Alternative Grading: Practices to Support Both Equity and Learning

By Adriana Streifer, CTE Assistant Director and Michael Palmer, CTE Director

In the face of educational inequities exacerbated by COVID-19, how can instructors harness their grading practices to support equitable outcomes and deep learning for all students?

This fall, in response to a Student Council resolution and an open letter/petition that garnered over 1,400 student signatures, UVA offered students a Credit/General Credit/No Credit grading option as an alternative to receiving letter grades in their courses. The CR/GC/NC system was intended to respond to and mitigate the myriad challenges, stresses, and barriers to learning that students have experienced as a result of the pandemic. A fall survey of over 2,000 undergraduate students found that 93.6 percent of respondents face at least two and as many as thirteen of fourteen predefined barriers to learning, including difficulty learning over Zoom, loneliness, financial insecurity, and mental health concerns. Only 2.8 percent of respondents reported encountering no barriers to their learning. In recognition of these ongoing stresses and challenges, Provost Liz Magill extended the CR/GC/NC grading policy to J-Term and Spring 2021 courses as well.

UVA’s CR/GC/NC option offers us a rare opportunity to think critically about aligning our grading practices with both student learning and well-being. At the CTE, we typically de-emphasize grades because they are a poor representation of teaching and learning. Instead, we encourage instructors to focus on developing significant and robust learning objectives, meaningful and authentic assessments, and positive and compassionate relationships with students. Alternative grading schemes can support those efforts.

Reconsidering how and why we grade can help us develop practices that reduce students’ anxiety, address some of the inequities of traditional grading schemes, save us time, and foster more positive, meaningful communication between us and our students. We’ll share how alternative approaches can

1) help to address some of the problems with traditional grading,
2) introduce you to a grading method that can easily be adapted to your course, and
3) give you step-by-step instructions for designing your own alternative grading scheme.

 

What are the problems with traditional grading? Why should I consider alternatives?

Among its many other negative effects, the COVID-19 pandemic has unsurprisingly intensified students’ stress and anxiety about grades. However, the pandemic’s impact on students’ grades is not uniformly distributed. Students who have reliable technology access, private and comfortable study spaces, and few concerns about safety, financial hardship, learning needs, or health problems are much less likely to suffer harm to their grades than their peers who lack one or more of these things. In the midst of the pandemic, then, grades are more likely to measure students’ relative levels of privilege rather than their learning in a particular course. Traditional grades have long perpetuated inequities in education (Feldman, 2019), and the pandemic only exacerbates them.

Even under “normal,” pre-COVID circumstances, traditional approaches to grading create many problems. Grades dampen students’ innate curiosity and motivation to learn, and increase extrinsic motivation (Kohn, 2012; Chamberlain, Yasu, and Chiang, 2018; Michalides and Kirshner, 2005). They also adversely impact students’ mental health (Pulfrey, 2011), decrease their enjoyment of school and of learning, foster competition among students and adversarial interactions between students and instructors, reduce students’ interest in and attention to written feedback, and encourage students to avoid challenging tasks (Schinske and Tanner, 2014). Grades negatively affect instructors as well. The process of grading is time-consuming and tedious. It includes none of the elements that make teaching fun and rewarding, and the obligation to assign grades undermines the positive, supportive relationships that we hope to cultivate with students.

Traditional grades bear little relationship to learning. Receiving and integrating feedback is an essential part of the learning process, but because grades are retrospective, they serve as a poor feedback mechanism. The meaning of grades may also not be obvious to students; they do not understand what is expected of them in order to earn a particular grade, nor do they know what criteria to use to self-assess their progress. The relative opacity or transparency of grades is highly dependent upon instructors’ assessment practices, and alternative grading systems encourage greater transparency and better communication between students and instructors (Winkelmes, 2016).

Of all the problems with grades, perhaps the most egregious is that they reinforce historic and continuing inequities in higher education. Students from different demographic groups experience very different outcomes in terms of both grades and college completion rates, and these differences persist even when researchers control for prior preparation and academic ability (Molinaro 2019; Johnson, Molinaro, and Motika 2018; UC Davis CEE Equity Project). Thus, grades are more likely to reflect students’ demographics, access to technology, access to academic support resources, financial constraints, and mental and physical health than their actual learning in a given course or semester. For these reasons, grades cannot be trusted as accurate measures of student achievement. And if we care about rectifying educational inequities, then we must interrogate and alter our grading practices.

Alternative grading schemes invite us to reconsider not only how, but also why we grade. They invite us to embrace the philosophy that higher education should function as a universal public good, rather than as a private, market good that evaluates and sorts students for the purposes of career preparation. As Stuart Tannock asserts, “The question of grading in assessment is just one piece of thinking through what a genuinely empowering, emancipatory, and democratic model of public higher education should look like” (2017, p. 1346). Our traditional grading system encourages students to adopt a consumer mentality toward education, in which the point of college is to receive grades on the way toward a degree, rather than to learn. If education ideally fosters “critical, reflexive, independent and democratically-minded thinkers” (p. 1349), then grading as commonly practiced stands in the way of that goal.

At their most radical, alternative systems do away with grades entirely in favor of holistic and continuous forms of assessment and feedback. In most cases, individual instructors cannot decide unilaterally to abolish grades, but they can transform the process by which students’ grades are determined. Alternative approaches include pass/fail or mastery-based systems, narrative or portfolio-based grading, and dialogic/participatory forms of assessment such as contract grading. Many alternative approaches invite students to exercise the complex skill of thinking critically about their own learning and their goals for their education. Non-traditional grading practices offer an “opportunity for students to deliberate cooperatively on the terms of their experience, to develop democratic agency... Democratic deliberation in classrooms is counter-hegemonic, against the dominant market forces directing society" (Shor, 2009, p. 17). Although the details of each grading approach differ, the goals are the same: to reduce or eliminate hierarchies between students and instructors; to reclaim the expansive, democratic, and liberatory purposes of higher education; and to transform grades into more accurate reflections of student learning.

An alternative approach that some of us at the CTE use is called specifications grading, aka specs grading, which integrates components of mastery-based grading and contract grading. When done well, it encourages students to prioritize learning over grades and invites them to participate in the process of determining what counts as acceptable evidence of learning. Although no studies exist yet that definitively show specs grading to be more equitable than traditional methods, we believe it has the potential to serve the goal of equity if it is implemented carefully, intentionally, and with a deep understanding of how institutional racism operates in grading. Below, we’ll tell you more about specs grading and how it works, and then walk you through the process of developing your own specs grading system.

 

What is specifications grading?

Specifications grading is an alternative approach to grading that prioritizes transparency, student mastery of learning objectives, careful alignment between assessments and learning objectives, and process and growth-oriented approaches to learning. Though students ultimately earn a letter grade for the course, the method of assigning that grade differs from the traditional method of calculating a weighted average of all individual assignment grades. In specifications grading, instructors set clear, comprehensive expectations for successful completion of each assignment (i.e., an assignment’s specifications, also called expectations or criteria). Instructors then bundle together assignments to create pathways to each grade level. The grade-level bundles are differentiated by the quantity of assignments, the difficulty and complexity of the work, or both.

The final course grade is determined by students meeting specifications for all assignments in a particular grade bundle. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades; each assignment gets credit only when it meets all of the specifications. This binary evaluation system is an essential component of specifications grading; instead of attempting to parse fine gradations in quality of student work, an instructor sets the expectations for each assignment to a level that indicates an acceptable amount of learning. The definition of “acceptable” for each assignment should be closely tied to the relevant learning objectives for the assignment. In order to lower the stakes of any given assignment, specifications grading systems generally allow for (limited) revision opportunities, and instructors provide process-oriented feedback on each assignment, so that assignments that do not yet meet all specifications may be improved.

Specifications grading systems reconcile the tension that instructors may feel between maintaining rigorous standards for learning and treating students with empathy and understanding. Well-designed systems articulate high but not impossible expectations for students’ learning. Each assignment’s specs should define what solid, high-quality, though not perfect learning looks like (a common benchmark we recommend to instructors is to describe in detail their mental image of B or B+-level work). Because all assignments’ specs are binary, and do not vary based on the grade bundle students complete, instructors who use specs grading ensure that all students meet rigorous standards for learning, even those students who complete the C or D grade bundles.

At the same time that specs grading ensures high-quality learning, it also allows instructors to attend more fully to students’ well-being. Specs grading requires total transparency, which significantly decreases the anxiety students feel about grades, while also increasing their sense of confidence and sense of belonging in the classroom (Winkelmes, 2016). When specs grading is done well, instructors communicate all evaluation criteria for student learning at the start of the semester, provide examples of student work that meets expectations, and regularly have conversations with their students to gauge their understanding. Additionally, we encourage instructors to invite students to contribute to the process of defining specifications for particular course elements, such as class participation. Through engaging in this ongoing process of developing mutual understanding, specs grading restores equity to grading and allows students to take ownership of the evaluation process. Grades are no longer based on assumptions that may be invisible to some students but intuited by others.

 

Designing a specifications grading system

The possibilities for specifications grading schemes are limitless and shaped by a course’s unique learning objectives, format, assignments, content, student characteristics, learning technologies, and teaching and grading supports. This allows you to create a system to best support your learning environment, but the high degree of choice can sometimes feel overwhelming. To get you started, we’ve outlined eight steps to help you create an equitable, transparent specs grading system that fosters learning and engagement and encourages students to produce high-quality work on their first try.

 

Resources

  • If you’re interested in learning more about alternative grading schemes or want to discuss your own specs grading system, schedule a one-on-one consultation with a CTE faculty member.
  • This Google Folder contains sample specifications grading assignments and schemes (also shared in the Examples section above).
  • Meaningful, Moral, and Manageable? The Grading Holy Grail - In this post, an instructor shares why she decided to try specifications grading and lessons learned from her experiment.
  • Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) - After reviewing the history of and research on grading practices, the authors share four strategies for making the process "more productive, better aligned with student learning, and less burdensome for faculty and students."

 

References

  • Chamberlin, K., Yasué, M., & Chiang, I-C. A. (2018). The impact of grades on student motivation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787418819728
  • Dixon, H., Hawe, E., & Hamilton, R. (2019). The case for using exemplars to develop academic self-efficacy. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(3), 460-471.
  • Feldman, J. (2019). Beyond standards-based grading: Why equity must be part of grading reform. Phi Delta Kappa, 100(8), 52–55. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031721719846890
  • Johnson, T., Molinaro, M., Motika, M. (2018, November). Exploring Factors in Course Grade Equity (and what we might do about it). California Association for Institutional Research, Anaheim CA.
  • Hendry, G. D., White, P., & Herbert, C. (2016). Providing exemplar-based ‘feedforward’ before an assessment: The role of teacher explanation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 17(2), 99-109. https://doi.org/10.1177/1469787416637479
  • Kohn, A. (2012). The Case Against Grades. Education Digest, 77(5), 8–16.
  • Michaelides, M., & Kirshner, B. (2005). Graduate Student Attitudes toward Grading Systems. College Quarterly, 8(4). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ848740
  • Molinaro, M. (December, 2019). Institutional Infrastructure for Teaching and Learning Data. An invited talk for the University of Virginia leadership. December 13, 2019
  • Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054
  • Tannock, S. (2017). No grades in higher education now! Revisiting the place of graded assessment in the reimagination of the public university. Studies in Higher Education, 42(8), 1345–1357. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1092131
  • Winkelmes, M.-A., Bernacki, M., Butler, J., Zochowski, M., Golanics, J., & Harris Weavil, K. (2016). A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ Success. Peer Review, 18(1–2). https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2016/winter-spring/Winkelmes

Sign up for email updates

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.