, inflexible and cannot handle the way I grade. Instead, I find it easy to use Word and Excel for this.
If you are part of the Microsoft/Windows world, you can easily generate grade reports for your students using Excel (or Access), Word, and Outlook. This is easy to learn to do and produces very high student satisfaction. Here are the basics. The trick is to initiate the merge in Word and from a Word document link to the data source. Let’s assume you have your grade data in a spreadsheet. The column headings are identifiers like names and the grade components like tests, attendance, homework. The rows are the students. In Word, go to the “mailings” menu and the “select recipients” menu to link to the spreadsheet page with the data. The column headings will show up as merge fields in the merge field menu. You write your feedback form any way you wish, inserting merge fields as appropriate. You can lay it out as a table, or just free form text. Just don’t forget the field for the student’s name. Adding a student email field is very useful, too. In large classes, I have found it helpful also to have a field for section number and TA name. Dating the output is a good idea, too. Then push the button to merge to a new document and, presto, you have feedback sheets, one per student. This lets you show students what you have for them in the computer and gives them a chance to correct clerical errors in a timely fashion. You can use the preview buttons to see what the pages will look like before you merge, and it is a good idea to merge to a file instead of a printer so you can double-check the results before sacrificing trees. Also you’ll want to keep an electronic copy of what you sent to the students.
Once you see how to do it, you’ll realize how easy it is to create a tailored report that fits your own teaching style. You can include explanatory text telling people how to interpret their grades or whatever. You’ll also want to include instructions for what to do if there’s an error, and a deadline for correcting errors. It will be easier for you if the procedure requires them to use the feedback form you gave them, either annotating a paper form or replying to an emailed form.
The next step can be a bit harder to get set up but saves paper and instructor hassle and once it works it will keep working. If you also have Outlook and get its options set correctly, you can mail merge to email directly from inside Word. If it works at all, it works very easily. At my office, the default configuration did not have this capability turned on in Outlook, but it was an easy tech support fix to get it turned on. You can test this feature now, while it is summer. Just set up a spreadsheet with name and email fields, and enter your own name and email and perhaps a couple of friends. I just used all three of my own email addresses. Then open Word and create a dummy document. Mine said: testing name <namefield> email <emailfield>. Then merge to email. If it worked, you’ll get the email, that easy. If you don’t get an email, it didn’t work. Tip: when it is for real, put yourself and your email address as the last line in your grade records so you can tell whether the email merge worked when you send to students. For some reason I do not understand, email merge only works for me if I choose the html option in mailing, and not in the text-only option.
Of course, you have to make sure that the student’s email address is one of the fields in your spreadsheet/database. At UW the downloadable spreadsheet with emails is different from the one with section numbers, but merging them is a small price to pay.
A couple of tech notes: (1) This works the same way if you happen to have your grades in Access instead of a spreadsheet. You might be tempted to use the Access report function. Trust me, it is MUCH easier to initiate the report in Word. (2) If your grades are in a multi-page spreadsheet, you’ll need to create an export page that reads from the different data pages. As far as I can tell, Word cannot run a mail merge from more than one spreadsheet page (or Access table) at a time. Or do a separate report for each spreadsheet page. (3) Computed values will come through with 10 decimal places unless you overtly format them to fewer decimal places back in the spreadsheet.
Please feel free to use comments to explain how keep records and give feedback in other software packages, for example by using the report functions in a statistical package. I was very sadly and slowly dragged into using MS Word because I really prefer WordPerfect for most tasks, but MS Word’s mail merge function is one of its strengths. I could never get a WP mail merge to work without several trails, while a Word mail merge always works on the first try. My university supplies me with the MS products and Windows machines, so I have not used Open Office or Linux or Mac products, although I assume you can do the same thing more or less easily with them as with the Microsoft products. I use Thunderbird rather than Outlook for ordinary email, but Word won’t merge to Thunderbird, and the Thunderbird mail merge isn’t sophisticated enough to pick up data from other programs.