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Although what we think of as a “standard” standard approach to grading has been around for nearly a century, more and more people are adopting alternative grading frameworks.  Rather than directly assigning points to each piece of student work, these grading systems are built to focus on student learning and the work that students do along the way.  This approach incorporates a growth mindset, offering students greater autonomy, and providing more transparency in terms of how a student’s grade is determined.  Some of these approaches are summarized below, but let’s begin with some background on grading.

What’s the history of grading?

Student studying at desk in library
Library, students studying, finals week, Photo Patrick Sweeney

Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) by Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner includes a great history of grading in higher education. In the 1850s, several universities were experimenting with grades, but most didn’t keep formal records of student performance.  The letter grades used now gained widespread popularity in the 1940s – and little has changed since.

Why do we give grades?

In Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently), Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner suggest the following potential purposes for grades: (1) grades as feedback on performance, (2) grades as a motivator of student effort, (3) grades as a tool for comparing students, and (4) grades as an objective evaluation of student knowledge.  It is worth considering if the grading approach used in your class is meant to serve any of these purposes – and the degree to which it might do so.

What’s wrong with traditional grading?

Alternative Grading: Practices to Support Both Equity and Learning by Adiana Streifer and Michael Palmer highlights some of the problems with traditional grading. Not only are grades problematic for students (e.g., by dampening motivation to learn and creating an adversarial relationship with their instructor), grades negatively affect instructors as well. In addition, traditional grades bear little relationship to learning. Perhaps most importantly though, traditional grading schemes can reinforce historic and continuing inequities in higher education.

So how else might we approach grading?

There are numerous alternatives to standard grading practices. The easiest to adopt might be a shift from norm-referenced grading (for example, grading on a curve or imposing a particular distribution of grades such that not everyone in the class can earn an A) to criteria-referenced grading (grading all students against a predetermined standard such that all students who meet a given standard can earn a certain grade in the course).

If you’re ready for something which strays from the standard approach even more, some of the alternative grading frameworks to consider include the following (see the references list for more information about each):

  • Mastery-based grading: Grades are determined by the degree to which students have mastered course learning outcomes.
  • Specifications grading: Grades are determined by the number/combination of assignments/requirements students have completed satisfactorily.
  • Contract grading: Grades are determined by an agreement between student and instructor where students decide up front what grade to work toward and what must be done to earn it.
  • Ungrading: Grades are determined by a conversation between the student and instructor – usually driven by student self-evaluation.

It’s worth noting that there’s some degree of overlap between these different approaches and the particular name attached to a grading system isn’t what is important. What IS important is that each of these is designed to assign grades in a different way from how it is traditionally done such that student effort and/or student learning is front and center. They also aim to give students more insight into how to earn a particular grade and more autonomy in how they work to do so.

Do people do this at Boise State?

Yes! There are instructors across campus who use these different methods in different disciplines and for different reasons. Here’s what a few of them have to say:

  • Leonora Bittleston, Biology (specifications grading): “Students liked the approach and I received feedback that it took some pressure off of them. I was able to give more detailed/comprehensive feedback than I might have otherwise. With this grading framework, students have a chance to grow, learn, and improve. Students were happy to have the opportunity to resubmit assignments that did not meet standards, and I saw big improvements.  Additionally, it felt easier to meet students where they were, and as though there was less room for (unconscious) bias to affect grades.”
  • Jenn Mallette, Technical Communication (contract grading): “This moves the emphasis to attempts and effort (and process) over end product; students have the ability to revise and resubmit if needed.  Many students (especially this past year) express a sigh of relief because they can focus on what they need to do”
  • Serena Morales, Curriculum and Instruction (mastery based grading): “I use Mastery/Standards Based Grading because it privileges learning rather than grading. It makes learning visible to students by naming, describing, and modeling what it looks like to be successful for any given learning outcome or target, and embraces developmental feedback that encourages a feedback cycle that puts students in the center of their learning.”
  • Matt Recla, History/University Foundations (ungrading): “I think it has more integrity—faculty aren’t as objective as we tend to think we are, and although it’s certainly not the only thing, it matters how students feel about the course and where they are in it. I often hear about growth in areas I never would have expected. It also aligns more effectively with messages such as ‘take charge of your own learning,’ ‘take risks,’ ‘be creative,’ etc. Students are much less likely to do that if you’re implicitly telling them ‘Do it my way or else’ with grades. ”

If you feel like you are ready to change your grading system to enhance intrinsic motivation, build in more transparency, and shift the focus of your grading to giving feedback, one of these approaches might be right for you! If you need help thinking through this or want to learn more, feel free to contact the Center for Teaching and Learning (ctl@boisestate.edu).

References

Grading Practices in General

Specifications Grading

Mastery Based Grading

Contract Grading

Ungrading

Other Useful Ideas

Written by

Dr. Megan Frary

Coordinator for Graduate TA Support, Boise State Center for Teaching and Learning

Associate Professor, Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering