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May 19, 2010

A Case for Using The Blackboard Grade Book

In 2008, a national study of more than 30,000 seniors and freshmen at more than 100 colleges and universities (including UMBC) reported that students value the ability to check their grades far more than any other function in a course management system (CMS) like Blackboard. Yet, less than half of UMBC's Bb courses used the grade book this past fall and spring. We understand why: it takes a little time to master the Bb grade center, faculty may prefer to use Excel functions in an "offline" mode, and there may be a reluctance to put a grade on everything students do. But apart from keeping students from constantly pestering faculty, an active Bb grade book can be "leveraged" in some interesting ways.

UMBC Bb activity by grade distribution, 2007-2009. Detail table
1. Post Your Final SP2010 Grades To Help Understand Student Bb Usage by Grade Distribution

As some may recall, DoIT has been researching how students use Blackboard. Specifically, over two years in a sample of 110 courses, D & F students tend to use Blackboard 39 percent less than students earning better grades. To be clear, we are not suggesting or interested in how Blackboard "makes" good students. Instead, we are interested in how good students use Blackboard, and how displaying this information (albeit anonymously within courses) might help raise awareness of their under performing peers.

This is where faculty can help, by voluntarily adding to the sample of courses so we can study the Bb activity of students by final grade distribution. To do so, simply add a column called "GRADE" (quotes omitted) to your Blackboard grade book with your students' final letter grades. You can even hide the column from student display if you only want them to see your final grades in SA. But after final grades are due on May 26, if your Bb grade book contains a GRADE column, we will run a script that analyzes your student grades AND Bb activity to see if and how the usage trend does or does not persist. For more information, visit our project blog at

2. Encourage Your Students to Use the Bb "Check My Activity" (CMA) Tool

If faculty use the grade book, our "Check My Activity" (CMA) tool beneath the "My Grades" tool lets students see an anonymous summary of Bb activity for students who earned the same, higher or lower grade they earned on any assignment. From prior surveys about the CMA, nearly 30 percent of students say they are "surprised" how their own Bb activity compared to peers (another 42 percent say they'd have to use the CMA more to determine its usefulness, but they appear to be intrigued). In addition, 54 percent say they would be "more inclined" to use the CMA's grade distribution report to review their Bb activity on past assignments--before future assignments are due. In other words, the CMA may leverage or amplify the feedback effect of grades that faculty are going to give students any way, but it can only do so if they use the grade book.

Note: After initial promotional campaigns within Blackboard each weekend in October and March of this year, the CMA currently generates more than 1,300 weekly visits, 80 percent of which are by return users who are spending more than a minute per session viewing the 2-3 custom reports they can generate themselves. While we don't completely know who is using the CMA or why (the reports can only be viewed with a myUMBC login), we plan to study usage further and conduct focus groups and interviews with students. For more information, including a brief, online video demo of the CMA, visit

3. Use Adaptive Release: The "Killer App" for Structuring Online Learning

Tim Hardy
Hardy's presentation begins at 00:28:34.

Using Blackboard's "adaptive release" function, faculty can create "pre-conditions" that students have to meet before they can even gain access to other functions or content in a Bb site. For example, you could require that students pass a syllabus or academic integrity quiz at the start of the semester, before they can turn in any work for credit. But to do so, you'll need a "grade" for the quiz that adaptive release can use as a condition for allowing students to even see the web link to an electronic assignment, subsequent quiz or discussion board.

Tim Hardy in Economics has used adaptive release so effectively, his ECON122 Bb course was UMBC's most active undergraduate Bb course this past fall and spring. Also, students in his hybrid course have consistently scored 20 percent higher on his department's required, common final exam, largely (he says) because the Bb course structure makes them apply concepts in assignments that prepare them for it. "Initially, students hate it, but after they pass the final exam, they tell me it worked," says Hardy, who also participated in the Alternate Delivery Program to re-design his course for hybrid delivery last summer and fall. For more information, see Hardy's 3/10/10 Brown Bag workshop with Katie Morris from Social Work, "Developing and Assessing Quality Learning in Online and Hybrid Courses."

From our position in supporting faculty, we typically see three kinds of Blackboard usage:

1. User & Document management (Pulling students to the site through mandatory use)
- Password-protected class & group space
- Attach or copy/paste documents such as syllabi, presentations, notes.

2. Communications (Pushing content to them and facilitating interaction)
- Announcements
- Email
- Chat & Discussions (especially if "email subscription" of new posts is enabled)

3. Assessments (Pushing & Pulling to facilitate self-paced learning)
- Electronic assignment delivery & collection
- Quizzing, Surveys, use of Grade Book
- Adaptive release to structure student responsibility and self-awareness

To be sure, most faculty are doing #1 (maybe even #2), but students would like to see more faculty doing #3. Depending on where you see yourself now, I'd like to encourage you to consult your peers who are actively using Blackboard, or let us know if and how we can help you help your students take more responsibility for their own learning.


John Fritz
Asst. Vice President
Instructional Technology & New Media
UMBC Div. of Information Technology
410.455.6596 | |