How to make and use grade trackers
Helping students track their progress and understand your system
It’s important to help students understand how your alternative grading system works, and to help them see where they are succeeding and what they need to work on. One effective way to do that is to give students a grade tracker. A grade tracker is just a piece of paper – or its electronic equivalent – that helps students record their progress on assignments and see how that contributes to their overall course grade.
Grade trackers aren’t unique to alternative grading, but they are especially useful here for several reasons:
Grade trackers help students get their hands on the grade system and learn how it works, which promotes better understanding and “buy-in”.
Grade trackers can provide students with a roadmap of what they need to do to achieve a desired final grade. This helps them understand where they stand in a class, which addresses a common student complaint about alternative grading.
Most LMS gradebooks don’t work well with alternative grading. Grade trackers provide an alternative to that familiar means of showing students their progress.
One important note before we get going: Grade trackers are a way for students to track their grades. They don’t replace gradebooks, or other ways for instructors to track and report student grades. Grade trackers and gradebooks both serve useful purposes, but instructors should always keep their own copy of student grade data.1
In this post, I’ll give some examples of grade trackers I’ve used, describe important features they have, and give advice to help as you build your own grade tracker.
What do grade trackers look like?
At their core, grade trackers have two key parts: a streamlined summary of the key grade criteria in your course; and a way for students to record their progress on those criteria. This is different from just reporting grade data to students; grade trackers require active student participation.
Imagine a very simple alternative system, in which the final grade is based only on the number of standards a student has completed. For example, students might earn a D/C/B/A by completing 10/15/20/25 standards.
A grade tracker for this system could be as simple as a list of standards, with a checkbox next to each one that the student checks as soon as they complete it. Below that, you could include a reminder that “10 checked boxes = you’ve earned a D!”, and so on.2
Most alternative systems are more complex than this. To see what I mean, let’s compare two different ways to represent final grade criteria in a real class. Here’s how I communicated final grade requirements in the syllabus of a Calculus 2 class I taught a few years ago:3
This class included two levels of standards (which I called “learning targets”), and daily prep assignments (called “guided practice”). Students needed to complete all requirements in a column in order to earn a grade.
The grade tracker for these requirements converts the numbers above into checkboxes, keeping the same basic structure as the grade table. Having a consistent structure helps the grade tracker make more sense to students. Here’s what the grade tracker looks like:
For example, take a look at the top row (Core learning targets). The grade table above indicates that students need to complete 12 or more for a D. So, there are 12 checkboxes in the “D” column for Core learning targets. Students need to complete 14 or more for a C, so there are 2 more boxes – making a total of 14 boxes – in the C column, and so on.
To use this table, students begin checking off boxes on the left as they complete each learning target or guided practice assignment. As soon as they’ve checked off all boxes in a column, they know that they’ve earned that grade. This format helps emphasize how the grade requirements build on each other. Ideally, a student could understand all of the main grade requirements from the grade tracker alone.
I printed out this grade tracker on a sheet of paper and gave one to each student on the first day of class. I asked them to bring it to every class, and I periodically reminded them to keep it updated, especially when I handed back graded assignments.
Making a more complicated grade tracker
You might wonder how to use a grade tracker with specifications, or other types of requirements. In this section, I’ll step you through my thought process as I design a grade tracker for a class with a more complex alternative grading system.
My Communicating in Mathematics class (which I wrote about briefly at the start of last semester) includes a variety of assignments that use both standards and specifications. Here’s a summary of the grade requirements, including my thoughts about how these can be represented in a grade tracker:
Students complete each learning target (standard) by earning “Meets expectations” on a target on two separate quizzes. So, I need to give students a way to keep track of how many times they’ve earned “Meets expectations” on each target, as well as how many targets they’ve fully completed.
Students complete a portfolio of written work, and each portfolio problem is graded holistically using specifications. Grades depend on successfully completing a draft and a writing revision that meet specifications, and to earn higher grades, some problems must also meet an additional list of “excellent” specifications. So I need to give students a way to track their status – draft complete, writing revision complete, or excellent – for each of the 9 portfolio problems.
Here’s the syllabus summary of these grade requirements:
To create a grade tracker for this situation, I realized that I needed two separate things: First, a page where students could track their intermediate progress on each learning target and portfolio problem. Second, a place where students could combine that data into an indicator of their final grade.
To do this, I created a two-page grade tracker, and copied it on a double-sided piece of paper. Here’s how I handled the “intermediate progress” on learning targets and specifications. First, I included a list of every learning target, with two checkboxes next to each one – because that’s the number of “Meets expectations” students needed to earn on each target:
I included this instruction: “Once you’ve checked off ALL boxes in a row, that target is complete. Flip the page and check a box!”
Below that, I made a grid of boxes where students could check off their progress on each of the 9 portfolio problems:
Likewise, I included an instruction: “Check a box whenever you reach that status on a portfolio. Then check a box on the other side too!”
On the other side of the grade tracker page, I converted the final grade requirements into checkboxes. Here’s what that looked like:
I like how this gave students the satisfaction of checking off a letter grade when they fully completed it. Again, the grade tracker is constructed to mirror not just the grade requirements in the syllabus, but their visual organization too.4
If you’d like to see the full grade tracker, here’s the original doc that I printed off for students: MTH 210 Grade Tracker.
Advice for building your own grade tracker
Ultimately, each grade tracker will be unique to the individual who creates it – just like your grading system will likely be unique to you. Here are a few hints that can help make things work smoothly:
Keep it simple! This applies both to the grade tracker, and to your grading system as a whole. A grade tracker should be easy for students to understand and use, removing cognitive load rather than adding to it. Ideally, a student could understand the basic things they need to do from the grade tracker alone. If you find that it’s hard to create a clear and well-organized grade tracker, consider whether the grade system itself needs some simplification.
Keep it static. I’ve found that a good old fashioned piece of paper is the best way to present a grade tracker. Students usually find it easier to track a single piece of paper than yet another link to an online document. Something about the physical nature of the paper helps students make a bit more sense of it. Some students prefer a PDF version of the document that they can store on a tablet; this seems to work just as well. I know a number of alternative graders who’ve created fancy online grade trackers that auto-update or create animated graphs, some using Google Sheets, others custom coded. I’ve experimented with these myself. In the end, I’ve found that asking students to do the record-keeping themselves helps more than doing the work for them.5
Use checkboxes. Checking boxes is a simple and familiar way to communicate grade requirements. They’re also flexible: You can use them for meeting individual standards, satisfactorily meeting all specifications, completing projects, completing individual ungraded assignments, and any other kind of requirements. Plus, it can be very satisfying to check off a requirement.
Emphasize how grades “build up”. In most alternative systems, grades build on each other: To earn a C, students must do everything for a D, plus some more, and so on. Use the grade tracker to emphasize this – in the examples above, having only a few extra checkboxes for the additional requirements at each level emphasizes how students must complete the earlier levels first. Checkboxes provide a nice way to show this. Organizing checkboxes into lines so that they look a bit like a progress bar is even better.
Grade trackers can also help during office hour meetings with students. If you have periodic “check-in” meetings, or if a student wants to talk with you about their progress, start by asking to see their grade tracker. A quick glance can help you see what the student needs to focus on and models useful behavior for the student. If they haven’t kept it up to date, then you can work with them to figure out what needs to be entered, reviewing their progress along the way and ending with a fully updated tracker.
Ideas for gradeless classes
If you’ve removed grades from assignments in your class (like I did in my Euclidean Geometry class last year), you might think that this post is mostly useless for you. I’ve come to the conclusion that “progress trackers” are still quite important in gradeless classes. This is right on the cutting edge of my own thinking, so here is a rough draft of my ideas.
The main goal of a grade tracker is to help students track their progress towards a desired final grade. That’s still relevant in gradeless classes, since students still need to make their case that they’ve met certain criteria in order to earn a certain grade. Progress towards meeting those criteria is still important to keep track of – but that data will probably be more free-form compared to what we’ve seen in this post.
For example, in my Euclidean Geometry class, students need to construct a final portfolio that shows their progress in certain areas of geometry. I’m planning to make a “progress tracker” that helps them organize their notes about their progress in each of these areas. For example, one of the areas they need to work on are “Triangle Congruences”. My progress tracker for this item might look like this:
Triangle Congruences: Show your understanding of what “congruent” means for triangles, how to apply congruence results, and how to prove congruence theorems.
Possible artifact: (Theorem or problem #):
Why it’s useful (be specific):
Needs to be revised?
There will likely be space to record more than one artifact, or to let students change their mind.
Another of my criteria is “sharing your ideas with the class”, which can be done via presentations, class journals, or other methods. The tracker for this part will again have some free-form places to record ways students have shared their ideas:
Sharing your ideas with the class: Presentations, class journals, and other methods are all possible. Record notes here each time you share ideas.
Things to improve:
Class Journal #1
Notes for next journal:
Other way of sharing (describe in detail):
Keeping track of this kind of data will also be helpful for in-person check-in meetings and progress reflections, which my students complete several times per semester.
I think that having a grade tracker like this will help students reflect on what they’ve done in class, and how it fits into the big picture of the class (and their final grade). In particular, this should help students be better prepared to advocate for themselves when they need to propose a final grade.
More examples and final thoughts
Here are some more examples of grade trackers:
You can see find a grade tracker for a specifications-based system in our case study of Kay C Dee’s specifications-graded “Regulatory Affairs - Medical Devices” class.
Grade trackers are important: They help students understand where they stand in your class, and help build trust in your approach to grading. They’re especially important if you can’t (or don’t want to) use your LMS’s gradebook to show students’ progress. So as you plan your next alternatively graded class, take some time to think about how students can track their own grade progress.
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We include an example of this kind of grade tracker in our upcoming book, in a case study of Hilary Freeman’s Calculus class.
This grade table format is helpful even if you’re not planning to use a grade tracker.
This grade tracker is vertical, while the earlier one was horizontal. Either orientation is fine, and as you can see, I’ve used both. I like the idea of students “building up” to higher grades in the vertical format, and they didn’t seem to have any trouble making sense of it. Think carefully about what organization makes sense for you in your situation.
Pro-tip: If you do create a Google Sheet or Doc as an electronic grade tracker, here’s a quick way to share it with students: Set the doc’s sharing options to “view only” and copy its link. Then replace “/edit” and the end of the address with “/copy”. When anybody goes to that link, they’ll be prompted to create their own personal (editable) copy of the doc. Keep in mind that it won’t be shared with you. To see this in action, try the following link, which will prompt you to make a copy of the MTH 210 Grade Tracker I linked above.