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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

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

Resources

Check out the video and slides below from a workshop on these grading strategies. The recording includes more detailed examples of the strategies mentioned above.

References

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.

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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