I've been thinking about the grading process--not the grading itself, but calculating grades. Like Profgrrrl, I'm a big fan of Excel . Because of my death-match struggles with WebCT/Blackboard, I don't trust it to upload and download grades into Excel accurately, but keeping a separate gradebook in Excel isn't any extra work.
I used to figure everything by hand, using a calculator and more than a few pages of yellow paper. Somehow, though, the process was agonizing, and not because of the calculations. The internal dialogue went something like this: "SmartGirl is so close to an A. Isn't her class participation worth more? So what if she bombed a couple of quizzes? But if her class participation grade gets bumped, shouldn't I also bump Dull but Diligent up and downgrade SleeperGuy, who says little but says it brilliantly?" Out would come the calculator again as I refigured everyone's grade and agonized some more.
I tried a few grading programs, including one that promised that it could drop grades but did not, as I found when checking the results by hand. Once I learned to figure grades out in Excel, though, and to drop grades using the spreadsheet, the prolonged agonizing was done. Because you can plug in different numbers for a more or less subjective category like participation, it became clear that a point or so did not make a substantial difference in most grades, and it also made applying standards of fairness easier.
One unexpected result was that using Excel helped me to see more clearly whether the percentages I'd assigned to various tasks worked well. Since the syllabus contains a combination of "effort" grades (that reward diligence) and, for lack of a better word, "performance" grades (that reward excellence, brilliance, or what have you), I can see immediately if I've weighted one over the other too heavily. For example, if Brilliant Student can flame out too easily by missing a couple of the "effort" grades, maybe those are weighted too heavily.
This is where the eyeball test comes into play. Because the grades are all in Excel in a straight line (as they aren't in the multiple pages of the paper gradebook), I can get a better sense of the whole picture. I look at the paper grades, the quiz grades, and the rest, and it's clear when things are out of whack. Are the "performance" grades all at a C level and the "effort" grades at an A level, and is this bumping up essentially average performance too high in the final grading scheme, or vice versa? Does the eyeball test say that Student X should be getting an A because of paper grades, when her average is closer to a B range because of the "effort" grades?
Because the percentages are set in the syllabus, they can't be changed for the current semester; also, usually the "eyeball test" just confirms what Excel is already saying: that the grades seem fair and reasonable. But using the eyeball test to check for fairness helps me to set the percentages for the next semester so that the class is graded equitably for both kinds of students.