Grading in Online Courses at Columbia: Tips and Strategies
This resource is structured by common grading needs and provides “how to” details using CourseWorks (Canvas) and Gradescope.
Identify your grading need(s) from the options below and open the toggle(s) for detailed guides.
We Can Help
The Center for Teaching and Learning can assist you as you explore your options with CourseWorks (Canvas) and Gradescope to meet your grading and feedback needs. Schedule a consultation with a CTL staff member by contacting us at ColumbiaCTL@columbia.edu. Morningside faculty can access CTL teaching support via Zoom from 9:00am-5:00pm, Monday-Friday. Medical Center faculty can meet with a learning designer for teaching support via Zoom from 10:00am to 2:00pm Monday-Friday.
I need to grade large numbers of quizzes or exams efficiently
Automatic Grading using the Quizzes Tool in CourseWorks (Canvas)
Using automatically graded questions in the Quizzes tool can significantly speed up your grading process. The Quizzes tool offers many question types to choose from. The following closed-ended questions support automatic grading. Click through to instructions from Canvas on creating each question type, setting up correct answers for automatic grading, and setting up automatic feedback options.
Open-ended question types must be graded manually. Open-ended question types are:
Note: some of these question types, such as Fill-in-the-Blank and Fill-in-Multiple-Blanks, may fall into either category since it might be difficult to predict all possible correct answers. Since students may come up with responses you may not have anticipated but are still correct, these two question types may need to be graded manually.
SpeedGrader for manual and automatic grading
You can mix open and closed question types in a single quiz or exam. When quizzes contain a mix of automatically and manually graded questions, SpeedGrader facilitates this process by listing at the top all the questions that require manual grading. For more detailed instructions see How do I grade quiz questions in SpeedGrader? You may also use SpeedGrader to revise automatically graded questions or to adjust the final grade of the quiz. For more information, see How do I adjust the point value for an entire quiz using fudge points in SpeedGrader?
Automatic feedback options in the Quizzes Tool
In addition to facilitating the grading process, automatic feedback can help facilitate student learning experiences. A meaningful and purposeful quiz paired with constructive feedback can help learners understand and address their achievement gaps and organize future learning. There are multiple ways you could provide feedback on quizzes depending on your learning objectives. If the quiz is intended for students to practice and master concepts, you could allow and review multiple attempts of the same quiz. In addition a quiz could contain groups of questions drawn randomly from a question bank with the purpose of testing the same concept in different ways. The feedback given to students for each of the different ways in which the concept is tested could provide an additional opportunity to build a more complete and robust understanding of the concept being practiced.
Each of the question types in CourseWorks (Canvas) provides you with the option to enter general, correct, and incorrect question feedback. Alternatively, you may wish to provide specific feedback for each of the possible correct and incorrect answer options. For information on adding feedback to multiple choice questions see the Canvas Guide on Creating a Multiple Choice Question. You may also select the timing to release this feedback. You can schedule the release of feedback after each attempt, a good option for practice quizzes with all questions automatically graded, or on a specific date and time, good option for quizzes with all or some manually graded questions. To read more about selecting feedback timing, see What options can I set in a quiz? in the Canvas Guides. Whichever option you choose to allow students to view your feedback, it is always a good point of self-reflection for students and helps them move forward in ways that help them succeed.
I need to standardize grading and feedback among multiple graders
It can be challenging to apply consistent criteria when grading a large number of assignments, especially when there are multiple graders involved. Rubrics, which explicitly state the criteria that student work needs to meet, are effective tools for maintaining the standard of grading regardless of class size. In addition, graders can indicate on the rubric the specific criterion that students did or did not meet, thereby streamlining and standardizing the feedback process as well. When developing and using a rubric, it is important for all graders to first clarify among themselves how it will be applied, such as grading a couple of submissions together and coming to consensus.
Rubrics in CourseWorks (Canvas)
CourseWorks (Canvas) allows instructors to create and add rubrics to assignments, quizzes, and graded discussions. Students will be able to view these rubrics to better understand the expectations of the assignment. Instructors can then use these rubrics to grade student submissions as well as provide feedback to students using SpeedGrader. The following Canvas Guides provide information on using rubrics in CourseWorks (Canvas):
Rubrics in Gradescope
Gradescope allows you and your grading team to develop and update the grading rubric while grading. Any changes any grader makes to the rubric are automatically applied across all student submissions, even retroactively. Multiple graders can grade the same question across submissions by using the Next Ungraded Answer button to move on to the next student’s ungraded response. Unlike in CourseWorks (Canvas), students will only be able to see the rubric after grading is complete, as the grading rubric is developed during the grading process. You can modify the assignment settings to allow students to see all, applicable parts only, or none of the rubric as part of their feedback.
The following video resources from Gradescope provide guidance on using rubrics:
- For a brief overview of grading in Gradescope, refer to Grading a Simple Question.
- To make individual grade adjustments (e.g., additional points on top of the points added by the rubric) or add additional individualized comments, refer to Advanced Grading Options.
- To annotate directly on student-submitted PDFs using Gradescope’s pen, box, and text tools, refer to Annotation and Advanced Navigation.
Gradescope also allows you to speed up grading (i.e., the application of your rubric) through the use of Answer Groups, with or without Gradescope’s AI Assistance. If you created a templated (fixed-length) PDF assignment (i.e., one that requires students to print, fill in, scan, and upload; or, download, annotate, and upload), you may be able to use Gradescope’s AI to group similar responses into Answer Groups. This allows you to grade a representative sample from each Answer Group, and that grade will then be applied to all submissions within that Answer Group. Note that comments entered into the comment box will apply to all students in the group, but annotations will not. You can also manually create these groups. To learn more, please refer to AI-assisted grading (Video) and AI-Assisted Grading and Answer Groups.
For more information on setting up and using Gradescope in your course, please refer to Creating Assignments and Grading Online with Gradescope.
Moderated Assignments in CourseWorks (Canvas)
Moderated assignments in CourseWorks (Canvas) are another way to standardize grading between multiple graders. Moderated Assignments allow independent grading by multiple graders that a moderator can then review. For more information on setting up a moderated assignment, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I add a moderated assignment to be graded by multiple reviewers?
I need to grade handwritten submissions
There are various reasons handwritten submissions may be preferable to typed submissions. For example, many Science, Engineering, and Mathematics faculty would like students to show their work using formulas, which can be tedious or impossible to represent in type. Mind maps, drawings, and other types of written markings cannot be represented using a keyboard. Similarly, as an instructor it can be cumbersome to type feedback if they include equations or mathematical symbols.
CourseWorks and Gradescope can be used to create and grade online exams and accept student submissions of files. In this section we will explain how these tools can be used to grade handwritten work, and lay out the pros and cons of each tool.
Handwritten Submissions in CourseWorks (Canvas)
CourseWorks offers two tools, Quizzes and Assignments, that can be used for creating assessments that accept uploads of handwritten work. To determine whether to use the Assignment Tool or the Quizzes Tool, consider the benefits of using one tool over the other for file submissions of handwritten work:
The Assignment Tool:
- Can easily accommodate multiple file submissions
- Can use Speedgrader to directly annotate on the file submission.
- Can download the file submissions in bulk if you want to annotate student work in hard-copy and re-upload the submission.
The Quizzes Tool:
- Can set up a timer for the assessment (whether an exam, quiz, or homework) completion
- Can create online multiple choice, fill-in the blank, etc. questions as part of the assessment
Further explanations of each tool, their respective benefits, and tutorials on how to use them can be found on our Create Online Exams page. They are also discussed briefly below.
Using CourseWorks (Canvas) Tools
For submission of written work using the Quizzes tool, create a File Submission question type. Please note that for this type of question, only one file can be uploaded per question. Make sure students have all their work collated into one file or create multiple questions where separate files can be uploaded.
- Pros: The Quizzes tool allows you to set a timer for an exam.
- Cons: Speedgrader cannot be used to annotate uploaded student submissions. You must download each file response one by one, annotate the written work using annotation software that you have on your device, and upload your annotations one by one. Warning: The iOS Canvas Teacher app has a tool that makes it seem like you can annotate the work and save your feedback directly to student submission files; however, this tool does not actually save your annotations. This issue has been reported to Canvas.
For submission of written work using the assignments tool, create an Online Assignment, and select “file upload” as the submission type.
- Pros: The Assignment tool allows you to use speedgrader to view and provide annotations directly on student submission files without the need to download the submissions.
- Cons: The Assignment tool does not allow for a timer for assignment completion.
Depending on your preferred method for annotating, grading, and providing feedback to handwritten work, the limitation of not being able to use the Speedgrader to directly annotate files in a quiz may prove to be a major challenge in your grading efforts. In the next section you can learn Gradescope which provides a variety of features to work around this problem.
For more information on downloading students’ submissions in SpeedGrader, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I view the details of a submission for a student in SpeedGrader?. For more information on uploading files/attachments as Assignment Comments, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I leave feedback comments for student submissions in SpeedGrader?
Handwritten Submissions in Gradescope
Gradescope was, in part, created to make submitting and grading handwritten work easier. The basic workflow when using Gradescope is as follows:
- Instructor creates an assignment or exam in Gradescope
- Student creates handwritten work
- Student photographs or scans work
- Student uploads the image of the work to Gradescope
- Instructor views the work, gives feedback, and grades in Gradescope
In Gradescope, it is possible to set timers for assignments or exams, give feedback directly inside the tool, grade inside the tool, and export your grades to CourseWorks (Canvas). In brief, when grading, instructors will see a toolbar above a student submission that provides a type tool and a pencil tool for typed or freeform annotation on the submission. Grades are assigned through the use of the rubric that has been set up for the assignment. To read more about annotations on student submissions, go to Gradescope’s article on Grading Submissions: Annotating Student Work. To read more about grading via rubrics, go to Gradescope’s article on Grading Submissions: Rubric Basics.
Currently, online question types such as those found in the CourseWorks (Canvas) Quizzes Tool can be used to create a quiz on Gradescope through the Online Assignment Tool. Please note that only a beta version of the tool is currently available, which means the tool is not yet completely reliable and may have some bugs. For that reason, Gradescope is currently best suited to accepting file submissions from students. For more information on getting started with Gradescope, read the CTL Resource on Gradescope.
I need to give feedback by video, by audio, or by online text entry
Feedback can occur at different points and in different formats, ranging from in-person, formative feedback during office hours, to summative written feedback after a final project has been submitted. You can use feedback to help communicate points of excellence and needed improvement for the student, in an effort to support their learning growth.
Writing feedback may be challenging. It requires you to be thoughtful so that your comments help students improve their understanding. Effective feedback is clear and specific, timely, frequent and consistent. Some tips on providing feedback are as follows:
- Ask questions to help students improve or improvise.
- If applicable, provide concrete examples to supplement your feedback.
- Provide comments that are actionable to your students. They should be able to answer the question “What specifically should I do more or less of next time, based on your feedback”?
- Deliver your feedback in a supportive manner. When there is empathy, students are more likely to willingly receive the feedback you offer to help them succeed.
Providing this kind of feedback to students can take a lot of time and energy. The SpeedGrader tool can help you provide feedback in a more efficient manner. A key benefit of SpeedGrader is that it allows instructors to view, grade, and comment on student work without the need to download documents, which can greatly reduce the time needed to grade student work.
SpeedGrader offers a variety of tools for instructors to provide marginal comments and markup on student work. You can add text comments, highlight, strikethrough, and more. For more detailed instructions on using the different tools, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I add annotated comments in student submissions?
You also have options for providing summative feedback. In SpeedGrader, you can write an overall text comment, or leave feedback via audio, video, or an attachment. There is also a space for students to leave a message or to respond to your feedback, which can encourage them to more deeply engage with, and reflect on, your feedback. For more information please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I leave feedback comments for student submissions in SpeedGrader?
As discussed in the above section, “I need to grade handwritten submissions,” Speedgrader can also help facilitate handwritten feedback or annotations on assignments. In situations where you have to provide hand-written feedback to students’ submissions, SpeedGrader allows you to download individual submissions. Once you download the submission, you can print it, provide your hand-written feedback, scan this document and then upload your annotated document via an attachment option (under Assignment Comments section). For more information on downloading students’ submissions in SpeedGrader, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I view the details of a submission for a student in SpeedGrader?. For more information on uploading files/attachments as Assignment Comments, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I leave feedback comments for student submissions in SpeedGrader?
I need to modify my exam, quiz or assignment for student accommodations
What do you do if you have already created your online assessments but you need to make changes to accommodate students with documented disabilities, student illness, technology or bandwidth issues, students in different time zones, or other needs?
CourseWorks (Canvas) offers settings for adding extra time to Quizzes, adding extra attempts to Quizzes, allowing students to take a quiz earlier or later, assigning different assignment due dates or times for individual students, and allowing students to upload files in different formats/modes.
Design course assessments (exams, quizzes, graded discussions, or assignments) with accessibility in mind
Cut down on last minute changes to assessments by making them accessible from the start and setting up online assessments to allow for flexibility.
- Consider the different needs of students who encounter your online assessments using technology you may not anticipate, such as a screen reader, a mobile phone, or who do not have easy access to the most-up-to-date devices.
- If audio, media, or images are part of a course assessment (whether an Assignment, Quiz, or Discussion prompt), include captions, transcripts and alt-text respectively. See the CTL’s Accessibility in Teaching and Learning Resource for more information.
- Use the Accessibility Checker in CourseWorks (Canvas) to verify that the content of the assessment is accessible for all students, and refer to the General Accessibility Design Guidelines by Canvas. The Accessibility Checker is available for Assignment, Quiz, and Discussion descriptions, as well as individual Quiz questions.
Accommodations for students with disabilities
The Office of Disability Services (ODS) collaborates with faculty on accommodations for students with disabilities that are registered with ODS (See Faculty Guide for Disability Services for more details). The current procedure for accommodations is as follows:
- Students register with ODS.
- Students submit the accommodation letter request form to ODS (*only for certain courses: see Testing accommodations for detailed guidelines for students), and
- Upon confirming students’ eligibility for accommodations, ODS directly informs you via email. Note: This procedure only applies to the current online format during the COVID-19 outbreak. Usually, students receive the accommodation letter issued by ODS, present the letter to you to sign, and submit the signed letter to ODS.
For further questions and information, contact the Disability Services Liaisons for your school or academic program or contact the general office at firstname.lastname@example.org (email) or 212-854-2388 (phone).
Note: ODS does not offer support for students at affiliated schools. The following pages provide more information about support for students with disabilities at affiliated schools:
- Center for Accessibility Resources & Disability Services, Barnard College
- Students with Disabilities, Jewish Theological Seminary
- Office of Access and Services for Individuals with Disabilities, Teacher’s College
- Disability Services, Union Theological Seminary
Depending on the eligible accommodations, you may need to make changes to your online assessments. The following sections provided information on how to meet various needs using CourseWorks (Canvas) and Gradescope.
How to modify Assignments and Quizzes in CourseWorks (Canvas) for accommodations
Add extra time to Quizzes
You can add extra time for students using the “Moderate Quiz” function in CourseWorks. Note: the quiz must be “published” for you to do this.
- Select the quiz in question
- Click “Moderate Quiz”
- To grant extra time to one student, click the “edit” icon (pencil)
- To grant extra time for multiple students, use the check boxes to select each student, then click “Change Extensions for Selected Students”
For more information, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: Once I publish a timed quiz, how can I give my students extra time? Barnard’s Center for Accessibility Resources and Disability Services has a guide to this as well
Add extra attempts in Quizzes
There are two ways to allow students extra attempts though it depends on whether or not the student has already taken the Quiz.
- If a student has already taken the Quiz use “Show Student Quiz Results”:
- Select the quiz in question
- Click the ellipses/options icon
- Select “show student quiz results”
- Choose the student you want to give an extra attempt to
- Click “allow this student an extra attempt”
For more information, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: Once I publish a quiz, how can I give my students extra attempts?
2. If a student has not yet taken the Quiz use the “Moderate Quiz” function. Note the Quiz must be published:
- Select the quiz in question
- Click “moderate quiz”
- To grant extra attempts to one student, click the “edit” icon (pencil)
- To grant extra attempts for multiple students, use the check boxes to select each student, then click “Change Extensions for Selected Students”
For more information, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: Once I published a timed quiz, how can I give my students extra time?
Allow a student to take a Quiz earlier or later
There are two ways to allow students to take a Quiz outside of the scheduled availability:
- Set a new scheduled time: This option allows the instructor to set a specific alternative time for the Quiz to be available.
- Select the Quiz in question and click “edit”
- In the “assign to” field, select the student or students to schedule a different time
- Edit the “due” and “availability” fields as necessary
For more information, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: How do I assign a quiz to an individual student?
2. Unlock the Quiz at any time: This option allows the student to take the quiz at any time
- Select the Quiz in question
- Click “moderate quiz”
- Chose “manually unlock the quiz”
- This will override any existing availability dates for the selected student
For more information, please visit the following link from Canvas Instructure: Once I publish a quiz, how can I give my students extra attempts?
Create a different Quiz or Assignment for a student
You may need to create a different Quiz or Assignment for a student. For example a Quiz where the questions use video, or a make-up Assignment if a student missed class due to illness or personal circumstance.
- After you create the Quiz or Assignment, you can assign it to an individual student (or a group of students) rather than the whole class.
- Use the “assign to” field to do so. For more information, please visit the following links from Canvas Instructure:
Assign different due dates or times for individual students on the same course activity
CourseWorks has a differentiated assignments function that allows instructors to set different due dates and times for Quizzes, Assignments, and Graded Discussions.
- Use the “availability date” and “assign to” fields when creating or editing a Quiz, Assignment, or Graded Discussion. For more information, please visit the following links from Canvas Instructure:
Allow students to submit work in different formats/modes
Providing opportunities for students to express their learning in different ways is one of the three core principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). CourseWorks, and Columbia-supported tools that integrate with it, allow students to submit work in a variety of formats. This might include students:
Provide students instructions on how they can submit work in these ways using selections from the CourseWorks (Canvas) Student Guide:
How to Modify Exams or Assignments in Gradescope for Accommodations
Gradescope is more limited in its features than CourseWorks (Canvas) Assignments and Quizzes and therefore has fewer ways to modify assignments for student accommodations. You can modify the maximum time allowed for an assignment for an individual student under “extensions” in the assignments panel. Currently, this is the only accommodation Gradescope facilitates. Different start times, different assignments for different students or groups, or added extra attempts must be handled outside the Gradescope interface.
Read more about extensions in Gradescope in the Gradescope FAQ on extensions.
The CTL researches and experiments.
The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.