Wrestling the alligator: Blackboard Grade Center tips

Part I: Intro and List of basic tutorials

It’s that time of the year where some of us “Dr. Moreau” (treat as a verb) the lion of algebra and stegosaurus of assessment onto the alligator of the Blackboard Grade Center.  Indeed, if you already use Blackboard, your Excel skills are minimal and/or your grading ministrations do not involve massive calculations, statistical analyses of logistic growth patterns, or solving the conundrum of i3, it makes sense to look into whether the Blackboard Grade Center can work for you.  I am neglecting, of course, the number one reason to use the Blackboard grade center: to communicate to your students — on a regular basis —  just how well or poorly they are doing in your classes.  This is the end of the semester, however, so the topic of the day is wrangling our final grade calculations, that Stegoliongator-like Leviathan that looms menacingly between us and our summer publications. We at the Center for Teaching and Learning want to help you get going, so we have posted links to a slew of tutorials and other reference material at the bottom of this tip.  Before that, though, I’m going to take the example of how to drop your lowest test/quiz grade and trace a course administration journey that should thrill and provoke while touching on a number of common features of the grade center embodied by a palpable task.  Read on if you dare!

Part II: Dropping the lowest grade, An Odyssey

We have been asked many times by our colleagues how one goes about dropping the lowest grade from a set of assignments, tests, and/or heterogeneous graded items.  Since this process is simple, on one hand, and challenging — in that it involves specific Blackboard knowledge — on the other, we felt it might be a very helpful process to walk you through a solution to this goal. First, however, I am going to explain what it is we are doing, so that when you follow the steps, you are able to bring to bear the concepts that drive them.  We hope this will better allow you to transpose this tutorial to your own specific grading situations.  Feel free to skip to the steps of the walk through, however, if you are in a hurry or are irritated by my jocularity.  Just be warned that the steps are specific — and thus ephemeral — while the concepts are timeless — like the stars.

The idea of dropping a grade involves first identifying what items are going to form your set of grades.  In my example, we are going to use all the tests in my course (of which there are 5).  Then, we need to decide how many grades we are dropping and from where (i.e. high and/or low).  I just want to drop the lowest grade out of my 5 tests — because either I’m a pushover or I realize sometimes students just have a bad day.  Finally, I want to designate that the tests are going to form 40% of the total grade for the class.  This means that I am only counting 4 tests (out of 5) and each test is going to figure as 10% of the final grade.

Once we have figured those things out, we are ready to act.  Identifying the set of grades will involve looking at the Grade Center and assigning each test I already have in there to the Category “Test”.  The Category “Test” will then be my set of grades.  The next step will be to create a new Total Column, the “Test Average” column, which will look at everything in the set of grades, drop the lowest for each student and calculate the score/percentage/letter grade for the remaining 4.  The last step will be to add “Test Average” to your final grade column as 40% of the total grade.  To perform the last step, we will need to create another column — this time a Weighted Column — and designate it as the “Final Grade” column.

A walkthrough in steps (for clarinet and french horn):

  • Add your “Tests” to the test category
    1. Click the blue “Manage” button near the big red “1” in figure 1.
    2. Choose “Column Organization” from the drop down menu.
    3. You will see 2 boxes (figure 2).  In the one titled “Not in a Grading Period”, select each item that you want to be part of the set of grades our Total Column will include.  In our example, this is all the tests.Once you have selected all the items, go back to the top of the page and click the “Change Category To” button and select “Test”.
    4. Click the blue Submit button on the bottom of the page.
  • Create a new Total Column
    1. Click the blue “Create Calculated Column” button  (#2 in the figure 1).
    2. From the drop down menu select “Total Column” (see a Total Column’s job below).
    3. When the new Column information opens, enter a name for the column.  Choose something that clearly states its purpose, e.g. “Test Average”.
    4. Set its primary and secondary displays to whatever makes the most sense — usually “Percentage” and/or “Queens College Undergraduate”.
    5. Under 3. Select Columns where it reads “Include in Total” (figure 3), change the radio button from “All Grade Columns” to “Selected Columns and categories”.
    6. A new box will open (figure 4).  In this new box, from “Categories to Select”, click on “Test” and then move “Test” by clicking the right pointing arrow to the right of that box to move “Test” into “Selected Columns”.
    7. Under “Test” in the “Selected Columns” sub box, leave “Drop Grades” selected and enter the numeral “1” in the box between “Drop” and “Lowest Grades”.
    8. Click the blue Submit Button at the bottom of the page.  You should see your new column in the grade center and it should now be adding together or averaging the test scores for each of your students while dropping the lowest grade.
  • Use your Total Column to help calculate the Final Grade
    1. Click the blue “Create Calculated Column” button  (#2 in the figure 1) as above.
    2. This time, choose “Weighted Column”.
    3. Follow steps 3 & 4 from “Create a new Total Column” above, use “Final Grade” as the column name.
    4. In the “Include in Weighted Grade” box, choose “Test Average” (i.e. your Tests total column) from “Columns to Select” and move it over to “Selected Columns” as you did in step 6 above.
    5. In the box to the left of “% Column: Weighted Total”, enter 40%.  Now that Tests column (made up of each students 4 top test scores) will be counting for 40% of the total grade (figure 5).
    6. Repeat steps 4 & 5 to fill in the rest of the items that you want to count toward the final grade and click the blue Submit button.
    7. You should now see everything your course administrator’s heart’s desire on your screen in front of you.

Part III: Grade Center “Jobs” by Referenced Item

Total Column

A grade center column that adds up a set of other columns.  The columns it adds up can be any combination of sets of columns described by a Category and specific columns you choose.  It defaults to all columns selected.  Note that a total column weighs each item equally, so if you choose Percentage or Queens College Undergraduate displays, you will see an average of all the columns.

Weighted Column

A grade center column that adds up a set of other columns.  It operates similarly to a Total Column but it allows you to add weights to each graded item.  This is the column of choice when computing final grades.


Categories are ways of designating certain graded items as part of a set.  Blackboard comes with a default set of categories such as “Assignment” and “Test” but you can create your own.  These sets can then be used in smart views and other calculated columns (as described above) to perform calculations on a whole set of graded items without having to enter each individually.  Using categories is also the only way I know of to accomplish the dropping the lowest grade scenario above.  If you know of other ways, please share.

Part IV: Other things you can do

  1. Read the helpful guides on CUNY’s Blackboard site:
  2. Export your grades to Excel
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2 comments to Wrestling the alligator: Blackboard Grade Center tips

  • Juan, I agree with everything you say (and, in a different context, would be happy to go much further). Spreadsheet applications like Excel — the twilight glory of Microsoft’s setting “Office Suite” sun — are MUCH better equipped for fancy grade calculations. This is one of the reasons we restrict the walk through’s applicability to those who “already use Blackboard, [whose] Excel skills are minimal and/or [whose] grading calculations do not involve massive calculations….” This implicit group most likely forms a large subset of our potential faculty readership. As mentioned in the tip, the main advantage to using the Bb grade center, if you already use Bb as your Learning Management System, is that it makes it simpler to communicate rolling grade totals to students over the period of a course.

    One last thing — let me draw everyone’s attention to the last line of the tip (a link titled “Export your grades to Excel”) which links to a tutorial for exporting your grade center to excel, i.e., to any application that can parse CSV files.

    Perhaps we can have a more advanced tip in the future that talks about how to use spreadsheet apps to calculate grades more intuitively and more optimally than the Bb Grade Center.

  • Juan

    The Blackboard Grade Center is bloatware. It’s slow, and doesn’t work on iOS. Too many proprietary tags. And it can’t penalize late submissions.

    The SMALL function in Excel and Numbers accomplishes the same function.

    To drop the lowest grade
    1. Add the series of grades, using the SUM function.
    2. Subtract the SMALLest grade from the series. You can also drop the second smallest, third smallest, etc.
    3. If you’re doing an average, then divide the resulting value by the number of values in your series MINUS one (if dropping the lowest grade) or two (if dropping two lowest grades), etc.