With each passing day, the end of the academic term looms closer. And that means final grades will soon be due. That means that it is time for…the math talk.

I’ve found that many students do not understand how their final grade will be calculated, no matter how I designed the grading scale. I tried it out of 100 points, or a percentage scale; one time I even tried having total 10,000 points. But I still would have many students who could not calculate their current standing in class nor what their likely final grade would be.

So if your students are like mine, it’s time to discuss final grades. Take some class time to show how the final grades will be calculated and how to calculate students’ current standing in the class. One tip though: don’t just choose as an example an “A” student’s point total. Show the math for a “C” student and what he or she might need to keep a final grade of “C” or to raise the grade to a “B.” Sometimes if you only use a strong student’s grade as your example, the students you most want to understand the math and do the calculations, might “tune out.”

I would write up a Word or PowerPoint version of this “grade calculation talk” and I’d send it to every student through the learning management system’s email. I also posted it as an LMS announcement and on our class’ Facebook page. I wanted to blanket all likely communication channels with this information.

I also offered to help any student who was struggling to understand the math involved in their current or possible final grade or who wanted me to “check” out their math. I held longer office hours for three weeks and made sure that I had food and drink for all students who visited. I also made sure that the graduate assistants and undergraduate peer tutor (while not having access to the online grades) knew how to calculate these statistics if students brought in their calculation attempts.

I tried to do this when there was still time for most students to make an impact on their final grade. For how I constructed the course timeline, that usually meant the week or two before the second test and the two weeks after it. That left about one third of the points still to come—plenty of time to change significantly most students’ grades.

But I want to share for a moment, my concerns about how many students could not calculate the basic mathematics needed to find where they stood in the class. Calculating percentages frustrated, even confounded students. There’s no point discussing why this kind of mathematics was beyond their skill level, or at least their comfort level—what matters is that many of my students struggled with this skill. What I came to understand is for many of my students, their grade in class was almost a magical pronouncement from on high (i.e., me!), and they didn’t really see how the number came into being. If I wanted them to more actively engage with earning a solid grade, I had to create opportunities for students to engage with this math, but in low-stakes, non-threatening ways.

After the second week of class (with about ten percent of the total points completed), I would sometimes hand out to groups of students a list of grades and ask each group to calculate where that student would stand in class right then. We went over the steps several times so that students had a sense of what points should be the numerator and which should be the denominator. I’d repeat this exercise a few times during the semester, until more students reported that they “got it.”

Unfortunately, in a class of over 300 students, too many students still did not understand well how to calculate their own grade. I tried to use the online “grade tracker” in our campus’ learning management system, but it confused students even more, because it would report percentages on each major type of assessment (tests, online quizzes, etc.) but would score any which had not been taken with a zero which counted, so their scores were artificially low. Many felt that there was “no way I can improve my grade” when they would look at it in the LMS.

I ended up creating an Excel spreadsheet that listed every assessment (e.g., tests, written assignments, every online quiz, every day’s “clicker” points, etc.). It listed the total points possible per assessment and then had a column where they could enter what they earned. It would calculate their current average for them. I also had a second tab where they could go and “play” with how improving on future assignments could change the grade, etc.

This did require the student to make the effort to enter her or his grades. I suggested doing it once a week (we’d usually have 4-6 grades per week), so that they had an accurate understanding of where they stood at the start of each week. Unfortunately, less than 50% of the class ever opened the file, and at the end of the term, unsurprisingly, use of the file correlated positively with the student’s final grade in the course.

I would still use the spreadsheet several times in class, in part because I wanted to keep reminding students that it existed in the LMS; I’d fill it with fictive grades and we’d calculate where a student was now and how the grade could change if scores improved or if the student could be more consistent about taking online quizzes, etc.

Given that my class was a part of a three-class learning community, faculty were required to use the early alert system, which would trigger an alert to housing staff (if the student lived on campus), the professional advisor for the student, the other faculty members in the learning community, and our campus’ academic success center (the tutoring center). While we had to use it, there was no requirement about how many times we had to use it. I found that updating it every Friday afternoon worked best for me; team members knew that was my pattern and we’d often talk on Monday morning about students. They became partners in helping to reach out to students who were in a difficult place—helping them to work through the math of the student’s situation but also to talk through what were good options, such as finding a study group, going to the student success center/tutoring center, coming to see me or the graduate assistants during office hours, or even deciding that the best solution might be to withdraw from one class for that semester. They even provided a sounding board for students who wanted to complain about me (I encouraged that—as a sociologist, I recognize that learning is a complex dynamic). These partnerships with professional staff and other faculty, meant that we could reach students early and often. The interventions were by and large successful—first year students in learning communities were retained at a higher rate than those not in learning communities.

Having the math talk is a necessary first step to help students understand how they are doing in class. But if your students are like mine, don’t think that having “the talk” once will be enough. You’ll need to offer opportunities for them to practice the mathematical skills involved *and* to think about their academic options based on what their mathematical standing is. Having these talks isn’t always easy—particularly if it shows that, for a particular student, there is no way to earn a passing grade. But good pedagogy requires students to have all the resources they need to succeed—and understanding their standing in the course is one of those resources. So readers, what do you do to help your students to understand their standing in the course?

And readers, how is AcWriMo going? Are you writing? Remember, you are not alone!

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