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Alternative Grading Strategies

A course's grading structure can affect student behaviors and motivations in a course. Letter grades became popular in the United States in the 1940s, with the goal of improving communication between higher education institutions. Research shows, however, that grades might not always function in the ways we think they do. When given both written feedback and a grade on an assignments, students will focus more on the grade than the written feedback. And grades can prevent intrinsic motivation by making students most focused on not receiving a bad grade in their work, rather than diving into the ideas (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).

Grading Strategies

Learn about a couple of the most common alternative grading strategies. For more in-depth examples of each strategy, see the resources and references sections below.

  • Grades are de-emphasized as much as possible
  • Instructor provides feedback on assignments, but no grade
  • Students self-assess their progress throughout the semester
  • If necessary to report a final grade, students grade themselves (with approval from instructor)
  • Students are awarded grades based on completing work, rather than the quality of work
  • Instructor presents the labor requirements to earn each grade in the course, as well as for each assignment
  • Students get credit if they complete the labor requirements (and cannot help but improve by doing so)
  • There are some hybrid options, where quality is assessed for higher grades
  • Goal is to communicate what students know and have learned, not what they can do (there are no points from behavioral factors like completion, attendance, and effort)
  • Instructors report student performance based on course standards rather than general assignment grades (Example: instead of "Unit 1 Test," students would see "I can solve an algebraic expression with more than one variable") 
  • Student achievement is communicated using a limited number of performance categories 
  • Usually, there are multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their proficiency
  • Other names for this philosophy are “competency-based grading” and “proficiency-based grading”

Smaller Grading Adjustments

Looking to change you and your students' approaches to grades without overhauling your whole grading strategy? Try out some of these adjustments:

  • Talk with your students about the purpose of grades
  • Offer some assignments as credit/no credit
  • Have some assignments that are self-assessed
  • Give students untimed, open-book tests
  • Let students re-do assignments or re-submit answers for credit
  • Offer options of group exams where students work together for at least a portion of a test


Check out the videos and slides below from a workshop and panel discussion on these grading strategies. The first recording includes more detailed examples of the strategies mentioned above, and the second recording showcases University of Maryland instructors who have changed the way they grade.


Danielewicz, J., & Elbow, P. (2009). A unilateral grading contract to improve learning and teaching. College Composition and Communication, 244-268.

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse.

Lewis, D (2021). Alternative Grading.

Link, L. J., & Guskey, T. R. (2022). Is Standards-Based Grading Effective? Theory into Practice61(4), 406–417.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159-166.

Stommel, J. (2018). How to ungrade.

Stommel, J. (2020). Ungrading: an FAQ.

St. Olaf College, Exploring Labor-Based Grading Contracts (see “sample labor-based contracts tab towards the bottom for examples)

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Talking About Teaching: The Future of Grading and Assessment (register online to watch the full panel discussion)

Wikipedia, Contract Grading

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