Laura Gibbs

Gradebook Dismay: The Thoughtless Tyranny of Red Ink

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Sep 9, 2017

Unable to find a solution, I propose the following:

Roll Missing label in Gradebook back to Beta 

Last week I received inexplicable (at first) emails from students worrying about how the class was going. For example: "Am I supposed to be doing all the assignments? I thought you told me I could choose." The student felt betrayed, and I could not even figure out why they thought anything was wrong. It is now the third week of school, and I work really hard during the first couple of weeks helping students get used to a class in which they choose which assignments they want to do, choose their grade, record their work: they are in charge of all that; I am just here to provide feedback along the way (here's how it works).


I was baffled: why on earth would they think they are supposed to do all the assignments when I had explained very carefully how the choice system works? I rarely hear questions from students that I've never heard before (I've been teaching these online classes since 2002). So, when I got the first email, I couldn't figure it out. No student had ever thought they were supposed to do all the assignments. When I got the second email, I knew something had to be wrong: "Canvas is telling me that I'm missing a lot of assignments..." the student wrote.


How could Canvas be "telling" the students something about their class progress that was different from what I had told them?


Well, I checked the student view and then I saw what they meant. Canvas is telling them they have assignments missing that are NOT missing. And it is doing so in red ink, the scourge of grading everywhere; because they had optional assignments starting in Week 2, it was during Week 3 that they saw the bloodbath in the Gradebook. Of course they worried; wouldn't you worry if you saw this all of a sudden after the teacher had told you to relax and not worry about your grade?


screenshot of missing extra credit assignments


This is NOT acceptable, and I am not the only one who thinks so. You can read the messages from other instructors who are dismayed for their own reasons here:


Update: I keep adding new requests related to this problem as I find them, and this accumulation is a case in point where the feature request system is not working as it should; instead of one feature request after another after another, we need Instructure to get out in front of this proactively.

Allow "Missing" label to be enabled/disabled 
and here:

Missing Label Placed Incorrectly/Submission on paper and online option 

and another:

No MISSING label for zero-point assignments  

and another:

Instructor override of missing submission badge 

Oh look: another one!

Manually graded or "EX" assignments still show as missing 


Based on what I see there, I would call this a major screw-up even for people who use traditional grading. My approach to grading is non-traditional, and it's a major screw-up for me too. In this blog post, I am going to give my top 5 reasons for being deeply dismayed by this new Canvas feature, and be sure to check out those other discussions for additional problems and complaints from other teachers based on their own reasons.


Here are my reasons:


1. Red ink is not acceptable. Let me be clear: red ink is completely absolutely totally NOT acceptable. How does that make you feel? Terrible, right? The use of red in this way reinforces the worst possible traditions of grading. An innovative start-up calls itself NoRedInk ( because they recognize that the red ink message is a negative one. Here's an NPR report: "the people with red pens assigned lower grades than the people with blue pens." Canvas should know better. Students need positive reinforcement, and there is nothing positive about big, ugly red ink messages.

My whole grading system is based on the philosophy of forward progress, keep on swimming, learn from mistakes, grow and improve. Students bring plenty of negative baggage to my classes already (I teach writing); I do not need Canvas to be adding to that negative baggage. I work very hard in my course materials to communicate supportive, affirming messages to my students everywhere and at all times. Canvas is ruining my efforts, as those emails last week from the students show: that red ink in the Gradebook is enough to make them doubt everything I have said to them so far in the course. They have been taught that the Gradebook is the most important thing, and the red ink is what matters most. So when they saw the first "missing" messages (which popped up after Week 2 closed on Monday at noon), they worried. Understandably.

And here's what's worse: now that I know there is a problem, there is nothing I can do about it, except to apologize. And I don't mind apologizing to students for my own mistakes (because I can honestly promise to do better), but I really do not like having to apologize to my students for Canvas's mistakes, especially since I have no idea if Canvas will fix this mistake or not. 

2. The "Missing" label is WRONG; as the instructor I need to be able to fix this mistake. These assignments are NOT missing; the Canvas label is just plain wrong. For my classes, the assignments that are blank are blank FOR A REASON: my students can CHOOSE not to do the assignment. The assignment is NOT missing; the label is a mistake. Since I know this to be the case, I need to be able to fix the mistake and turn off that label. I have written previously (blanks-not-zeroes) about how much I appreciate the fact that in the Gradebook spreadsheet view, blanks really are just that: blanks. Not zeros, not a problem, nothing at all: they are just blanks. That is also what I need in this Student Grade view: BLANKS, not a red-ink label that tells my students something is wrong.

3. The "Missing" label is not actionable for students. Grades are usually very poor feedback because they are not actionable; they do not really give students specific help about what to do next and/or what to do differently. So, in addition to being flat-out wrong, this "missing" label is also not actionable: what exactly is a student supposed to do if an assignment is "missing"? If you want to send people a message, make it clear. This is not a clear message, which is why I got frantic emails from my students about it. Was something missing? How can they fix it? What are they supposed to do? I have to tell them that there is nothing they can do... except to ignore the label. Which, being splashed on the screen in red ink, is pretty hard to ignore.


4. The "Late" label is also punitive; as such, it should be up to the teacher to display it or not. I am a big fan of the soft/hard deadline option in Canvas, which I call the "grace period" (details). I consider it a no-questions-asked extension that the students can use as needed. THEIR WORK IS NOT LATE. If they turn it in during the grace period, that means everything worked out, and we should all be happy about that. If a student is using the grace period all the time, I might choose to write them about it to see what's going on, or I might not. There's nothing mechanical about it; every situation is different, and I ponder that in the context of the student's work in general. After all, I tell them the grace period is there for them to use when they need it; it's their choice, not mine (get it? choice? see that theme recurring here? my students are adults; they deserve to be able to make as many choices as possible about their learning). Canvas is not helping me with that message by slapping an ugly "late" label on work that is not late; it was turned in during what I call the grace period. Which is fine. I'm glad that the student was able to get the work turned in; I am not red-ink angry about it, and Canvas is sending them a wrong message. So, again, I will have to just ask them to please try to ignore the Late label. Everything is okay. Really. It's okay. DESPITE what the Gradebook says. 


late label screenshot


5. This new "feature" constrains and stifles creative instructional design. We face real problems in teaching and learning that require new approaches: motivation, inclusion, equity... to name just a few. This one-size-fits-none tradition-bound approach (RED INK for crying out loud) is a real setback for those of us who are trying to find better solutions (see #TTOG for lots of ideas). It was already very frustrating to watch Instructure pour most of its time, energy and other precious resources into the Gradebook and Quizzes rather building more flexible, innovative learning environments. I was thinking that perhaps the arrival of the much-trumpeted new Gradebook might be something to look forward to, but now I suspect things may get worse, not better, for those of us who are trying very hard to find new/better ways to communicate with our students about their learning.


So, I'm pinging Jared Stein because if this is supposed to be helpful data analytics, I have to say: for me it is not helpful at all. The other analytics I can just ignore (I've written before how irrelevant grade-based analytics are for me: More Visible Learning, NOT More Visible Grades)... but this is something I cannot ignore. Because my students cannot ignore it.


I am sooooooo not happy. Everything was going really well at the start of this new school year. Until now.


Because now I have to figure out just what to say to my students when I apologize in the class announcements and ask them to please ignore these incorrect labels all over their Gradebook...