Our design process is grounded in qualitative research with real people. This is a form of applied ethnography, borrowed from anthropology. We study behavior, and derive insights from that research. These insights help inform our design philosophy, and also directly impact the capabilities and design of our products and services. We’ve recently concluded a large research effort in higher education in the United States focused on grading. We spent time with PhD students, teaching assistants, adjunct professors, and tenured faculty to learn about their perceptions and emotional reactions to grading. We learn about their grading workflows and processes, but our real goal is to build empathy with them: to feel what it’s like to grade in the context of academia.

I spoke with Cheyenne Weaver, Melissa Chapman, and Patrick Marsh who led this research effort, and they described that empathy is key to building the mental and emotional framework for good design, and design research is a set of methods that help build this intuition. “Having first-hand visibility into how Instructors engage in assessment and grading will allow us to empathize with the problem space and make design decisions rooted in this context. Overall, we found that Instructors would prefer to assess student achievement based on individual growth but struggle with the context and authority to do so.”

We’ll use this research to inform new product development at Blackboard, and to help refine and improve the usability and utility of our current products. We’re also presenting the results of this research here, in the hopes that it will help others in improving the quality of products aimed at higher education. You can download a brief report of our research here; our key findings are summarized below.


Teachers restructure classes knowing students only value course work when it’s graded. Instructors want students to be genuinely curious, and don’t like that grades are used to incentivize behavior. They are conflicted. They realized the realities of grading and the role it plays in accreditation, assessment, and equitable behavior. Yet they don’t feel grades should be the focus of education.

Teachers feel pressure to inflate grades as a short-sighted way to keep students engaged. Instructors struggle to find a balance. They are tasked with both pushing students to grow, and working within an environment that champions grades above all else. They are afraid of paralyzing student momentum with a feeling of grade-based anxiety. They are aware that lower grades are more difficult to justify. And as a result, they do things like add points, round up, or abandon the real grade entirely.

Teachers are forced to suppress their intuitive judgement in pursuit of fairness and consistency. In large classrooms, instructors have no opportunity to know or even meet students. Additionally, in these large classes, qualitative feedback is extraordinarily time consuming and tedious. Simplistic grading feedback – a simple letter grade, or a box on a rubric – become the norm.

Formulaic assessment mitigates risk, yet hinders instinct and creativity. Students who underperform often dispute their grades. Grade disputed are emotionally uncomfortable and time consuming. Traceable, objective grading approaches maximize consistency across large classrooms and therefore make it easy for teachers to defend grades to both students and administration. To ensure the perception of fairness, instructors provide extraordinarily written, detailed success criteria. Students conform to this rubric, and so it becomes a checklist, not a guideline.


Download a short form of our research here.

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