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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Saving time: The art of the shortcut

The last thing we want to be doing is spending our precious, late semester, time struggling with our computer interfaces.  Here at the CTL we thought you might enjoy saving on time (and irritation) by learning some keyboard shortcut tricks that can make quite a few common activities easier as well as give you a real sense of control over your computer.  In doing so, we will address Windows and Mac Users primarily, not because because other operating systems are unimportant, but because we expect that their users are already savvy enough to not need help with the basics.  Let us know if you are interested in finding out what other operating systems are available and what kind of efficiency support you can get for them.

General Shortcuts for Your Desktop

Tip: Did you know that you can create your own keyboard shortcuts for various purposes?  In both Windows and Mac OS, for example, you can assign keystrokes that will launch your most frequently used programs: Mac | Windows.  For example, since I use Firefox all the time, I’ve set it up so that I can just turn on my computer and hit Ctrl-Shift-Z (all with one hand) and Firefox will open to my main workspace.  I’ve also done this to quickly open documents that I work on every day.

Tip: As we mentioned in an earlier Tech Tip on getting help, both operating systems provide key combinations for quickly grabbing images from your computer’s workspace.  Grabbing screenshots can be invaluable in a number of contexts including getting technical help and creating multimedia documents.

Tip: Have you ever wanted to quickly get back to your desktop after you have opened multiple programs and windows?  Windows (Windows logo key-M*) and Mac OS (Command-Option-M**) offer quick keys to minimize all the windows in one shot.  This can be extremely helpful for any number of reasons — such as quickly grabbing a file you just downloaded to your desktop.

Tip: One of my favorite shortcuts involves setting up 2 windows side by side to compare 2 web pages or 2 documents.   As you probably know, you can switch between open windows on both Windows and Mac using the Alt-Tab / Command-Tab shortcuts, respectively.  But if you want to just take 2 and juxtapose them, there is a great way in Windows to quickly arrange your them side by side.  Here’s how you do it:

  1. Select the window you want to appear on the left and click Windows logo key -left arrow
  2. Select the window you want to appear on the right and click Windows logo key -right arrow
  3. The result looks like this:

jusxtaposed screens

I use it to compare documents, follow instructions as I read them, drag and drop files from one folder to another and etc.  The possibilities are legion.  Currently you have to do this manually in Mac OS X unless you download a window manager to help;  however, if you click the F9 key (or fn-F9 on a laptop), all your open windows will appear tiled and selectable.  This feature, part of Mac’s Exposé functionality, allows you to quickly switch between any open window.


When working with texts, not only will being able to move around in your documents and performing administrative functions without taking your fingers off the keyboard save you time, but it can help keep you in the flow of your thoughts and thus help you stay focused on the task at hand.  Once you get proficient with keyboard shortcuts, you will start to realize that, in most contexts, you can be much more efficient using the keyboard to navigate rather than the mouse or mouse and keyboard combination – just ask a computer programmer.

Most of you know about Ctrl-A (select all text), Ctrl-C (copy selected text), Ctrl-V (paste selected text), etc. and/or their MacOS equivalents (Command-A, Command-C and Command-V), but did you know that you can also do the following?


Windows Shortcut

Mac OS shortcut

Align Text Left Ctrl-L Command-{
Align Text Center Ctrl-E Command-|
Align Text Right Ctrl-R Command-}
Open the Find word window Ctrl-F Command-F
Go to end of a line Ctrl-down arrow Command-right arrow
Go to the beginning of a line Ctrl-up arrow Command-left arrow
Go to the end of the doc Ctrl-end Command-down arrow
Go to the beginning of the doc Ctrl-home Command-up arrow
Go to the next word Ctrl-right arrow Option-right arrow
Go to the previous word Ctrl-left arrow Option-left arrow
Save the Document Ctrl-S Command-S

Holding the shift button with any particular navigation keystroke will also allow you to quickly select chunks of text.


And that’s just the beginning!  Imagine yourself quickly selecting a full paragraph of text, cutting it, and then pasting it 5 pages away – all without touching your mouse.

A more complete list of word processing shortcuts can be found here: Windows | Mac.


When using the internet there are also quite a few keystrokes that can ease the way to a smoother browsing experience.  Although the particular browser (e.g. Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox) you are using has the final say on whether these shortcuts will work, for the most part, they comply.

Tip: Instead of clicking the back or forward buttons on your browser to follows the breadcrumbs of your browsing history, you can use Alt-left/right arrow (Windows) or Command-left/right arrow (Mac).

Tip: You can make your web pages appear bigger or smaller using Ctrl-minus/Ctrl-plus (Windows) or Command-minus/Command-plus (Mac)

Selecting, Copying and Pasting text also works similarly to how they work in word processing programs, so feel free to use that to your advantage.   Here is a link to further browser shortcuts.

Don’t Get Overwhelmed

Learning all the keyboard shortcuts we are linking to here can be a bit overwhelming; in fact, sometimes it can feel like trying to pick up a new musical instrument.  So start with the functions that you perform most often and/or cost you the most time.  For example, if you don’t know yet how to use the keyboard to select text, copy text, cut text and paste it, learn how to do so.  It will save you a lot of time by keeping your fingers away from the mouse and in a typing position where they can work the best.  If you are mindful of how you accomplish tasks on your computer, you will start to notice more and more opportunities for improving your efficiency and quality of life.  We promise that the learning curve is nowhere near as steep as most musical instruments.

Keep in mind that by learning keyboard shortcuts over time, you will begin to incorporate the secret optimizations that such pros as programmers and graphic designers use.  As you become more knowledgeable, don’t forget to share your findings with others here!


*The windows logo key is the key that looks like the following:  WindowsLogo

**The Mac Command key usually has the word “Command” on it, but if not, look for the key with the command symbol.


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A Quiz about the Syllabus?

“Is the final cumulative?” “How much do the quizzes count?” “When are your office hours?” “Where can I buy the textbook?” “What is next week’s reading assignment?” You have heard questions like these from your students, in person or by email, and may have found yourself answering, “It’s on the syllabus”, wondering why your students don’t check the syllabus first.  We suggest you try a quiz on the syllabus, maybe even requiring your students to take it as many times as is needed for them to get a perfect score.  Technology is perfect for assignments like this.  Below, we describe how to create and administer a quiz on the syllabus using Blackboard, but the overall idea can be implemented using other online technologies (some alternatives are described here).

Our inspiration for this tip is a Chronicle article about technologies to help faculty avoid having students constantly emailing with requests for help, in particular, a comment by proftowanda (in reply to jabberwocky12):

Start every course with a quiz on the syllabus — easily set up online, repeatable until students score 100 percent — and you will see extraordinary decline in the amount of emails.  (I mapped it.)  The LMS “FAQ” forum also is fine, as is instituting the 24- to 48-hour wait for replies — but both of those also will work better when students have actually read the syllabus for the quiz to see that most of their questions already have been anticipated and answered.

So, how can you set up and administer a quiz about your syllabus?

Here we go, in two easy steps. (Before you stop reading… we promise, it’s easy, and easier if you read these instructions with Blackboard open in a window next to this one.)

Step One: create the quiz. To do so, find the Control Panel in the Course Management lower section of the sidebar. Open up the Tools area, then the Test, surveys and pools tab. (Follow the screen captures below, left to right.)

controlpanel-3 arrow-2quizaboutsyllabus_tests-3
click-build-test-3 arrow-2namequiz-3

Include questions on any and all content covered in your syllabus, especially the content you get frequent questions about. You could try multiple choice style questions (great for handling issues like “How much is the final paper worth?”), true/false questions (excellent for addressing uncertainties about whether you give extra credit or whether the final is cumulative), or any other type of question you like. This might even be an opportunity for you to ask your students to write to you about what they expect to learn in your class.

Step Two: once you have created your test, you need to deploy it. Go to your Course Menu (in the upper section of the sidebar), click +, then click Create content area, where you will be prompted to name your test: “What’s on the syllabus?” for example.

quizaboutsyllabus_coursemenu2 arrow-2createcontentarea quizaboutsyllabus_addcontentarea

Click Submit, then click on the “What’s on the syllabus?” tab you have just created in your Course Menu. Opening the Create Assessment tab followed by clicking on Test will let you select the test file you created earlier and stored in your Course Files.

createquiz-3 arrow-2quiz_you_built

In essence, you have now just ported your test from your Course Files to your course proper. Here, you can work on your test’s settings, like choosing how many times students can take it. Consider forcing them to repeat the test until they get it right, or use error rates to identify aspects of your syllabus that your students are unclear about, and which you might want to discuss further in class. You can also define the period in which they can take the test. Earlier in the semester is best, but you may design a mid- or late-semester refresher.

Voilà, you’re done! Anticipate a decrease in the number of emails with questions that your syllabus already answers: less hair pulling for you, more time for interesting questions from them.

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Taking attendance

In life, only two things are certain: death and taxes.

In teaching at Queens, two acts are an absolute must for faculty: producing attendance rosters at the beginning of the semester and producing grades at the end. Both of these acts are performed using CUNYfirst. We leave grades for a future post, focusing now—at the beginning of a new semester—on attendance.

First, let’s justify taking attendance. You teach college, so your students are adults and they’re paying to be in your class. You may think that taking attendance is “mothering” your students, that it may even discourage responsibility. We find just the opposite: taking attendance regularly encourages students to come to class regularly, by signaling to them that their presence is important to you. Also, taking attendance regularly, especially at the beginning of the semester, is a great way to learn your students’ names and to help students recognize and get to know each other.

If these reasons don’t persuade you to start taking attendance, consider this: if you don’t take attendance regularly during the first three weeks of class, and you don’t submit a Verification of Attendance Roster, you are jeopardizing your students’ financial aid and your negligence could result in serious fines for Queens College.

Verification of Attendance Rosters are submitted using CUNYfirst, after the third week of the semester (or equivalent, for shorter semesters in the summer and winter sessions). You will receive Queens College email early in the semester, announcing the period for submitting attendance rosters, and what you need to produce is simple: confirm whether each of your students has attended class at least once.

  • Step-by-step instructions for using the CUNYfirst system to submit attendance rosters are here.
  • The CUNY-wide policy on verification of student attendance is here.

There are probably as many ways to keep a class-by-class record of attendance as there are preferences for organizing any other aspect of a class. Here are some suggestions, most of them pretty low-tech:

Paper-and-pencil method (so familiar, that we hardly need to describe it!): Get a list of your students from CUNYfirst or Blackboard, and use it to make a table with your class meeting dates. A paper print-out is good enough, or you may find it comforting to use a notebook. A downside of this familiar methodology: you will have to collate your records manually to produce your verification of attendance roster or to perform any analyses of attendance records.

Passing around an attendance sign-in sheet: This method works well with large classes, for which reading a complete roster aloud would take up too much in-class time. Make a table with your students’ names and add a space for their signature. Print the sign-in sheet and ask students to pass it around during class.

Using your laptop or other device: Paper-free teaching enthusiasts will want to try taking attendance electronically. One tactic is to type directly into an Excel spreadsheet. Another is to use an app designed just for taking attendance. One we have used is Attendance (for iOS; reviewed here and here). Yet another is to use a Google Form to create an attendance survey, as described here.

Using clickers: If your class happens to use audience-response devices (“clickers”), you could use them to take attendance, but you may want to think carefully about how to incorporate the attendance task into your clicker routines, so you don’t give students the wrong impression. Rather than an “Are you here?” question, try an easy warm-up question that’s related to the topic of the class session, and use that as your attendance check.

A final note: per CUNY policy, attendance can’t be used as a factor to determine course grades, and you’re not required to take attendance beyond week three. But this doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate attendance-taking into tasks that produce in-class participation points. We will discuss these in a future post.