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Feedback and Grading: Traditional Grading


Traditional grading systems in higher education, typically based on a combination of letters or numbers, have long been a standard method of assessing student performance. However, this approach faces significant criticism for several reasons. First, traditional grading can often emphasize competition over collaboration, pushing students to focus more on earning points than on actual learning or understanding. This can lead to grade inflation, where higher grades are awarded for work that may not meet historical standards, thereby diminishing the value of grades as a measure of student knowledge and capability.

Moreover, traditional grading systems can inadvertently promote a fixed mindset, whereby students view their abilities as static, leading to anxiety and avoidance of challenging tasks where they risk poor grades. Such systems may also lack transparency and consistency, as different instructors might have varied expectations and grading standards, even within the same course, leading to confusion and perceived unfairness among students. Additionally, the pressure to achieve high grades can discourage risk-taking and innovation, with students preferring to stick to tried and tested means of securing good grades rather than exploring new ideas or creative approaches. As educators seek more equitable and effective methods of evaluation, these challenges prompt a reevaluation of traditional grading practices, fostering interest in alternative methods that focus on mastery, personalized feedback, and intrinsic motivation.


Taking time to reflect on your relationship to and use of traditional grades can provide you with valuable insights into how grading influences teaching methods, student interactions, and learning outcomes. Here are several strategies that you can use to critically assess and potentially recalibrate your approach to grading:

  • Conduct Self-Reflection: Begin with personal reflection on current grading practices. Faculty can ask themselves how these practices align with their educational goals. Important questions might include: Do my grading practices enhance learning? How might grades be influencing student motivation and behavior? What do the grades I assign say about my expectations?

  • Gather Student Feedback: Collect feedback from students about how grading impacts their learning and motivation. This can be done through anonymous surveys, suggestion boxes, or open discussions. Understanding students' perspectives can highlight potential adjustments to make grading more effective and less stressful.

  • Review Grading Consistency and Fairness: Examine whether grading standards are applied consistently across similar courses and among different student groups. Consider the potential biases that might affect grading decisions and explore methods to mitigate them, ensuring fairness and equity in assessment.

  • Explore Alternative Grading Models: Research alternative grading methods such as pass/fail options, standards-based grading, or contract grading. Experimenting with different methods can help identify practices that might better support learning and development, and align more closely with educational goals.

  • Engage in Professional Development: Participate in workshops, seminars, or courses on effective assessment practices. These programs can provide new insights and methods for assessing student learning, and offer support as faculty explore changes to their grading practices.

  • Collaborate with Colleagues: Discuss grading practices with colleagues to share insights and challenges. Collaborative discussions can lead to a broader understanding of how different disciplines handle grading and what innovative practices might be transferable across departments.

  • Reflect on the Role of Grades in Curriculum Design: Consider how grades influence the design of courses and assessments. Reflect on whether grading is driving the curriculum rather than serving as a tool to measure student understanding and progress.

  • Document and Analyze Grading Outcomes: Keep a record of grading outcomes and analyze them over time. Look for patterns or trends that may suggest areas for improvement, such as assignments that consistently yield poor performance or high grades that may not accurately reflect mastery.


Episode 31. Grades Do Harm! Who Are They For Anyway? with Jesse Stommel — Teaching for Student Success (71 min)
Grades demotivate student learning.  That is a problem.  Faculty also often spend significant amounts of time grading.  Another problem.  So, if we know grading demotivates learning and we are spending lots of our time grading, are we working against ourselves? Are we working against the goals of our courses?  Isn’t our goal to motivate students to learn, and then provide them with the resources they need to move from novice towards expert?  In this episode Dr. Jesse Stommel talks about problems with the traditional grading system in which most of us participate and possible alternatives.

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This book explores the many ways in which the obsession with “being smart” distorts the life of a typical college or university, and how this obsession leads to a higher education that shortchanges the majority of students, and by extension, our society's need for an educated population.

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  • Last Updated: May 2, 2024 1:40 PM
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