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Getting Students to Focus on Learning Not Grades

Spring 2022
Facilitated by Tobias Baumgart and Masao Sako


Tobias Baumgart

  • Students find classwork stressful because they feel vulnerable – the challenge of chemistry and other classes often seem (at least to them) to determine their futures.  Can also apply to lab courses.  The courses have high difficulty ratings
  • Made some small and some large changes to class – no rigorous data on the extent to which stress was reduced but interactions with students were more positive.  Removing the curve created an atmosphere of collaboration (and removed toxic sense of competition.)
    • Send messages to promote belonging
    • Play music before class
    • Allow students to drop exams
    • Student driven exam reviews
    • But also in assignments
    • Rely on absolute grading and transparency about grades
    • Students can resubmit work
    • Use Ed Discussion and Poll Everywhere for student feedback about class and to see what they are learning
    • Discuss results of polls with students – what can change and what can’t
  • Results
    • Students already know their grades before they submit their course evaluations but that has not hurt the percent that complete the evaluations
    • Have to create exams more carefully because you can’t “curve away” questions that don’t work) get feedback from other faculty and TAs
  • (For more information about why avoid curving grades, see the attached slides.)

Masao Sako

  • Teaches Intro Physics classes – equally challenging and often stressful for students.  Learns from students what stresses them out  in other subjects and then try to do the opposite:
  • Make sure lecture, homework and exams all align and show those links to students.  In some classes students are stressed because they have trouble seeing the links between the lecture, the homework and classwork and the exams.  Some classes give assessments immediately after the students learn the material but students may not have had time to fully assimilate material.
  • Wait at least a week after teaching material to give students assessments on that material.  In some classes students get exams or quizzes immediately after they learn and for some they haven’t had time to really “get” the information.
  • Be flexible about due dates but not “get it to me whenever” is students can’t make dates they need to suggest when they can.
  • Have TAs and other instructors take the exam to make sure there are no stress-adding errors or questions that are hard to understand.
  • Be transparent about grading and only curve up and only do that if the exam is too hard.
  • Have students turn in their weekly homework for a grade, to replace a weekly quiz.  Then to manage the grading load have TAs  grade only one question on it (chosen at random)
  • Give students longer time for the exam (gave the same exam that they used to give for 50 minutes instead for 90 min). Considering how to have a longer exam block.



  • In some classes adding a 3 hour exam meant 9 hours for the SDS proctor.
  • Allowed a graduate student who was planning to be in the office anyway to do it.
  • Notes about time
    • Giving students more time shifts the median grade but there is still a D and F tail.


  • If you have a big project, have students turn in weekly assignments which you can grade complete/not complete. And would allow you to keep track of what the students are doing.
  • Assignment can stay the same but doing a little bit at a time reduces the end of semester stress (and helps students learn how to manage projects.)
  • Be thoughtful about students feeling over-managed (so they don’t feel there is too much work and they have some flexibility.)
  • Create an assignment in two parts - one that students have to do in class and then give them feedback before the second part where they need to respond to feedback.


  • Use a rubric so students know what they need to do.
  • Give students a point just for starting the problem – can help students who feel so much stress they freeze or blackout during an exam.  If they just can start they will get something (but make it so they can’t pass if they only start problems) and that will sometimes get them going.
  • You have to plan a lot to be transparent.
    • What do you tell students?
    • Tell them everything – explain the format and form of the exam, what to expect and how you intend to grade
    • Even explain “why am I having a class at all?” what is the purpose of what you do in class and the assessments you do
    • Provide citations for the way you run class and return to them and remind students of why you do things the way you do (to make sure they learn)
  • Take care with what you do in office hours
    • If students in office hours have a particularly good idea share with the class 
    • Don’t design exam questions based on work done in office hours
    • Have students ask questions but then share them publicly on Ed Discussion (or some other place where everyone can see)

Stress and Modeling

  • We see ourselves setting students an educational feast, a wonderful experience of amazing stuff.  For students sometimes what we see as delight they see as a chore (doing the reading for example).  Think about how to create a reasonable workload and how to coach them through it.
  • Problem of culture: as instructors we don’t set good boundaries on our working and private time so students don’t see how to do it themselves (or think that working all the time is the only way to succeed.)
  • Help students reflect on the process of learning and the pace of the class

Setting expectations

  • Students should know that getting a B is perfectly OK.
  • Make yourself “smaller” as the instructor
    • Talk about your own mistakes
    • Be vulnerable to students
    • Discuss how you learn things
    • Indicate the struggles that you have gone through
  • Explain that your grades are not you – students often fear that you will judge them as unworthy people if they do not make As.  Explain “you are not your grade” and that they are there to learn not be already perfect.

Interactions with other students

  • Grading transparently allows students to feel OK being supportive of each other
  • Encourage work in class so that students see their peers as support (rather than competition)
  • Find ways to allow students to use different strengths
  • Use group work to help students meet each other and see each other as helpful


  • Be as transparent as possible about what you are doing and how students will be graded. Saying everyone can make an A in this class, meaning it and providing clear steps for how gives students a sense they can succeed.
  • Talk with students about what causes stress and find ways to mitigate it if possible.
  • Give students a chance to go back and think of class as a process that will allow them to learn (even if they need to try again.)
  • Give students some sense of control and a sense that they are connected to each other.