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What are some alternative grading strategies?

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What are some alternative grading strategies?

Professors and scholars have given serious thought to the ways in which we approach grading, and what we could do to make the assessment process more productive, and less intimidating, for students. Many of these systems take the approach of prioritizing transparency and feedback, de-emphasizing letter grades for assignments, and allowing students to revise and resubmit work. The goal is for students to feel oriented and empowered, and know exactly what they need to do to earn the grade that they want, as well as having timely, operationalizable feedback to shape their next work.

There are a number of different alternative grading systems out there, but Robert Talbert helpfully summarizes some common features as follows:

FOUR PILLARS OF ALTERNATIVE GRADING

    1. Student work is evaluated using clearly defined and context-appropriate content standards for what constitutes acceptable evidence of learning.
    2. Student work, when evaluated, is given helpful, actionable feedback that the student can and should use to learn and improve their work.
    3. Student work doesn’t have to receive a score, but if it does, the score is a progress indicator toward meeting a standard and not an arbitrary number.
    4. Students can revise, resubmit, or reattempt work without penalty, using the feedback they receive, until the standards are met or exceeded.

(adapted from Talbert, R. (2023, September 11). Finding common ground with grading systems.)

Some of the main models are briefly described below.

Kerry Mandaluk in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders has been working with colleagues to explore some of these methods, and has had great results from implementing them in her classes. Some specific methods that she has had success with are prompting students to reflect on their own work after completing an exam, and releasing feedback before releasing a grade so that students are more likely to spend time with the feedback. If you’d like to know more, you can reach out to her on mandaluk@pacificu.edu.

Table of Contents

Standards-Based Grading
Contract Grading
Specifications Grading
Ungrading

Standards-Based Grading

The main principle of Standards-Based Grading is to break down topics into the specific learning objectives that students need to become proficient in, and measure learning in terms of those specific skills and standards (as opposed to a letter grade).

Feedback is given in a way that is broken down into those skills and standards, giving students a clear sense of which standards they are meeting or not meeting, and what they need to do to address the latter. Instructors often provide rich formative feedback, and then give students the opportunity to revise and resubmit, or to meet the standard(s) on a future assignment.

You can read more about the application and advantages of Standards-Based Grading in a higher educational context in this paper by Tom Buckmiller, Randal Peters, and Jerrid Kruse.

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Contract grading

In contract grading, students agree with the instructor that they will complete a specific amount and type of assessments in order to receive a particular grade. For example, students may agree to complete ten of a certain type of assignment to receive a B; the components of the assignment type are clearly described, and students are graded complete/incomplete for each component, with the opportunity to revise and resubmit according to feedback if they did not reach the assignment’s labor criteria. Students may choose to complete extra work to reach an A for the class. Assignments are typically graded complete/incomplete, with substantial feedback given to help students to reach the needed standards.

A real strength of this approach is that students have a clear sense throughout the semester of how they are doing in the class and what they need to do, which can really help to mitigate student anxiety.

Another important shift in this framework is that it embraces the fact that students are not all looking for the same thing from a class. Some students might be there for curiosity, and to fulfil a requirement, where others might be moving in the direction of a major and even a career. Students are often conditioned to believe that anything less than an A is a failure, and even to see it as having failed the instructor, which can then damage their relationship with the instructor and with the class. This method recognizes that some, busy students may choose a C grade in alignment with their level of interest and resources, and that might be an empowered, thoughtful choice, made on the basis of an individual’s interest and investment in the subject. What’s more, it makes space to recognise the nuance in different grades: a C might reflect engagement at the level of curiosity, a B reflect engagement as an apprentice, and an A reflect becoming proficient enough in a subject to begin making a contribution to the wider world.

You can read more about contract grading and some professors’ experiences with it in this guide from Old Dominion University.

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Specifications grading

Specifications grading uses some elements of the above approaches, with clearly defined pass/fail specifications given for completion of assessments, tiered or bundled assessments to earn different grades, and an expectation that students will meet proficiency before continuing to the next topic.

As in Standards-Based Grading, each assignment has many specific criteria (specifications) that are designed as pass/fail items, usually presented to students in a table similar to a rubric. As in contract grading, students have a clear picture of how many assignments they need to complete, and according to what criteria, to earn a certain grade.
For example, to earn a B, students may know that they need to complete a certain bundle of requirements: earn at least an 80% on 10 of the 12 quizzes, meet 15 of the 20 specifications on the project rubric, and earn at least an 80% on each learning objective in the unit exams, plus complete one additional assignment for each unit.
You can use rubrics on Moodle to grade against particular specifications in a way that is clear and accessible.

Check out this guide from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Transformative Teaching.

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Ungrading

The ungrading approach de-emphasizes assigned points or letter grades in a course, focusing instead on frequent and detailed feedback, closely related to the course learning goals. The primary purpose of assessment within this structure is to help students to develop their knowledge and skills. Students are sometimes asked to self-assess against a clear set of criteria at the end of the class in order to assign themselves a grade, in some cases providing a body of evidence to support their assigned grade. Alternatively, an instructor may use a specifications framework at the end of the class.

A possible worry with this method is that students might not get enough of a sense of how they are doing without the orientation offered by letter grades. One halfway option is to give the rich feedback, and then assign grades a day later, such that students have time to engage with the feedback first. Alternatively, you might ask students to self-assess on the basis of your feedback and their own self-reflection, so that you can see whether the student’s perception is matching your own. This has the added bonus that you will get to see how your feedback is landing, and whether it is giving a full enough picture of progress in the absence of a grade.

If you are interested in knowing more about ungrading, you might check out this podcast from Susan D. Blum at the University of Notre Dame, or this blog post from Duke University.

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Interested in thinking more about ways to explore alternative grading structures in your class? Reach out to us at edtech@pacificu.edu, and we can suggest more resources or schedule a one-on-one.

We are also always looking for more answers to this question, so if you have one that’s worked for you, please let us know!

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