Written by Laura Hartmann-Villalta
Grades Are Newer Assessment Tools Than You Think They Are
Universities did not start keeping track of student performance until the early 19th century, and even then, the assessment took place at graduation and was mostly private. Only when more higher education institutions cropped up in the early twentieth century did grades become the primary means of communication between these institutions. Grades had to be legible to third parties outside of the student-teacher dynamic, and the scales became less and less idiosyncratic, with “E” dropping off the A-F scale sometime in the 1930s. Today, we too easily see the pitfalls of grading: the struggle against grade inflation; how to motivate students beyond their course grade; and accounting for learning over their undergraduate career.
Researchers have found that grades hamper students’ learning by discouraging risk-taking, failing to consider both the learning process and growth over the semester, focusing attention on the grade instead of the instructor comments connected to the grade, and often reflecting the grader’s unconscious bias. Even with these well-established conclusions about grades, instructors continue to focus on assigning grades to student writing, and students continue to focus on getting the best grade possible instead of mastering the course’s content or developing skills that their employers will find valuable. In short, grades can make everyone fail.
There are particular reasons to consider grading alternatives when it comes to teaching writing. Perfectionism can be paralyzing to the writing process: to produce good work, writers need to first produce “shitty first drafts” (as novelist Anne Lamott’s much-distributed essay reminds us). In addition, writers are constantly striving to improve their craft. As Susan D. Blum, editor of Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), remarks, “With ungrading, you don’t get an A; this is a reminder that writing is never complete, never perfect.” Finally, assigning grades on writing assignments is tedious and time-consuming, and can be a barrier for instructors—especially those with large class sizes—who would otherwise like to assign more writing in their classes.
For faculty steeped in traditional assessment methods, some of the popular alternatives to grading may be surprising. Often, there is a two-pronged motivation to try an alternative method of grading: to motivate student learning beyond the grade and to take away instructor agony over assessment (and post-assessment debates with students over grades). Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, commenting on her experience in “A STEM Ungrading Case Study: A Reflection on First-Time Implementation in Organic Chemistry II,” explains how pursuing an alternative grading method gave her students more ownership of the assessment process, raised students’ metacognition, and increased agency over their own work. “My students did not even recognize this kind of grading was something [instructors] regularly agonized over until they had to do it themselves,” she reports. “It was only when they graded their own papers for the first time that they realized taking off points had reasoning behind it and that the process of grading was muddy and difficult.”
The aim of the following methods is to make grading less muddy and difficult, and to return the focus of assessment to one’s goals for the course. These methods provide great flexibility for the instructor and can be used in combination with each other, for only one assignment, for multiple assignments, or for the whole course.
“It was only when they graded their own papers for the first time that they realized taking off points had reasoning behind it and that the process of grading was muddy and difficult.”
“Ungrading” is an assessment method based on conversation with the student and self-reflection on the student’s part in which the student–with the instructor’s guidance and input–determines what learning goals they’ve achieved and what they still need to work on. It’s considered “ungrading” because the work of grading is collaborative and based on reflection, not on overt instructor assessment of the work.
Often, the instructor will ask the student to justify their “ungrades” through a reflection that links the student’s self-assessed performance to the learning goals. At the end of the course, the student, through dialogue and reflection, will be assigned a grade, on the instructor’s preferred grading scale, which addresses the student’s semester-long performance.
Specifications grading, or “spec” grading, uses a binary evaluation system of satisfactory/unsatisfactory where instructors set clear, comprehensive expectations for each assignment. These expectations are the specifications, and the specs are shared with students to increase transparency. Instructors bundle together assignments to create pathways to different grade levels (e.g., achieve a satisfactory on all major writing assignments and 8 out of 10 labs to achieve a B) and provide process-oriented feedback which helps students revise. In this method, students are generally permitted (limited) revision opportunities.
Students appreciate knowing the specs and the fact that they have more control over their grade. Spec grading also provides flexibility in spec grading for the instructor. An instructor could decide to do spec grading for the C/D range, but not for the A/B range (or vice versa) or decide to use spec grading for only some assignments. Instructors generally link the specs to the course’s learning outcomes so that students meet the learning outcomes regardless of which grade level they attempt.
Bundles that require more work, more rigorous work, or both earn students higher grades; but the onus is on the student to choose which bundle to attempt. Rather than parsing out quality in individual assignments, instructors determine an acceptable amount of learning for each grade level and whether students have met these specifications.
Maria Bulzacchelli’s Introduction to Public Health, featured in the Model Library, is an example of a course that uses spec grading.
Contract grading, or sometimes, Labor-based grading
Contract grading in all its permutations is meant to reduce the subjectivity of grading by making transparent for students–and instructors!–what is being valued in assessment. It also shifts the evaluation to students’ labor and processes rather than the final product.
In contract grading, dialogue between instructor and student is paramount to avoid later confusion. Students and instructor, in what is sometimes called a “negotiated contract,” determine an agreement where students decide up front what grade to work for and specify what must be done to achieve this grade. Of course, the instructor can determine these factors on their own, in a unilateral contract. Sometimes these contracts are individual, but often they are class wide.
The instructor can choose whether to use a contract based on straightforward labor (such as hours spent on an experiment or number of revisions of an essay), on quality, or some combination (for example, with a schema of Missing, Incomplete, Complete, and Superior). Instructors should provide feedback on major assignments, but can relax some over the stress of assessing the nuances of letter grades or taking off points. Often, contract grading includes a reflective component in which students assign and justify their grades.
View a sample grading contract from our Model Library.
Against Mastery; More Learning
One should carefully consider course learning outcomes before replacing one grading system with another. Ultimately, all these approaches encourage instructors to question both legacy practices in grading and what they value in assessment. In the words of John Warner from his October 2022 Inside Higher Ed article, one should assess only what one values, be transparent with students as to what counts when it comes to assessment, and use assessment purposefully, not just because it is expected–regardless of one’s method of grading.
Cited and Recommended Sources
- Carillo, Ellen C. “Introduction.” The Hidden Inequities in Labor-Based Contract Grading, University Press of Colorado, 2021, pp. 3–8. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv20zbkwn.4. Accessed 8 Mar. 2023.
- Cowan, Michelle. “A Legacy of Grading Contracts for Composition.” Journal of Writing Assessment, vol. 13, no. 2, July 2020, pp. 1–14. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0j28w67h.
- Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Penguin Random House, 1994, pp. 20-27.
- McKnelly, Kate J., et al. “Redesigning a ‘Writing for Chemists’ Course Using Specifications Grading.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 98, no. 4, Apr. 2021, pp. 1201–07. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00859.
- Melzer, Dan, and John C. Bean. “Alternatives to Traditional Grading: Portfolio Assessment and Contract Grading.” Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2021, 338-352.
- Nilson, Linda B. “Essentials of Specifications Grading.” Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2014. 56-66.
- Schinske, Jeffrey, and Kimberly Tanner. “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently).” CBE life sciences education vol. 13, no. 2, 2014, pp. 159-66. doi: 10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054
- Sorenson-Unruh, Clarissa. “A STEM Ungrading Case Study: A Reflection on First-Time Implementation in Organic Chemistry II.” Ungrading : Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia University Press, 2020.
- Toor, Rachel. “The Controversial but Useful Practice of ‘Ungrading’ in Teaching Writing.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26 April, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/why-to-use-ungrading-when-you-teach-writing.
- Warner, John. “There’s No Right Way to Ungrade.” Inside Higher Ed, 24 Oct. 2022, https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/there’s-no-right-way-ungrade.