Why do we grade and what are grades for? Although grading is ubiquitous in higher education, both long-standing evidence and continued investigations have revealed that the answer to these questions can be very different across courses and contexts. In recent years, multiple different grading frameworks have emerged with the goal of explicitly designing practices that reflect student learning. In particular, these approaches provide opportunities to give more constructive feedback to students, give the instructor and students reliable information about their learning, and focus on promoting students’ intrinsic motivation.
Instead of focusing on getting a good grade, I focused on actually learning the material. I was less stressed out, and more interested in the actual class content.undergraduate student quoted in Ungrading, by Susan D. Blum
I’ve moved away from thinking of grading as a carrot or stick. Grades should be a mirror.Instructor quoted in Grading for Equity, by Joe Feldman
Alternative Grading Frameworks
Three “alternative” grading frameworks are briefly described below. Although these frameworks aim to meet a similar goal, the advised approaches vary. Instructors are encouraged to connect with the Center for Teaching Learning (firstname.lastname@example.org) to consider which (if any) of these particular approaches might be well-suited for their courses.
Grading for Equity
Grading for Equity is a set of principles that emphasize increasing accuracy and fairness and decreasing bias and unreliability in grading practices. Grading for Equity specifically seeks to avoid grading that is dependent on subjective criteria (e.g., “effort” or “participation”), which can be prone to individual bias, particularly when clear guidelines for the criteria are not defined. The framework also advises against practices such as curving, where student achievement more closely reflects how well they performed relative to others in a class. Instead, the approach aims to promotes transparency and growth mindset, rewarding demonstrations of learning over time. See the following summary for more information about “Grading for Equity."
Specifications (or Specs) grading is a form of contract grading in which student grades are determined via a rubric detailing the number of assignments and/or the quality of work corresponding to a specific letter grade. Specs criteria can range from relatively simple to complex. While some instructors develop specs based on assignment “completeness” (e.g., all questions answered), others develop specs based on a set criteria (e.g., explicitly shared qualities of a policy brief or research proposal). Additionally, Specs grading typically includes the use of “bundles,” consisting of assignments and/or tests that students complete to a “pass” or satisfactory level. Bundles vary in their degree of difficulty, ultimately corresponding to a letter grade earned upon completion. See the following summary for more information about “Specs grading.”
Ungrading is an approach that eliminates or significantly deemphasizes letter and number grades in assessing student work, while emphasizing student reflection, self-monitoring, and self-assessment, as well as dialogue with peers and professors about performance in a course. In lieu of grades, proponents of ungrading often rely on this method to provide more feedback to students and then jointly (students and instructors) come to consensus in determining students’ grades. Although this process may eliminate grades in some ways, it does not mean that students will not receive a final letter grade, which is required by many, if not most, institutions. See the following summary for more information about “Ungrading.”