Learn how to use the Set Default Grade feature in Canvas’s Gradebook to lighten the grading workload.

Whenever a new semester or academic year rolls around, I always find myself thinking about how I get work done and how I can most efficiently approach the grading in the weeks and months ahead of me.

With this in mind, I want to share a quick and easy tip for using the “Set Default Grade” feature of Canvas’ Gradebook to lessen the grading workload and a specific example from my own classes to demonstrate how I use it.

What is the Set Default Grade Feature?

Put simply, the “Set Default Grade” feature allows you to assign a particular grade to an assignment for either all of the students in a class or all the students who have not yet received a grade. This means that, instead of assigning grades for an assignment one student at a time, you can assign grades to a batch of students with a couple clicks.

As instructors, we’re accustomed to the idea of simplifying the work we ask students to do to make it less stressful or taxing—breaking a large project into chunks with separate due dates, for example. This kind of consideration towards reducing the cognitive load, however, doesn’t just apply to students.

Though this may not, initially, seem like it saves much time, setting a default grade reduces the number of clicks you have to make as you grade student work, simplifying the task of assigning grades. This means that the cognitive energy devoted to the task of grading can be more wholly focused on the important part of the process—reading student responses—and less so on the more monotonous aspects of grading—selecting the grade box, entering the score, and saving that score before moving on to the next student.

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How I Use It 

When I’m not working with faculty as an instructional consultant, I’m teaching first-year composition and creative writing classes. In these classes, I often ask my learners to complete brief responses to prompts, typically around 200-250 words. These responses are intended to be low-stakes and graded on a complete/incomplete basis—as opposed to factoring in more involved things like grammar or mechanics. Essentially, as long as a student meets the word count and it’s on topic, they get full credit. If they only partially respond to the prompt, or if their response is under the word count, they receive partial credit.

However, despite the assignments being brief and assessment criteria being simple, reading 20-25 responses per class for 2-4 classes multiple times a week is still a significant time and workload investment.

Enter: setting the default grade.

With the default grade setting, grading begins with me reading through each of the responses. If a student did not submit a response or their response merits a partial grade, I assign them a zero or partial grade, accordingly.

Then, after assigning grades to incomplete and unsubmitted assignments, I return to the gradebook, click the three dots next to the assignment name, select “Set Default Grade,” enter the grade I want as default (full credit), and, making sure not to check the box for “Overwrite already entered grades,” save the changes by clicking “Set Default Grade.”

When I return to the gradebook, all the submissions for that assignment (except for the submissions I already gave either zeroes or partial grades) will have full credit. By doing this, instead of having to manually enter the grade for each individual assignment, I only have to manually enter the grades for the incomplete or unsubmitted ones—of which there are hopefully very few.


Small, low-stakes response assignments are an important part of my pedagogy when teaching a composition class, but grading so many of them with such a quick turnaround can be a daunting task. Fortunately, Canvas’s “Set Default Grade” feature in the Gradebook allows me to quickly assign default grades to batches of student work, helping to streamline the work and lessen the burden.

Is this feature familiar to you? How do you see this feature fitting into your own teaching practices? 

  • John Carter

    John Carter joined the Division of Online and Strategic Learning in August 2022. With a background in composition and creative writing pedagogy, he has a particular enthusiasm for the role of communication in pedagogical processes, whether that be oral communication via class discussions, written communication via course documents, or visual/electronic communication via document design and instructional technologies. His graduate work focused on poetry, the environment, and sustainable agriculture, and, because of that, he has a keen interest in and awareness of the value of interdisciplinary work. When he isn’t thinking or talking about pedagogy, he can be found at the edge of a cornfield, writing about this strange, in-between region that is the Midwest.

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