Grading differently: Rethinking how and why we grade our students

Stressed students surrounded by grades

Have you ever wondered why we grade the way that we do in higher education? If your answer to that question is “not really” then you are not alone. As authors such as Cathy Davison have pointed out, there is a long-standing tendency for universities to treat grading practices uncritically – in other words, we accept that grading is simply part of what we do.

Recently, however, a number of voices have emerged calling for a critical re-evaluation of conventional grading practices. Advocates suggest that current grading often makes for unfulfilling work on the part of the faculty member, who spend time making decisions, such as the difference between a grade of 90% or 92%, that are not necessarily meaningful to them or the student. In a similar vein, others suggest that conventional grades shift the focus to extrinsic, as opposed to intrinsic, motivation. By making the grade the center of attention, students may be more prone to stress and anxiety, and less inclined to engage in new or creative activities. Or at least some students may be. Perhaps the most passionate advocates for grading differently emphasize the diversity of learners in our classrooms, highlighting how current grading schemas can exacerbate persistent inequities, especially in high-stakes testing environments.

The movement that has arisen from these critiques is often referred to as “ungrading” a term which implies the potential dissolution of grading altogether.  More practically, a number of alternative approaches to grading have emerged that can be adapted to most institutional contexts. The nomenclature is evolving, but some of the most popular approaches are specifications grading, contract grading, and consultative grading.

Specifications Grading: Often referred to as “specs” grading, this approach emphasizes a simplification of the grading process, so that each criteria or competency (the “spec”) can be assessed simply as whether the student has met the standard (yes) or not (no).

Contract Grading: In this approach, students make an individual contract with the instructor at the beginning of the semester that allows them to make choices regarding what and how they will be graded.  For example, a frequent choice is the relative weight of assignments, which enables the student to tailor the assessment to their strengths and goals.

Consultative Grading: This approach places considerable weight on student self-assessment. In a typical example, the student makes a case to the instructor regarding their performance, and the two then consult together to make the final grade determination.

This list is by no means exhaustive and new approaches have been rapidly emerging. The majority share a number of features in common, including an emphasis on generative feedback, the establishment of multiple pathways to success, the amplification of student voice/choice in the process, and increased recognition of the work, or labor, of the learning process.

Research on various iterations of ungrading practices is only just starting to appear, but studies so far have indicated that the practices lead to significant decreases in student stress and anxiety while enhancing their intrinsic motivation to learn. More critical pieces, on the other hand, have pointed out that the practices may not be as equitable as proponents believe.  Resulting changes in grade distributions have also contributed to broader concerns about grade inflation. Overall, the evidence base supporting enhanced learning outcomes through grading differently remains thin, at least until more research emerges, which may be a potential window of opportunity for any early adopters at UW.

Interested in joining the grading differently community? Here are some ways you can be part of the conversation.

#ungrading on Twitter features lively, often passionate, conversations on the subject.

https://gradingforgrowth.com/. This engaging (sometimes intentionally funny) blog is maintained by two mathematics professors (who have a book coming out soon under the same title).

https://ungrading.weebly.com (temporarily unavailable). This professor-led blog provides up-to-date information about blogs, podcasts, and other media related to ungrading.

Interested in reading more about the movement? Try these popular book titles.

Blum, S. D., & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press. This book is a series of case studies in ungrading practice.

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom.  This book appears to focus largely on writing classes but makes a compelling argument for more inclusive and equitable grading across all disciplines.

Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC. This is a clear and straightforward guide to setting up your own specifications grading practice.

Interested in reading research on grading differently practices? Here are a few selected examples.

Blackstone, B., & Oldmixon, E. (2019). Specifications grading in political science. Journal of Political Science Education15(2), 191-205.

Campbell, R., Clark, D., & OShaughnessy, J. (2020). Introduction to the special Issue on implementing mastery grading in the undergraduate mathematics classroom. PRIMUS30(8-10), 837-848. (Note: full issue is also worth checking out).

Gaudet, L. (2022).  Labour-based grading contracts in an indigenous-specific section of academic reading and writing. Discourse and Writing/Rédactologie32, 418-428.

Gorichanaz, T. (2022). “It made me feel like it was okay to be wrong”: Student experiences with ungrading. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14697874221093640.

Guberman, D. (2021). Student perceptions of an online ungraded course. Teaching and Learning Inquiry9(1), 86-98.

Howitz, W. J., McKnelly, K. J., & Link, R. D. (2020). Developing and implementing a specifications grading system in an organic chemistry laboratory course. Journal of Chemical Education98(2), 385-394.

Laura Cruz (PhD, University of California at Berkeley, 2001) is an Associate Research Professor of Teaching and Learning Scholarship with the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence at Penn State. She also holds a position as visiting faculty with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Prishtina in Kosovo, part of a Fulbright specialist appointment.
Before coming to Penn State, she served as the director of two centers for teaching and learning and editor-in-chief for four journals in the field. Her published work comprises 100+ studies in history, pedagogy, and educational development, including her most recent co-authored book, Taking Flight: Making your Center for Teaching and Learning Soar (Stylus).

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