You Too Can Have Mixed Results with Blackboard

Every semester I switch up my Introduction to Anthropology class a little. The big change this spring was that all the graded assignments were online. I tried this through a couple of different methods, one of which was Blackboard test course tool. It is relatively easy to figure things out on your own on Blackboard but the system itself doesn’t really invite one to explore. And it’s so unattractive. There’s all this stuff you can do with Blackboard that I’ve never tried before! I decided to give the test course tool a shot after my officemate gave it a hearty recommendation.

Overall, I’d have to say it’s been a net plus. It’s weird, but I actually missed some of the physicality of grading paper assignments, but maybe not enough to go back to analog assignments.

How I used the test course tool

This semester my Intro students had to complete a quiz over the required readings every two weeks. The assignment itself was twenty questions, a mix of multiple choice and short answer with each question worth five points. I usually posted the quiz to Blackboard on the Saturday after the first week so that students might look it over and come to class the second week with questions. There was no time limit to the quiz aside from the fact that it must be turned in on time.

Because the students are completing the quiz on their own time at their own pace and outside of class they have all of their notes and reading materials at their disposal. These are open note quizzes. In practice students rarely came to class with questions and the majority of them waited until the last minute to attempt the quiz. Even though they had the ability to look up the answers and were encouraged to do so it was not uncommon for students to leave questions blank or fail the quiz badly. Regularly students forgot to do the quiz or had lousy excuses for why they missed it. Students with some discipline and good study skills were able to succeed on the quiz just as the might have on paper.

If you’re like me you have a pool of questions for assignments in established classes that get tweaked, reworded, or recycled each semester. For me, all these were in Word documents which requires some amount of time creating the questions in Blackboard. With a little practice this doesn’t take long for a quick typist.

Some advantages of Blackboard test

The biggest advantages of Blackboard test are the automation of some of the simplest steps in the grading process. You invest some time in test creation but it comes back to you on the grading end. So, for example, grading multiple choice questions is automatic. No more running scantrons, no more holding up a grading key to their answer sheet. If you were to write an entirely multiple choice test you would spend ZERO time grading. You just tell the software which is the correct answer and how much the question is worth, it does everything else.

Similarly with finding the sum for the final grade. If you have an paper test then you’re spending some time adding together how many points your students earned for each question, writing that at the top of their paper, and then entering the grade in a spreadsheet. All of that is automated with Blackboard test. As you grade the short answer responses (where students might earn partial credit) you enter a point score, the software finds the sum and enters it next to their name in the appropriate column of Blackboard Grade Center. Also, no time is spent alphabetizing.

From Blackboard grade center your student has instant access to their score, which is very handy if your class meets once a week. I get a lot of working adults, people in the military and people with children, so even with good students  it might be several weeks in between our actual face to face meetings.Furthermore you don’t have to spend anytime in class passing back graded assignments.

If you’ve ever had students email you assignments you know what a hassle it is to have your inbox cluttered up. It is very time consuming to download all those files, rename them, put them in the correct folder. Typically one student will send the email without the file attached, or use a file format you can’t open. By having students submit through Blackboard instead of email all of those problems are eliminated.

There’s no papers to lug around, just your laptop. Depending on your class size it can be a huge relief not having to carry all those dead trees. Plus, no papercuts, no “Can I borrow your stapler?” and no squinting to make out crummy handwriting. No going in to the office just to print, no copier drama. My department keeps track of every single sheet of paper faculty use. Now I don’t have to worry about going over my allotment.

Have you ever wished you could rubber stamp wrong answers? Like, there’s a common mistake and by the nth time you’ve seen it you are so sick of writing the same feedback to correct it? There’s a way to do that. Just write out a set of responses to each question in a txt file. Then when you see the common mistake you can copy and paste the response into an Instructor Feedback box. You’ll have to train your students how to view the feedback, but if you’re a quick typist (or can come up with a savvy way to use cut and paste) you can also save time writing responses to student’s answers.

Students with learning disabilities who need extra time to complete assignments do not need to take the quiz at the Disabilities Services testing center. For me this cuts out the step of sending the quiz to Disabilities. My student with very limited motor skills still goes to Disabilities to have the quiz read to him, but he’s able to access it from Blackboard. This “cuts out the middle man” on my end.

Overall students have complained less about their grades this semester than in previous semesters. It’s not uncommon for me to make a mistake in grading, like when the grade in the spreadsheet doesn’t match the grade on the paper, or if I miss something when summing the total grade. Blackboard eliminates “dumb” mistakes because its automated.

Oddities and annoyances

Blackboard test offers an array of different question types or formats, multiple choice and short answer are just the two I used most frequently. However you cannot change a question’s format after you’ve created it in the way you can change the format of a Powerpoint slide. You must delete the question and start over in a new format type.

You will have to field students’ technical questions and help them with their devices, but then every semester I have to teach students how to use Adobe Acrobat and its not unusual for me to have a student who has never used email prior to college. Some of my students found they had problems accessing Blackboard through tablets. Others attempted and failed to successfully take the quiz using their phones.

Since the software grades the multiple choice questions automatically, students might view their partial grade before you finish the short answers. This might be an issue depending on how backed up you are or how much you procrastinate.

While its true that you do not have to spend time returning papers in class, this is not always a good thing. If your classes used to run short now they’ll run shorter! I, for one, learn my students names in part by returning their papers. This semester I learned fewer names.

A slow Internet connection or spotty Blackboard performance (sometimes it goes down for scheduled maintenance) can cramp your style. If you’re used to just whipping out a few quizzes on the bus or knocking a few out while in the waiting room at the dentist, you’ll have to change your routine. You do have to spend time booting the computer and establishing a connection, so consider that too.

Misc gestures and actions

Blackboard breaks down grading to a discreet sets of steps and this takes away some control from the grader. With paper one can really graded any way they please. I found that once I made the switch over to online assignments some elements of the labor that I had previously taken for granted were missing.

For example, you don’t notice the final grade of an assignment. Instead you wind up going through them all, grading the questions. Then you have to switch over to Grade Center to view the final grade. This kind of depersonalizes the grade, or I guess you could say you wind up with a less comprehensive knowledge of your students’ grades because you haven’t added them up and written them down by hand. But, that’s not a bad thing. Especially if you have huge classes.

I felt it was more difficult to catch cheaters and recognize plagiarism. For me recognizing plagiarism is something that kind of sinks in once you notice the pattern. If two students have copied each others’ answers it begins with a hunch, if you feel like the hunch might pan out you can always go back and compare the papers side by side to confirm it. Then depending on the severity of the case you might want to take the time to consider what your next step will be.  That’s not as easy to do with Blackboard. You kind of have to act on it right away. In the past if a student cheated I would have set the paper aside, continued with the rest of the grading, and then come back to it. Blackboard forces your hand a bit more.

With some practice I found that I could grade student papers in the order they were submitted, in alphabetical order, or at random. You can grade the entire assignment per student or you can grade one question at a time. You can also make Blackboard hide the student’s name so you can grade anonymously, which I found refreshing.


In sum I found Blackboard test to be highly effective way to cut some corners on grading. I did have to make some compromises, but ultimately I was able to get it to conform to my style of evaluation. In my upper level Gender Studies course I used Blackboard to deliver long form exams of about 50 questions, including some 15 or so short answer. These I tended to grade per question whereas with the Intro quiz I was grading the whole assignment per student. In general I found that grading the shorter quiz was technically less of a chore than grading the longer exam.

Blackboard test does not make grading less boring. Since you’re online to use the service, if you’re the kind of person who compulsively checks social media or get’s easily distracted, grading on Blackboard might bring too many temptations. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the screen. However, it does not seem to have adversely affected my efforts to evaluate student learning. It requires some time to get everything set up, but then you save time by automating some of the simplest grading tasks.

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger currently working to describe a collection of approximately 14,000 photographs produced by the Army Signal Corps during WWII. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “You Too Can Have Mixed Results with Blackboard

  1. Hi Matt,
    Great post on Blackboard. I’ve been able to dig into this program in tandem with live classes (U.S. and in Hong Kong) and as a stand-alone online course. I’m still skeptical of the usefulness of strictly online courses, but when integrated with a live class, I think you have touched on the key feature of the platform in its ability to help us with grading. Short answer questions can still be a bit tedious with spelling errors and capitalization (Blackboard requires exact answers) but the time savings you mention with regard to providing feedback definitely makes up for it.
    Regarding attachments, I actually found that some students do forget (or perhaps “forget”) to attach their documents in Blackboard as well, and I may not notice until I go to grade. But since they’ve made the effort to make it look like they tried to attach the document, I usually end up writing them an e-mail and having them submit it late with full credit. A smart student though is using that extra time to finish their assignment. That’s a tough problem to resolve.
    Preventing students from copying each others questions could be resolved by holding the exam in class, but then it requires that everyone have a laptop (I know some schools like UW-Stout used to provide laptops to every student in their Freshman year as part of their technology fee…not sure if that’s still true). Even taking the exam outside of class, students who can’t afford a laptop become dependent on the University computing centers. The Hong Kong education system recently went from a four-year to a three-year high school program resulting in a huge excess of university students this year. If CUHK had not invested in an expansion of its computing services it would have made online exams an increased hardship on students who come from lower class households. So a shift to online teaching (regardless if it is integrated into a live class or not) also requires that our institutions properly invest in the necessary supporting technology. This is usually a chunk of overhead, but it is something institutions should do anyway since there are multiple benefits which accrue from upgrading technology other than just reducing teacher workload.
    From the other end of things, I have not yet needed to interact much with Blackboard technical support, it is pretty easy to learn the basics as you say. But that said, I’ve heard that Blackboard technical support, while corporate and thus not necessarily beholden to the students or faculty, are really quite helpful. Is that your feeling as well?
    One last comment, I would recommend regularly downloading offline copies of your gradebook from Blackboard…just in case!

  2. Matt: Thanks for the good description of Blackboard’s test functions. I use Blackboard for my anthropology courses, and our version has an option with SafeAssign, a plagiarism checking feature that compares a student’s essay or term paper with web-based sources. The instructor has the option of requiring that students submit written work through SafeAssign, which gives students a chance to see whether their work raises any red-flags, or the instructor can submit a student’s written work to SafeAssign for an evaluation after-the-fact, so to speak, to identify any use of inter-web text. It’s common, of course, for students to use web-based sources (don’t we all?), but when they are appropriate and cited, there’s no problem — having students submit term papers and other written work through SafeAssign assures me that their work is appropriately original, and helps students to avoid the temptation of copying/pasting large chunks of text from the web.

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