Earning an A in an Online Class

About halfway through the semester I realized something: two of my students had achieved enough points to earn an A. How is that possible, and what should I do about it? For the record, the majority of the students have earned enough points for a C at the midpoint. If you’re doing about an average amount of work each week, that seems about right.

First, keep in mind that students have opportunities to earn LOTS of points during a single week. There are many options, and it’s up to them how deep they want to go during a give week. If a student has a week where life gets in the way, no worries. They can do more in subsequent weeks to make up the points. Having a structure like this obviously alleviates students having to worry if they have a bad week, and I don’t have to content with deciding who should be allowed to do make-up work or turn things in late. However, it also allows students to do deep dives into areas that they are interested in learning more about.

Because this class is based on principles of gamification, students start with zero points and work their way up the scale.┬áThe problem, if you want to call it that, comes when a student does every possible thing week after week after week racking up tons of points very quickly. In the world of gaming, this isn’t considered a problem at all. If anything, you’re considered a leader. Most students don’t do this, but this semester I had two students that did. My interactions with them led me to believe that they were not trying to grab all the points and check out. I don’t even think they were aware they had achieved the level of an A until I told them. And while it could be that they always intended to do more work at the start and then taper off (fine), the quality of the work they produced was consistently high. I assume they were interested in the work they were doing.

Related: Why Bonus Passes Work

When I noticed I had students who had hit an A I emailed them. I let them know they had an A and that this put them in a very unique position. I told them that since they had an A they no longer had to be concerned about their grade. How they wanted to experience the class could now be different for them if they wanted it to be. On the one hand, they could continue on engaging in the class the way they always had. Maybe they would do the same amount of work, and maybe they would do slightly less. I would continue to give them feedback on their work. However, they could also use this as an opportunity to really step back and think about exactly what they wanted class to look like for them for the rest of the semester. This prompted one student to say they would like to focus on looking more carefully at the work of others and giving them feedback.

Would I change anything? No, I don’t think so. Given that the class is based on principles of gamification, I think, means that earning whatever grade you want BEFORE the end of the semester is possible. There are ways to prevent this from happening, and I have instituted them in undergraduate classes. For example, in the past I have told students that they need X amount of points to receive an A. Within that, I specify that so many points must come from different assignments. Therefore, it’s not possible to do one or two assignments and skip the rest. It’s also not possible, in that format, to get an A before the semester is over.

Normally I experiment with how I grade classes and allow them to earn points. I take into consideration the context of the class and who is taking it. Because this was my first fully online class, I left the points thing pretty wide open. I’m not requiring that students earn so many points across different assignments or categories. They can construct their grade however they wish. Next semester I will likely do things a bit different and play around with the format a bit. Each design has its own benefits and drawbacks. Ultimately, I want a design that gives my students some level of freedom and choice to experience the course in ways that work for them.

Read: Dual Pathways in Online Learning