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Alternatives to Traditional Grading

Mon Apr 3, 2023 at 07:30 AM

Recognizing the challenges of the pandemic, especially in March 2020, many institutions gave all students the option of selecting a pass/not pass grade, or what Oakland University calls satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U). A growing number of faculty began to question ever returning to letter or number grades, re-evaluating what we think grades do versus how they actually function. 

Whether in number or letter form, grades seem like an automatic, inevitable part of education, a deceptively neutral and objective way of assessing student learning. In reality and under greater scrutiny, grades often codify our own biases of what makes a paper a C instead of a B. When we try to increase transparency with details rubrics with attached point values, it never seems quite right, and students focus so much on the grade that they are no longer interested in the actual learning. Students are frustrated at trying to crack the code, and instructors are frustrated that students only seem to care about the points.

Many faculty have reconsidered grading practices to minimize the dread between themselves and their students and center the learning itself. Below are some main strategies faculty are using to make assessment more authentic and learning-focused.

Alternative Grading Approaches

While these specific approaches can help us consider what alternatives there are to traditional grading, the ultimate goal is to critically evaluate the use of grades and to simplify and minimize their use accordingly.

Ungrading

Ungrading is the general practice of removing grades to the greatest extent possible, which may start by having fewer graded items and simpler grades (complete/not completed or a B rather than an 81). This is not to say that students do not receive feedback and direction from faculty and peers, but assessment focuses on the work itself rather than a numerical value. 

While there is some debate on what counts as “ungrading,” most people involved in this discussion would consider the other forms of alternative grading described here as part of the ungrading umbrella. That being said, those leading ungrading work find it important to have students evaluate themselves with the guidance of the instructor, from individual assignments to the total course grade. This helps the instructor to better understand the process and product of student work and gives students agency in the course. Instructors most often say students grade themselves the same or harder than they would have, so it is important to guide self-grading practices accordingly.

The term “ungrading” has been most popularized by Jesse Stommel and his two blog posts “Why I Don’t Grade” and “How to Ungrade.” See his blog for more on ungrading, such as an ungrading introduction and an ungrading FAQ.  

Susan Blum, another ungrading leader, edited the collection Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (2020), which shows a variety of approaches, grade levels, and disciplines. One approach represented is labor-based grading.

OU English professor Rob Anderson shares his experiences in Grading as Domination: Why I Gave Up Grading.

Labor-Based (Contract) Grading

Ungrading requires students to trust that their instructors will, in turn, trust students’ reflection and assessment of their work, which can feel uncertain and threatening to students. (Stommel writes about this in Grades are Dehumanizing; Ungrading is No Simple Solution). For this reason, many instructors opt for a labor-based grading approach.

Labor-based grading, which has been called contract grading, is the process of clearly defining what type of work or labor constitutes each grade. Unlike typical ungrading, this approach represents a collective agreement among students and instructor and simplifies the assessment process. It provides students more clarity on how to reach their grade goal, which practitioners argue benefit students with less experience or acceptance in educational systems such as first generation students and students of color. Furthermore, a labor-based grading contract emphasizes focusing on effort and growth. 

While labor-based grading has been around for decades, one notable leader is Asao Inoue, professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Arizona State University whose work centers antiracist teaching. See Inoue’s blog which offers resources on labor-based grading contracts. Inoue provides many templates and resources as a starting point, but the nature of the “contract” can take multiple forms.

See OU professor accounts of using labor-based contract grading:

Specifications (Specs) Grading

Specifications grading could be described as a more itemized version of contract grading. It is often described with the term “mastery grading.” The book Specifications Grading explains the process as “restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time” (Nilson, 2015). The approach has gained traction with many STEM faculty such as Grand Valley State University math professor Robert Talbert (2017) and Cal State system chemistry instructor Renée Link (Howitz, McKnelly, & Link, 2020; Winter, 2020). Link’s visual of her system identifies aspects of mastery learning, competency-based grading, and contract grading (Winter 2020).

So What Now?

In the Grading for Growth newsletter, GVSU math professors and teaching book authors David Clark and Robert Talbert developed feedback principles and practices that encompass many alternative grading approaches. In doing so, they resist an over-emphasis on labels and instead focuses on assessment as learning.

It can be overwhelming to think about revamping a structure as foundational as grades, and our disciplines and departments may not allow complete ungrading. Nevertheless, even faculty in contingent positions or with other restrictions find they have some freedom to reframe the role of grades and how they are determined. 

  1. Start small by ungrading one project or assignment. 
  2. Simplify grades. Rather than determining whether a paper is an 82 or 86 you instead communicate that the work is solid but could have a few improvements. 
  3. Allow revision, which emphasizes a growth and mastery model. 

These small steps might help guide where ungrading can go next. While ungrading is not challenge-free, faculty find they can finally enjoy reviewing student work and students get more creative and take more risks.

References and Resources 

Blum, S., Ed (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia Press. The OU community can access the Ungrading book through Kresge Library.

Butler, R., & Nisan, M. (1986). Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 210–216. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.78.3.210

Clark, D. & Talbert, R. (2021). Grading for Growth newsletter

Davidson, C. (2011, January 3). Contract grading + peer review: Here’s how it works. HASTAC: Changing the Way We Teach + Learn [blog].

Howitz, W. J., McKnelly, K. J., & Link, R. D. (2020). Developing and implementing a specifications grading system in an organic chemistry laboratory course. Journal of Chemical Education, 98(2), 385-394. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00450

Inoue, A. (n.d.). Labor-Based Grading Contract Resources. Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words [blog]. 

Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Sterling, VA: Stylus (available at the CETL Book Library)

Stommel, J. (n.d.). Jesse Stommel Blog. (includes multiple posts on ungrading). Foundational pieces include Why I Don’t Grade and How to Ungrade.

Talbert, R. (2017). Specifications grading: We may have a winner. On Robert Talbert, Ph.D Blog.

Talbert, R. (2021, August 30). Finding common ground with grading systems. Grading for Growth.

Winter, J. (2020, August 3). Specifications Grading at UC Irvine with Renée Link. [blog post and podcast]. Alchemie: Ideas That Matter.

Updated in March, 2023

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About the Author 

Christina Moore is the virtual faculty developer at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Her dissertation research focused on on faculty teaching development through informal online communities and networks focused on #ungrading on Twitter.

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