Due to the COVID pandemic, classes at my school (small public liberal arts college) will be all online. I've chosen to try teaching asynchronously (via pre-made video lectures) starting next week. I have 5 students in intro abstract algebra (senior level course) and 30 students in intro linear algebra (sophomore/junior level course). (Both are undergraduate courses).

The following off-the-wall idea occurred to me about grading for the course, and I haven't really thought this through at all, and I wanted to hear feedback about it.

I'm thinking of basing the entire course grade on roughly every-other-day emails (about anything about the course material) I ask students to send to me

Here are the details:

I'll ask students to email me every other day (or 4 out of 7 days of the week they select in advance) telling me anything they learned/thought/did that day or the previous day involving the course material: e.g. in their email they can include any one of the following (these are just examples):

  1. homework problem(s) they did (attach a photo, I'll provide feedback but not record a grade)
  2. tell me one or two ideas in a video they watched
  3. summarize the steps to do a type of problem
  4. ask in the email a question (or confusion, etc) they have about the course material (perhaps with some
  5. mention a question they read (or asked) on math.stackexchange.com on abstract or linear algebra and what they learned
  6. show me they can meet a `standard' from a list of standards (in the sense of standards based grading, but I won't actively enforce those standards) associated to the course (e.g. find the reduced row echelon form of a matrix). (Attach a photo).
  7. make up their own problem and solve it

Please help me think of other possibilities or improved wording!

Now to the grading.

One option is to go full ungrading mode and assign no points at all, and just give brief feedback (e.g words instead of points in terms of effort/output). And then ask students to give a grade to themselves at the end of the course requiring supporting evidence, telling them in advance that these frequency and quality of the emails is one factor. However during the course students may not know exactly where they stand gradewise, while with points they have a better idea... but based on what I’m reading about points being bad, that points information could be problematic/misleading/demotivating

I'll grade each email response on a scale of 0-7 points (even though I've been reading about ils out point based grading, and want to stop using points) as follows:

  • 0 points missed deadline to send email
  • 1 point for at least sending me an email, but nothing substantive (for example saying that you couldn't get a chance to work on anything today; I understand and appreciate that)
  • 2,3 minimal effort/output (in my opinion)
  • 4,5 decent effort/output
  • 6,7 significant thought or work done

I reserve the dock points if they are falling significantly 'behind' in terms of the pace of the course, but will try to avoid using this except in extreme cases. e.g studen starting week 1 homework on week 14 is not going to earn much (although if they are reviewing then that is fine).

I'll also ask students to (if they want) tell me in the email how many points they think they deserve. (I'll generally give whatever they ask for; if there is some disagreement I'll give what they ask and tell them put more effort next time).

In terms of how this translates, here is the correspondence between course letter grade and daily average:

  • A 4.5
  • B 3.5
  • C 2.5
  • D 1

(and these cutoffs might be lowered in students' favor, I have no idea if they are too high). So to pass one just needs to .

One slightly thorny issue is dealing with cases where for various reasons (e.g religions, childcare, work) one can't do course work on certain days of the week (e.g. Saturday), but that's why I changed what initially was daily emails to every-other-day and then to each student can choose 4 out of the 7 days the week to email me.

Brief oral midterm and final exams to make sure these grades are working appropriately (i.e. if someone is getting 7's but then can't answer on the spot questions similar to what they've been submitting

Here's the why behind the idea (which as I write this, seems a bit ill-conceived)

The main difficulty with asynchronous courses I feel is that there is no structure to a student's day; and so it is easy to procrastinate/postpone working on it. See for example discussion http://teaforteaching.com/146-lessons-learned-online/

My 4-out-of 7 email assignment I feel from an (amateur) neuroscience prospective, provides some structure, and also spaces out the learning. The unconscious mind thinks about the material more often then and I imagine leads to better learning (but of course I have no evidence).

I am hesitant to include homework and exams as part of the grade.

First for homework, I am tired of students blindly copying answers to many many questions (from each other, from Chegg and their ilk, from college tutors) and turning in things they don't understand. This has been what has been happening in my face to face classes, although perhaps it is not the majority of students.

As for standard hour long written exams, based on past experience (in face to face courses no less), I have no faith in students not cheating in exams taken online, and I also don't believe in setting up surveillance state. However, from my own experience as a student, I feel such exams were crucial for forcing me to study and the pressure (e.g to be able to do problems closed book and under timed conditions) helped me learn to do the material. I previously gave an upper level undergraduate course with no exams, just homework, and some students just turned in solutions copied from elsewhere and simply did not retain learning anything. One possibility I'm toying with is optional midterm/final written exams - if students want the opportunity it's their choice (doubt many students will take me up on it, and that's ok with me)

(I do have the option to do synchronous sessions (90 minute long) during regularly scheduled class time, but I don't plan to do so (maybe during the scheduled class time I'll try once a week optional 15-30 minute chat/answer questions, etc just to make things feel less impersonal, but it won't be a 90 minute long lecture - although I fear that is what students will want).

I am working on trying to be more compassionate towards students, and of course during this pandemic time having compassion is more important than ever.

Anyways, all this is poorly thought out so I welcome criticisms.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You mention "one can't do course work on certain days of the week (e.g. Saturday)," but that's why I changed what initially was daily emails to every-other-day. In fact that will still create problem for certain religious Jewish students. There are 3 two-day holidays coming up in September, Rosh Hashanna, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah. If you want to be fairer, I would suggest 4 emails a week. That way students can plan around their religious holidays, as well as other deadlines and jobs in thier lives. $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 6:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yes for religious holidays that happen once a semester I’m happy to make one time exceptions. I was more concerned with weekly issues. And thanks for letting me know about those holidays $\endgroup$
    – usr0192
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 7:04
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I think you're setting yourself up for endless complaints, arguments, and bargaining about points. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 16:26

1 Answer 1


With 35 students, 4 emails from each student per week, that's 20 emails per day on average from students - including weekends. If you don't read the emails on weekends, then it's 28 emails per day. I would be concerned about the amount of time it would take to read, respond, and make a grade judgement, and hence whether this is anything close to an efficient and effective way of using the time you have to help your students.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If that's all the interaction and grading he's doing for the course, then I don't see why you imagine that's too much. $\endgroup$
    – user507
    Commented Aug 26, 2020 at 16:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks Ben, perhaps I misunderstood the original suggestion. But there's also the pre-recorded video lectures, and I assume that the emails aren't going to be a substitute for other means by which students can gain support. Also, while I can imagine ways that this would not be "too much" work, my suspicion is that there are more efficient and effective ways to achieve the same goals. Perhaps this is something I should have elaborated upon in my answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 27, 2020 at 3:57

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