How to Check Online Grades

a student staring anxiously at her online grades

One of the hallmarks of modern student life is online grades. Unlike the pre-digital world I grew up in, most schools now maintain a running record of students’ grades in each of their classes. This can be a useful resource for students, tutors, and parents if they know how to check online grades effectively. On the other hand, if you don’t know how to check online grades effectively, you can easily wind up wasting your time and creating unnecessary frustration.

So in this article, I’m going to explain how to check online grades in such a way that leads to better academic outcomes for students and better relationships between students, parents, teachers, and tutors.

Students

The first rule of checking online grades is to actually do it. Some students simply forget to check. Others deliberately avoid checking. If you do this, you’ll miss out on critical data about your performance as a student.

However, the second rule of checking online grades is to do it sparingly. Don’t check compulsively, all the time. A couple of times a week is probably enough. The grades don’t get updated every hour, so there’s no reason to check multiple times per day. At best, compulsive grade checking will be a waste of time. At worst, it will give you anxiety.

The third rule is to know what you’re looking for. And what you’re looking for is surprises. Surprises are things like:

  • Grades that suddenly went up or down
  • Missing work or missing quiz/test grades
  • You thought you turned an assignment in on time, but it’s marked as missing.
  • You thought you did the entire assignment, but it’s marked as incomplete.
  • You thought you did well on an assignment, but the grade is much lower than expected.
  • You thought you aced that test, but you actually didn’t.
  • You thought you failed that test, but you actually did well.

Most of these surprises will be upsetting. But you need to be aware of them so you can deal with them and learn from them. When a student is avoiding looking at their grades, it’s usually because they know the grades are low. They may know they have a lot of missing assignments, and they don’t want to face that problem head-on. But the sooner you take an honest look at your situation, the sooner you can get to work making a change. Teachers are generally much more forgiving if you address problems right away rather than a month or two later.

For missing work, you’ll often be able to resolve it by simply going into the school’s online portal, finding the assignment, completing it, and turning it in. If there are many missing assignments, make a list. For cases where you cannot find the missing assignment, you’ll need to ask your teacher about it.

For assignments with lower-than-expected grades or those marked as incomplete, the first step is to review the instructions. Did you do everything that was asked? Did you do everything in the way that they asked you to? If not, you might be able to make corrections or complete the assignment for a higher grade. If you still think you did everything correctly, talk with your teacher. If you’re confused about why you received the grade you did, you’ll need to ask for better feedback.

For missing tests and quizzes, you’ll need to speak with your teacher about finding a time to make them up. When you’re sure you’ve turned something in on time, but it’s marked as missing, you’ll need to ask about it. (Note: If you turned it in late, it won’t be graded right away, so be patient.)

Anytime you realize you need to ask the teacher about something, you should message the teacher immediately, and you should make yourself a reminder (a planner note or a phone alarm) to talk with them in class or during office hours.

And the last rule of checking online grades for students is don’t use them as your primary resource for learning about assignments. If you do, you’ll mostly find out about due dates after they have passed, and you’ll constantly be playing catch-up. Instead, use the school’s online portal and what the teacher says in class to learn about current and future homework. Record these assignments in a planner or on a to-do list. That way, you’ll usually be ahead of the game, and there will be fewer surprises when you check your grades.

Tutors

Before we get into how parents should look at online grades, let’s discuss how we here at Northwest Educational Services do it because the way our tutors check online grades is a good model for how parents should do it.

a tutor and student checking grades together

The first thing is, we check with the student. It’s an activity we do together. Thus, we’re not “spying” on their grades or coming at them with a list of missing work that we found by checking in their absence. Parents – this alone goes a long way toward eliminating any combativeness around discussing grades.

The second thing is, we make it clear that this is not an opportunity for us to judge or criticize them. We’re checking out of curiosity. And we also make it clear that we’re not actually curious about the grades themselves. Instead, we’re interested in the extent to which they’re engaging with learning and schoolwork, and we’re using their grades as data about these things. Are they keeping up with the workload and playing the game of school? Are they preparing for quizzes and tests? Are they doing as well as they would like to do?

And that last question really brings us to the issue of ownership. The student owns their grade. And that means they get to decide how to react to it. For some students, getting a C on a test is a disaster. For others, getting a C would be a huge accomplishment. So we don’t automatically assume any meaning when we see a particular grade. Instead, we might simply ask, “How do you feel about that?” And then let their response guide the conversation. If they’re not doing as well as they would like, we extend an open invitation to talk about it. We let them know that we’re here to help, but we don’t force-feed them advice.

And we don’t just look at “bad” or low grades. We look at all of them, every time. We don’t just troubleshoot the things that are going poorly. We also celebrate what’s going well. In particular, we celebrate improvements in productivity, engagement, follow-through, and learning. When we see improvement, we try to get the student to name what they did differently to reinforce the positive change. Done right, online grade checking is another opportunity to help students develop a growth mindset.

Parents

a mother and daughter checking grades together

Parents should strongly consider adopting all of the practices I just described for tutors. But they should also be aware that tutors have it easier. The relationship between a parent and a child (especially a teenager) is typically fraught with far more emotional baggage than that of a tutor and a student. Checking grades together might feel like walking through a minefield, especially if you’ve developed a pattern of combativeness around school conversations. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

As with students, you shouldn’t be checking all the time either. Once a week is plenty. And you have to be patient with the system and with the teachers, in addition to being patient with your child. Missing work doesn’t get graded and entered into the system the moment your child turns it in. So if your child says that a missing assignment is turned in and awaiting a grade, trust them, and let it go for now. If it’s still marked as missing a couple of weeks later, well, then you get to have a conversation with your child about what’s going on. But again, start from a place of trust. Assume that they’ve turned it in and the teacher just needs a reminder to grade it. Encourage them to talk with their teacher.

Getting to a place where you and your child can look at their grades together in a calm, productive manner will take practice. And it will only work if you’re genuinely curious and nonjudgmental. Your child may initially be very resistant to the process and hesitant to open up, especially if they’re struggling, but it will get better eventually. Remember, trust takes time.

The Trouble with Multitasking

People seem to always be doing two things at once. We work on projects while responding to emails. We text in the middle of conversations with friends. We scroll through Facebook while watching TV. Modern humans are constantly multitasking.

Or are we?

Many experts argue that we’re not even capable of multitasking. When we think we’re multitasking, they say, we’re actually just rapidly switching back and forth between tasks. John Medina, a research professor at the University of Washington, says that “Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time.”1 And science writer Christian Jarret, Ph.D., has this to say:

“Studies show that the human mind can only truly multitask when it comes to highly automatic behaviors like walking. For activities that require conscious attention, there is really no such thing as multitasking, only task switching—the process of flicking the mind back and forth between different demands. It can feel as though we’re super-efficiently doing two or more things at once. But in fact we’re just doing one thing, then another, then back again, with significantly less skill and accuracy than if we had simply focused on one job at a time.”2

Hmmm… so we can’t truly multitask, and what we’re actually doing all the time – task switching – is hurting our performance. In his great book, Deep Work, Cal Newport describes research that shows “when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. … and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.”3

With regard to learning, Dr. Barbara Oakley says this in her great book, A Mind for Numbers, “Multitasking is like constantly pulling up a plant. This kind of constant shifting of your attention means that new ideas and concepts have no chance to take root and flourish.”4 In other words, when you’re trying to learn something new, and you’re just starting to get it, switching your attention to something else causes your newfound understanding to evaporate. If you really want something to make sense, and if you want it to stick, you have to give it your full attention.

This is easier said than done. The modern world has almost limitless distractions. Although technology has brought many benefits, it has also come with a serious cost: It interrupts our focus and interferes with our doing the task at hand effectively and even safely. In their book, The Distracted Mind, Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen ask, “Is it any wonder that 80 percent of car accidents and 16 percent of highway deaths are the consequence of distracted driving? We are all cruising along on a superhighway of interference.”5

Furthermore, it’s not just making us worse at whatever tasks we’re trying to do, it’s also costing us time as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang pointed out in The Distraction Addiction:

“Every time you move from one window to another on your computer or move from reading your e-mail to listening to a conference call, your mind has to spend energy. By some estimates, you can lose several working hours every week to these moments, which come at exactly those times when you want to be most productive.”6

So we think that “multitasking” is being efficient, but it’s actually slowing us down. And even more troubling is that we’re mostly blind to the costs. Gazzaley and Rosen note that “we are mostly oblivious to the toll that constant task switching generates. We convince ourselves that we can handle it because we mistakenly believe that we possess a brain that is built for multitasking; or, because we do it all the time, we feel that we must have become really good at it.”5

In reality, however, the more often we engage in task switching, the worse we become at managing distractions, staying focused, sorting the important information from the irrelevant, and even on task switching itself.1 In other words, the more you “multitask,” the worse you become at it.

Now parents, please don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m talking about a problem your kids have. This is a problem we all have. And if today’s youth are tech-addicted and constantly switching tasks instead of focusing on schoolwork, that’s not really their fault. This is the world we gave them. And the best thing we can do is lead by example.

So what are we to do? The answer is simple: Do one thing at a time. Monotasking is what we’re actually built for. Here’s Cal Newport again:

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes performance is deep work.”3

And even though the modern world pulls us away from that way of working, we can take steps to insulate ourselves from all the distractions that bombard us on a daily basis. For starters, we can remember that our devices are just tools, and we have the power to turn them off or put them away. I spend most of my day in airplane mode to facilitate monotasking. If you’re tired of being interrupted by notifications, consider a little experiment in which you do the same.

Importantly, if you haven’t been spending time each day monotasking, you’ll probably find it to be very difficult at first. Deep work takes practice.3 Remember that staying focused requires actively engaging the part of the brain that is responsible for focus: the prefrontal cortex.7 Practices like breathing meditation and reading give your prefrontal cortex a workout. Focus is a muscle; it gets stronger when you use it.

1 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

2 Glei, Jocelyn K. with 99U. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. The 99U Book Series. Amazon Publishing, 2013.

3 Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

4 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.

5 Gazzaley, Adam, and Larry D. Rosen. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. The MIT Press, 2016.

6 Pang, Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

7 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.

Why Reading Still Matters

Photo by Ashley Welling Photography

I recently heard someone claim that “We live in a post literate society.” The wound I received from slamming my forehead down on the table has mostly healed, and I would now like to tell you about my passion for reading.

First, to characterize our growing technical expertise with social media, video, and virtual 3D worlds as the inevitable replacement of the written word is akin to saying that each evolutionary step in the development of new musical genres has logically led to the replacement or death of the genre that came before it. At last check, classical music is alive and well and still at the heart of informing the explosion of jazz, rock, R&B, and the more modern forms my daughters love, but I choose to ignore.

Michael Ridley, a librarian at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada and professor of an online class on Post Literacy, claims that the movement from oral storytelling to the written word meant the death of human kind’s oral tradition. And yet you can find countless counterexamples online that share our ever-expanding storytelling skills in forms ranging from hip-hop music to TED Talks. Technology hasn’t supplanted oral storytelling; it has expanded its popularity by providing a better means to share it.

And as it turns out, skillful oral storytelling is at the heart of good reading instruction, and reading skills can help us better understand more modern forms of media. To say that we are past an oral tradition and now moving beyond a written tradition is to miss the point entirely. The joy and purpose of both storytelling and reading are profound and far-reaching.

The written word is a dense expression of our lives and experiences. It is a means of sharing universal truths across both physical distance and the distance of time. It can bridge cultural and generational gaps. I may frequently disagree with David Brooks’ conservative politics, but I find his book, The Social Animal, thoughtful, inspiring, and accurate. The result? I develop more patience with political discord and I am more able to talk with folks that lean farther “right” than I do.

My push back on “Post Literacy” does not mean I am a Luddite who thinks that more modern forms of communication are inherently bad. I do feel that tech is increasingly seen as an easier way to absorb information compared to reading a book. Easier does not equate to better. We need the skills gained during the struggles inherent in learning to read. Picasso didn’t start with cubism, or Guernica. He began by mastering skills that gave him a technical proficiency at a young age that resulted in paintings that were nearly photorealistic. Then he challenged himself to go further, and began producing art unlike anything the world had ever seen, but he never claimed future artists shouldn’t develop fundamental skills.

Unlike Picasso, my early engagement with the art of reading was hardly inspiring or proficient. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic, who was a “bad speller,” a slow reader (still last to finish anything a group is reading together), and a poor writer.

It turns out my dyslexia was a gift in disguise. I grew up in a household where the kitchen table was the campfire around which our family gathered to engage the enmeshed worlds of reading and storytelling. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother knew no one was going to help me with my reading issues in 1970. They were going to put me on short yellow buses that would take me to “special ed” classes that weren’t very “special” at all. So, I grew up reading everything aloud at the kitchen table. She read to me while I took painful notes. She answered countless questions I asked as I read. She shared stories and related her life to what we read. I read to her while she cooked and learned to see myself in the story, or the history, or the science text as she had modeled for me.

Despite all that reading, my dyslexia never allowed me to read any faster than I could when I read aloud. Our school system assigned workloads that assumed a silent reading speed that was significantly faster than my oral reading speed. How did I manage? I guessed and inferred. I read the summary, or the Cliff Notes first. I read the opening and closing sentence, paragraph, or page. I connected the missing dots like a detective and then guessed at what was coming next like a fortuneteller.

As I learned much later, I was becoming an outstanding active reader who was developing the habit all teachers strive to cultivate in their students. I was learning to see inanimate books as teachers, storytellers, historians, and scientists that I could interact with. I was incredibly slow and I couldn’t spell my way out of a paper bag, but I wasn’t passive. The mental focus and concentration needed to do this certainly had its costs. After long reading sessions I looked like I had two black eyes from a losing effort with the school bully. As a result I never read for “pleasure” until 6th grade.

6th grade was elementary school in the 1970’s. We had some kind of fundraiser at my school where we bought tickets for activities like musical chairs that rewarded the winner with a homemade chocolate cake. I remember winning one round and being given a choice: take the offered cake or choose an item from the “gift table.” I looked over the gift table and found something I would never have predicted choosing: a collection of books from an author I knew only by reputation from a movie I had recently seen. Before me were half-a-dozen used paperbacks of my first non-sports hero – Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

I love chocolate cake and would have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I chose Bond, James Bond. I read them non-stop. Which is to say, I read them for hours at a time at the kitchen table with Mom or Dad. By the end of the summer, I was reading away from the kitchen table, still slow as molasses, but I was reading on my own. I always returned to the table and shared the latest adventure and harrowing escape. My mother was not a fan of the genre, but she listened, asked questions, and shared connections to her own life where she could. I learned a great deal about my parent’s honeymoon in Bermuda at one point while reading Dr. No. A fire had been lit and she continued to stoke the flames, keeping the campfire going throughout the long night of my teenager years.

A love of science fiction and Isaac Asimov soon followed, mixed with what were the high school classics of the time: Moby Dick, Last of the Mohicans, To Kill a Mockingbird. In college I studied Russian, American, British, and African Literature. The mix of Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and Achebe took me on intellectual travels I later made a physical reality. And during these “travels,” my reading continued to grow. Driving cross country with a girlfriend, we alternated turns reading Robert Heinlein’s, Stranger in a Strange Land to each other. On river trips, I worked my way through Tolkien’s work by head-lamp on the Colorado river, the Salmon in Idaho, and the Bio Bio in Chile. While teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand for a year, I finished off the collected works of Mark Twain.

Yes, reading is deeply personal for me, but it should be for all of us. If you haven’t read a good book aloud to another, try it. Don’t just read to children or with children, read aloud in the presence of children. Let them witness your experience of the world through literature.

Although we have a variety of other educational goals here at Northwest Educational Services, we continuously strive to infuse passion for reading in every child and adult we have the honor to work with.