Do Online Gradebooks Compromise Our Teaching?

Aaron Eyler recently raised the question of online gradebooks on his blog. While Aaron's concerns centered more on "what does a grade mean" and the easier-than-ever assumptions we can make by looking at a letter in a gradebook, I've been more concerned about the negative effects online gradebooks might be having on how we teach. I'm all for running an open classroom and I like knowing that parents and students are monitoring progress, but I believe online gradebooks have some negative consequences. For example:

1. Do online gradebooks discourage formative assessments? From my standpoint, once you assign a fixed grade to an assignment, the gradebook sees it as summative. (Even if the teacher doesn't.) Formative assessments are important tools in both assessment and instruction, and often can go on for days without deserving a grade in the gradebook. Unfortunately, we get external pressure to put everything in the gradebook, whether it be from parents or administrators who want to monitor progress or athletic directors needing grades to determine eligibility. Students can also lack motivation if they aren't seeing their grades change as they work.

2. Should online gradebooks show class assignment averages? Suppose you give an assignment to ten students and the scores are 90, 90, 90, 80, 80, 70, 70, 70, 0, and 0. (The use of zeros is another issue, but they were expected in my school if students didn't turn in assignments.) All the students who turned in the assignment passed, and half the class got a B or better (80% = B). But because of the zeros the class average is 64%, which was failing at my school. Sadly, more than once a parent or administrator would contact me and say I had failed to teach the students because "the class got an F on the assignment."

3. Online gradebooks (at least the ones I've used) only accept numbers as input, significantly restricting options teachers have for giving feedback. Butler (1987) performed a study that revealed that indicating the grade earned on an assignment had negative impacts on performance. If you have a choice between grades, feedback, and grades plus feedback, going with feedback only can lead to the most improvement because students will focus on the feedback and use it to improve. With online gradebooks, the grade received on any assignment is a click away, potentially rendering the feedback less useful.

Poor grading practices can have negative effects on both assessment and instruction. I'd be surprised to find a school not using an online gradebook, whether it be popular systems like Infinite Campus and Powerschool, or systems from smaller players like Go.edustar, SME, MyGradeBook, Thinkwave, and Gradeconnect. (A Google search reveals many more!) Each gradebook has its own limitations, but my three concerns above likely will exist in all of them. What are your experiences with online gradebooks? Am I underestimating the positives? Are there negatives that I haven't listed? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(1987), 474-482.