Alternative Approaches to Grading
This resource provides an overview of three alternative approaches to grading: Ungrading, Labor-Based Grading, and Specifications Grading. Each alternative approach to grading offers students and educators the unique opportunity to reflect on how student work is evaluated.
To learn more about each of these alternative approaches as well as critiques of traditional grading approaches, please read further and explore the individual resources pages linked below.
The Ungrading approach promotes the elimination (or minimization) of letter/point grades. In removing the use of letter and point grades, students experience less anxiety about academic expectations and, therefore, focus better on their learning.
Labor-Based Grading bases grades on the amount of labor that is agreed upon between students and the instructor. This grading style requires students and instructors to co-create a course contract that instructors will use to determine grades for all course members (Inoue, 2020).
Specifications Grading emphasizes the importance of transparency, mastery of learning objectives, clear alignment between assessments and learning objectives, and process-oriented approaches to learning. This alternative approach to grading encourages instructors to set clear expectations and objectives for graded work by defining the labor and expectations required to achieve an A, B, C, etc. This technique helps determine clear paths to each “grade level” by informing students about each grade level’s corresponding number of assignments and difficulty/complexity of the work. All three alternative approaches to grading offer transparency by giving students more voice and choice within the process of evaluation.
“Assigning grades was the easy way out of doing the actual work of teaching. They made it easy for me to avoid building relationships and meeting the needs of the individual student. Eliminating grades tested my creativity and patience. I was forced to rethink what went on in my class. Students had to take ownership of the class. I had to incorporate individualized learning and lots of voice and choice. I had to replace worksheets, tests, and quizzes with better forms of assessment. I had to make sure students were engaged and wanted to learn. I had to do the work with them.”
Aaron Blackwelder, “What Going Gradeless Taught Me about Doing the Actual Work” (2020)
Criticisms of traditional grading approaches
This guide was developed in response to critiques of traditional grading approaches, particularly how inequities and negative behaviors are perpetuated by these grading practices. In her anthropological research on higher education and learning, Susan Blum has identified several detrimental effects of grades:
- Grading requires uniformity and assumes uniform process and uniform output;
- Grades don’t provide accurate information about students’ accomplishments, adequacy, excellence, or gain in learning;
- Grades don’t motivate students but instead promote and reinforce extrinsic motivation, fear and avoidance; and
- Grades detract from the value of written feedback when given at the same time as that feedback (Blum, 2017).
Asao Inoue’s work is also vital for thinking critically about how risk-aversion in students’ writing, thinking and personal and intellectual development can be negatively affected by grading, and how its hegemonic effects can be especially harmful for multilingual students, working class students, and students of color (Inoue, 2012 & 2015).
Bibliography & thank you
Bali, M. (2018, March 20). Ungrading My Class—Reflections on a Second Iteration. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/ungrading-my-class-reflections-on-a-second-iteration
- Barre, E. (2016, February 16). Meaningful, Moral, and Manageable? The Grading Holy Grail. Rice University Center for Teaching Excellence. https://cte.rice.edu/blogarchive/2016/2/9/grading
- Blackwelder, A. (2018). What Going Gradeless Taught Me About Doing the “Actual Work.”
- Thinking 101. https://mrblackwelder.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/what-going-gradeless-taught-me-about-doing-the-actual-work/
- Blum, S. D. (2020). Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). http://wvupressonline.com/ungrading
- Burtis, M. F., with illustrations by Ashley Hichborn (2019) Ungrading: A Chapbook.
- Campbell, R. L., Svenson, L. W., & Jarvis, G. K. (1992). Perceived Level of Stress among University Undergraduate Students in Edmonton, Canada. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75(2), 552–554. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.19220.127.116.112
- Daniel, C., Howard, J. T., Newman, L., Bond, N., & Romero-Hall, E. (n.d.). (Un)Grading – Feminist Pedagogy for Teaching Online. Feminists Teach Online. Retrieved August 24, 2022, from https://feminists-teach-online.tulane.edu/ungrading/
- Feldman, J. (2020, January 27). Improved Grading Makes Classrooms More Equitable. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/01/27/advice-how-make-grading-more-equitable-opinion
- Inoue, A. (2014). A Grade-Less Writing Course That Focuses on Labor and Assessing. First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice, 71–110.
- Inoue, A. B. (2012). Grading contracts: Assessing their effectiveness on differential racial formations. In A. B. Inoue & M. Poe (Eds.), Race and Writing Assessment (pp. 79–94). Peter Lang.
- Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. The WAC Clearinghouse; Parlor Press. https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2015.0698
- Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado. https://doi.org/10.37514/PER-B.2019.0216.0
- Kohn, A. (2013). The Case Against Grades. Counterpoints, 451, 143–153. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42982088
- Kohn, A. (1999). From Degrading to De-grading. High School Magazine. https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/degrading-de-grading/
- Inoue, A. B. (2022). Labor-Based Grading Resources. Retrieved August 23, 2022, from http://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/p/labor-based-grading-contract-resources.html
- Plymouth State University Open CoLab. (n.d.). Ungrading Resources: PSU Open CoLab. Google Docs. Retrieved August 24, 2022, from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yKqmxvpRZyVO5oqRQ5ox4ysotRf0PWTl2-qsatgr68Y/edit?usp=embed_facebook
- 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
- Shor, I. (1999). What is Critical Literacy? Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism, and Practice, 1(4), 2–32. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6300-106-9_2
- Sorensen-Unruh, C. (2020, January 14). Ungrading: What is it and why should we use it? [Text]. Chemical Education Xchange. https://www.chemedx.org/blog/ungrading-what-it-and-why-should-we-use-it
- Stommel, J. (2018, March 11). How to Ungrade. Jesse Stommel. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/
- Stommel, J. (2020, March 3). Ungrading: A Bibliography. Jesse Stommel. https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-a-bibliography/
- Streifer, A., & Palmer, M. (2020a). Specifications Grading Sample Materials—Google Drive. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1n5LtmfeV8GPOXpuv7mLzf43B3pzg9yx0
- Streifer, A. & Palmer, M. (2020). Alternative Grading: Practices to Support Both Equity and
- Learning. Center for Teaching Excellence. https://cte.virginia.edu/blog/2020/12/04/alternative-grading-practices-support-both-equity-and-learning
- Zeidner, M. (2007). Test anxiety in educational contexts: Concepts, findings, and future directions. In P. A. Schutz & R. Pekrun (Eds.), Emotion In Education (pp. 165–184). Elsevier Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-012372545-5/50011-3
Special thanks to Alexa Easter, Sarah Hwang, Joscelyn Jurich, Emily Ndiokho, Alexandria Sessions, Annabelle Tseng, Duygu Oya Ula, and Guadalupe Vasquez for authoring portions of this resource and providing feedback on drafts.