It’s worth, first, marveling at the relative newness of grading. In fact, the now-standard letter-grading system only gained widespread popularity in US schools in the 1940s. This was partly a response to a decades-long concern over creating a standard of uniformity across institutions, thus standardized grading emerged as an administrative tool for interinstitutional coordination. Today, however, grading (or “evaluative feedback”) is mostly conceived as a pedagogical tool that operates as a source of communication to students and as a hotly debated source of student motivation.
Over time, several different grading systems have developed, including non-grading (or un-grading) systems that see evaluative feedback as a detriment to student learning. Scholarly research on educational assessment is bewilderingly extensive, nevertheless here is a relatively short, curated list of several non-traditional methods of grading employed in higher education.
What is “Traditional Grading”?
We should note at the outset that there is no traditional “traditional grading” system, it’s an amorphous and ultimately abstract entity. Many instructors have vastly different grading policies and practices suited to their personal educational interests or tailored to their student needs. Yet, working from within a criteria-referenced paradigm, traditional grading could be characterized by its attempts to evaluate student work fairly, accurately, and uniformly across a class (and perhaps between classes or across time). Additionally, students earn points as assignments, projects, exams, and so forth, are completed to a certain level of quantified competency throughout the term. Lastly, a final grade is assigned based on these points values (often averaged) and a variety of other factors (like attendance, participation, extra credit, etc.).
Several concerns raised about this system include the perception that instructors are forced to inhabit the role of a grade “gate-keeper,” consequently engendering the distrust of their students. Some complain that the system encourages student grade performance over their learning mastery, a finding backed by research. Moreover, some question the ability for grades to be assigned fairly and uniformly across a class. Others will point to the potential waste of time for instructors who are forced to teach students who are satisfied with only the most minimal competency in a topic. Lastly, some would like to see a meaningful way to incorporate student effort in addition to student competency in any grading system.
Because of concerns like these, alternative grading systems have been proposed. While non-traditional systems are often promoted as better for learning and teaching, there is no value-neutral grading system. The mechanisms of the system will direct or encourage certain types of learning (and teaching) behaviors over others. Furthermore, certain grading systems may be more (or less) time-intensive for instructors or students, or cause efforts to be front-loaded or back-loaded in comparison to traditional systems. Because of this, it is worth making an informed decision on which grading system we employ, whether it’s a traditional or a non-traditional variety.
Wait…Aren’t these “Non-Traditional” Grading Systems Just Fads?
This is a fair question. Radical departures from norms may only seem “better” because they are new. One of the following examples, contract grading, has been widely studied since the 1970s and has been regularly found to have beneficial impacts on student learning and motivation. Additionally, both specifications grading and levels grading are built upon elements that have sound research behind them, even though, as entities, they have not yet been the focus of empirical research.
Specifically, and this applies to all three systems, a focus is placed on evaluation transparency, where the purpose of the exercise or assessment is clearly explained, the task is clearly described, and the evaluation criteria is clearly delineated (perhaps think of a grading rubric) and provided in advance so as to help students with self-evaluation. In some ways, these three alternative grading systems are designed to fully operationalize the principle of transparency, a relatively simple teaching intervention that has been shown to demonstrably enhance student success, including academic performance, student mastery of skills, student confidence, a sense of belonging leading to better retention. This does not represent the totality of these grading systems, but helps to explain their particular design. Non-grading (which could also incorporate transparency) has long been shown to be a better motivator of student effort and allows instructors to put their time and energy into areas that have a more appreciable impact on learning. Overall, these are not transitory fads, but systems built on the best available research in educational psychology and instructional design. With that being said, the individual implementation of these systems can be quite varied (any investigation into the literature on these will quickly reveal this fact) and as such rely heavily on the specific interests, purposes, and needs of the instructor.
With its origins in the early 1970s, this form of grading has been championed by Peter Elbow, whose work has left a lasting mark in the field of composition studies. Due in part to Elbow, contract grading is most commonly used in composition and rhetoric courses, although it has wide application across disciplines. In an attempt to move student interest away from the commodity of the grade and towards nurturing more essential learning skills and behaviors, contract grading is based on establishing an agreement with students regarding the quantity and quality of work they need to complete, among other criteria, which is correlated to a particular grade. These agreements can be negotiated with individual students as they propose activities and projects, which, when completed, receive the agreed-upon grade. Contract grading can also be non-negotiable, or applied equally to the whole class with instructors providing the specified criteria and the related grading output. Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow have outlined the latter method by establishing a B-grade set of criteria (attending class regularly, participating in all in-class activities, providing thoughtful peer-feedback, etc.) for students to work on for most of the semester (see resource below). Only with the submission of a final portfolio would a final grade higher than a B be considered for students who fulfilled the contract. Grades lower than a B are possible, but as the authors note, “we are frankly trying to badger and cajole every student into getting a B.” Some recent research by Dana Lindemann and Colin Harbke suggests this grading system succeeds in discouraging students from failing a course and also provides students with higher competency in the desired skills and topics. Of the non-traditional systems noted here, contract grading has received by far the most research.
- Danielewicz, Jane & Elbow, Peter. 2009. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 244-268. [here]
- Davidson, Cathy. [Twenty-First Century Literacies syllabus]
- Hensen, Leslie. [syllabus]
- Inoue, Asao B. 2014. “A Grade-less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” In Teague, D. & Lunsford, R. (Eds.), First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, pp. 71-110. [despite the title, the focus is on implementing contract grading][here]
- Inoue, Asao. [syllabus]
- Lindemann, D. F., & Harbke, C. R. 2011. “Use of Contract Grading to Improve Grades Among College Freshmen in Introductory Psychology.” SAGE Open. [here]
- Volk, Steve 2016. Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading (Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College)[three different methods for implementing contract grading]
This is a more recent grading system – not entirely unrelated to contract grading – proposed by Linda Nilson and most robustly discussed in her 2015 work Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. At its core, “spec grading” relies on the establishment of clear and detailed specifications for what constitutes a passing piece of work (for Nilson, typically, B-level work or better). This is not unlike creating a grading rubric, but one only needs to detail a “satisfactory” set of criteria, not a full range of grading possibilities. Assignments are bundled, and the more advanced bundles represent more complex skills and/or content. Students are graded only pass/fail for individual assignments or tests and progress as they receive passing grades. Bundles, however, are tied to overall course grades, thus spec grading allows students to determine which grade/bundle they want to compete. Also incorporated is the rather interesting idea of tokens. These are allotted at the beginning of the term to each student and can be redeemed to revise an unsatisfactory assignment, hand in work 24-hours late, take a make-up exam, and so forth. Given the limited number of tokens, students need to think about how to use tokens strategically.
- Nilson, Linda. 2016. Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade (Inside Higher Ed)[Nilson gives the basic parameters of specifications grading]
- Adkison, Stephen & Tchudi, Stephen. 1997. “Grading on Merit and Achievement: Where Quality Meets Quantity”in Alternatives to Grading Student Writing, Stephen Tchudi, ed., National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 192-208. [not spec grading specifically, but discusses the importance of establishing clear criteria and using a credit/no credit grading scale]
- Hall, Marcie. 2018. What is Specifications Grading and Why Should You Consider Using It? (The Innovative Instructor Blog)
- Jones, Jason. 2016. Experimenting with Specifications Grading (The Chronicle of Higher Education)[some real-world applications]
Modeled on video game mechanics, Dustin Locke has recently developed a grading system similar to specification grading, but with different nuances. There are a total of three levels, each of which consists of a larger, more complex project, and which are each evaluated on a four-tier system: complete, almost, good effort, and not much progress. A student progresses to the next project/level only when they have received a “complete” on the previous project/level. Like the spec system by Nilson, a student needs to gain a certain competency or mastery of a skill or content before moving on to the next project. Importantly, there are specific windows when students can attempt to complete levels, thus the project/level any given student needs to be adaptable to the content that is being covered at that time in the course. The final evaluation a student receives on a level is correlated to a final course grade. This system is currently growing among philosophy instructors.
Not necessarily a fully reconceived grading system (eg. it is used as part of Peter Elbow’s contract grading system), portfolio assessment grew in popularity in the 1990s as interest gathered around alternative assessment techniques. In its simplest form, a portfolio is a collection of student work that exhibits their effort and progress in a course. It includes student-selected documents, learning products, or artifacts that they feel represent their best work, and as such, it usually represents work they have revised, sometimes significantly, and reflects their learning processes. Often students will be asked to include reflective documents, such as cover letters describing the selection process and the pieces the choose to include. Oftentimes perceived as an “authentic assessment” tool, this is very common in composition courses.
- Dodd, Anne Wescott. 1997. “Issues to Consider when Scoring Student Portfolios”, in Alternatives to Grading Student Writing, Stephen Tchudi, ed., National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 265-273.
- Herman, Joan L. & Zuniga, Stephen A. Assessment: Portfolio Assessment
- Jones, Kathleen. 1997. “Portfolio Assessment as an Alternative to Grading Student Writing”, in Alternatives to Grading Student Writing, Stephen Tchudi, ed., National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 255-263.
There have been many calls for the abolishment of grades, and there’s good research to suggest this is a wise pedagogical decision. In the broadest strokes, evaluative feedback (grades) alone, where students are essentially ranked in accordance to one another, doesn’t provide any valuable information about how to improve their understanding or competency nor has it been shown to provide any positive motivation for students to truly master a topic or take intellectual chances. Alfie Kohn, one of the most vocal proponents for diluting and removing grading, has made a career on this topic.
One point of confusion, however, is that by removing grading one removes all evaluation. This is not true. Emphasis shifts to descriptive evaluation where pertinent information related to improving student competency is shared and discussed. And while evaluative feedback and descriptive feedback are often coupled in practice in traditional grading systems, research cited by Kimberly Tanner and Jeffrey Schinske in their provocative “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)” suggests that students are less likely to read comments that are paired with grades. Providing only descriptive feedback had been shown to be the most efficient for student learning and is also preferential to some students.
One of the most characteristic aspects of non-grading or ungrading is metacognition and self-assessment. Jesse Stommel, who has reflected thoughtfully on his practice of ungrading, has his students regularly engage in self-reflection through “process letters,” which open up a space of dialogue “not just about the course, but about their learning and about how learning happens.” This allows both for the instructor to provide constructive feedback and encouragement and for the student to cultivate the skills of critical self-assessment and future planning. Of course, working in a traditional institution, he needs to assign final course grades so Stommel has students grade themselves. He reserves the right to alter any grades his student submit, but he claims the most common alteration he makes is from an A- to an A, for the students who are too modest in their self-assessment.
- Stommel, Jesse. How to Ungrade
- Stommel, Jesse. Why I Don’t Grade
- Bauman, Marcy. 1997. “What Grades Do for Us, and How to Do without Them“, in Alternatives to Grading Student Writing, Stephen Tchudi, ed., National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 162-178.
- McDonnell, Charles. 1997. “Total Quality: A Farewell to Grades”, in Alternatives to Grading Student Writing, Stephen Tchudi, ed., National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 210-223.
- Schultz-Bergin, Marcus. 2019. Grade Anarchy in the Philosophy Classroom
These alternatives are all reactions to dissatisfaction with traditional grading systems. From a bird’s eye view, these all emphasize pedagogical approaches that we should all immediately appreciate, including careful and strategic scaffolding of lesson plans and assignments, creating transparent and detailed evaluation rubrics, encouraging students to engage in metacognitive activity, and giving students a sense of purpose and ownership over their own learning. Several systems (perhaps my selection bias) foreground student competency or mastery that happens in stages, which in turn can allow for the implementation of a simpler evaluative feedback consisting of a two-tier pass/no pass (or pass/revise). In almost all cases, some power and authority is wrestled away from the instructor and placed in the hands of the student.
Other Resources on Grading
- Docan, Tony N. 2006. “Positive and Negative Incentives in the Classroom: An Analysis of Grading Systems and Student Motivation, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 21-40. [here]
- Elbow, Peter. 1994. “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English, Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 187–206. [here]
- Kohn, Alfie. 1999. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Tanner, Kimberly & Schinske,, 2014. “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently),” CBE Life Science Education, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 187-206. [here]
- Tchudi, Stephen, ed. 1997 (2011). Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. National Council of Teachers of English [here][this has been a constant source of inspiration for me]
- Winkelmes, Mary-Ann; Bernacki, Matthew; Butler, Jeffrey; Zochowski, Michelle; Golanics, Jennifer & Weavil, Kathryn Harriss. 2016. “A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ Success,” in Peer Review, Vol. 18, No. 1/2. [here]
 For a brief survey on the literature regarding the positive and negative motivating effect of grades, see Docan 2006. Evaluative feedback is often distinguished from descriptive feedback which provides specific information about how a student can become more competent. Often these are used in conjunction. Grades are also used in an organizational manner, such that they are used to partition lessons, units, or terms. In this context grades are seen as a “summative assessment,” in contrast to a “formative assessment” which places more focus on informal tests of students’ understanding before administering a summative assessment.
 These two broad forms of contract grading are described in the 1971 work, Wad-Ja-Get? The Grading Game in American Education, by Howard Kirschenbaum, Sidney B. Simon, and Rodney W. Napier. Incidentally, when contract grading was increasingly discussed as an alternative grading system in the early 1970s, the idea of instituting a two-tier pass/fail grading system in contrast to the A-to-F system was also discussed widely. We will see that the combination of elements from both contract grading and a two-tier grading system are found in some of the most common alternative systems circulating today.