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Feedback and Grading: Alternative Grading


Alternative grading, also known as non-traditional grading, refers to a spectrum of assessment strategies designed to provide a more inclusive and comprehensive evaluation of student learning. This approach moves away from traditional letter grades and instead focuses on more formative, student-centered methods that aim to enhance learning and motivation. Methods such as pass/fail, contract grading, narrative evaluations, and standards-based grading are common examples. These methods emphasize mastery of content, providing continuous feedback, and allowing multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding. The goal is to reduce the high stakes associated with conventional grading systems, decrease anxiety, and shift the focus from achieving grades to learning deeply and meaningfully.

In practice, alternative grading systems can lead to more meaningful student engagement, greater equity in education, and improved learning outcomes. For instance, standards-based grading assesses students on their proficiency in specific learning goals, thus providing clearer insights into their strengths and weaknesses. Contract grading, where students agree to fulfill certain criteria to achieve their desired grade, encourages responsibility and self-assessment. While implementing these approaches requires careful planning and may initially challenge traditional educational paradigms, the long-term benefits include fostering a learning environment where students are motivated to learn and innovate rather than merely perform for grades. As educational institutions increasingly seek to support diverse learning needs and prepare students for complex, real-world problems, alternative grading offers a promising pathway to transform educational assessment.

In their book Grading for Growth, Clark and Talbert (2023) identify four characteristics shared by alternative grading approaches:

  1. Clearly defined standards: "Student work is evaluated using clearly defined and context-appropriate content standards for what constitutes acceptable evidence of learning."
  2. Helpful feedback: "Students are given helpful, actionable feedback that the student can and should use to improve their learning."
  3. Marks indicate progress: "Student work doesn't have to receive a mark, but if it does, the mark is a progress indicator toward meeting a standard and not an arbitrary number."
  4. Reassessment without penalty: "Students can reassess work work without penalty, using the feedback they receive, until the standards are met or exceeded."

They place these "pillars" under the roof of feedback loops, a process they find central to successful alternative grading approaches: "Humans fundamentally learn through feedback loops, but traditional grading keeps students out of such loops. Instead, a students' grade should be the result of good-faith attempts, followed by feedback and opportunities to continue the feedback loop" (Clark & Talbert, 2003, p. 25).

Picture of the four pillars of alternative grading

To learn more about these pillars and the role of feedback loops in alternative grading, see Grading for Growth, available through the COD Library as an e-book.


Image Credit: The four pillars of alternative grading by Clark and Talbert (2022) is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license


Implementing alternative grading systems in the classroom can be a transformative shift, benefiting both student engagement and learning outcomes. Here are several strategies that faculty members can consider when adopting non-traditional grading methods:

  • Define Clear Learning Objectives: Before implementing any alternative grading system, it's crucial to establish and communicate clear learning objectives. These objectives should define what students are expected to learn and be able to do by the end of the course. This clarity helps in aligning the grading system with educational goals.
  • Use Standards-Based Grading (SBG): Transition to a grading system where students are evaluated against a consistent set of predefined standards rather than against each other. SBG focuses on demonstrating mastery of specific skills or concepts, providing more targeted feedback and opportunities for improvement.
  • Incorporate Contract Grading: Allow students to have a voice in their assessment by utilizing contract grading. This method involves agreements between students and instructors about the expectations for specific grades, linking them to the completion of agreed-upon tasks and quality of work. This can empower students and encourage accountability.
  • Provide Narrative Feedback: Replace or supplement traditional grades with detailed narrative feedback. This approach offers students specific insights into their strengths and areas for improvement without the pressure of a numerical or letter grade. It encourages reflective learning and self-assessment.
  • Offer Multiple Assessment Opportunities: Allow students multiple attempts at assignments or tasks. This method supports the idea that learning is an ongoing process and helps reduce the anxiety and finality associated with single high-stakes tests.
  • Implement a Portfolio Approach: Have students compile a portfolio of work throughout the course. This collection can demonstrate their progress and learning over time, offering a holistic view of their achievements and learning journey.
  • Use Peer and Self-Assessment: Engage students in assessing their own work and that of their peers. This strategy can develop critical thinking and evaluative skills, fostering a deeper understanding of the subject matter and the criteria for good work.
  • Experiment with Pass/Fail Grading: In some contexts, offering courses on a pass/fail basis can reduce stress and competition among students, focusing them more on learning than on competing for grades.
  • Hold Reflective Conversations: Schedule one-on-one consultations or reflective conversations with students about their progress. This personalized approach can provide deeper insights into their learning processes and how they can improve.

Implementing these strategies requires thoughtful planning and a shift in mindset from both instructors and students. However, the transition can lead to a more engaging and supportive learning environment that prioritizes student growth and understanding over traditional metrics of success.


Talking About Teaching: The Future of Grading and Assessment - Chronicle of Higher Education (60 min)
Many faculty members have had to rethink how they evaluate student learning, from assignments to tests to grading. Should they stick to midterms and finals or switch to more frequent, lower-stakes quizzes? If they are online, should they consider using proctoring software to reduce cheating? Are there better ways to evaluate student learning beyond tests and papers? All of those smaller questions are often wrapped up in a larger one: What do they want students to learn and remember? And how can they tell?
How Equitable is Your Grading? - Grading for Equity
We all want our equity in our classrooms, so find out in this short quiz: How accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational is grading in your classroom? It’s REALLY important to remember that these questions aren’t assessing how much you’re committed to equity, how much you care about your students, or how dedicated you are to teaching. Through no fault of our own, teachers have had almost no training or support in how to grade. That’s why this quiz simply asks about how you grade, and gives you some feedback on how much you may be supporting equity or, inadvertently, be using 100-year old grading practices that may be perpetuating inequities. (This quiz requires an email, but the email does not need to be valid.)
Grading with Mastery-Based Testing - Trefny Center at Colorado School of Mines
Want to try alternative grading but not sure where to start? Here at the Trefny Center at Colorado School of Mines, we've collaborated with Mines professor Becky Swanson and teaching postdoc Aram Bingham to create a web resource which offers a comprehensive overview "mastery-based testing" (MBT), an* alternative approach to grading* that centers growth, reduces stress, and emphasizes attainment of concrete learning outcomes. Throughout the resource, Becky and Aram provide a comprehensive overview of their design and implementation of MBT in a linear algebra course here at Mines. It includes a student testimonial video, details about *how* and *why* they gave MBT a try, tips for getting started, and reflections on how it went, including qualitative and quantitative data that highlights students' experiences with the alternative grading system.
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  • Last Updated: May 2, 2024 1:40 PM
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