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10 Alternative Grading Strategies that Foster Student Development

Use these alternative grading strategies to change the focus in your class to knowledge acquisition and self-reflection.

Instructor with students in classroom

Our traditional grading system has been a point of contention since its inception. The United States introduced numerical grading in the mid-1800s to promote efficiency and standardization, but even then, educational reformists worried this new system would lead to student competition and a reliance on extrinsic motivation.

“If superior rank at recitation be the object, then, as soon as that superiority is obtained, the spring of desire and of effort for that occasion relaxes.”

Horace Mann, 1846

Almost two centuries later, numerical grading remains a primary assessment method, but alternative grading techniques are becoming more common. Alternative grading de-centers letter grades and utilizes evaluative feedback to encourage authentic learning. 

There are various alternative grading frameworks—contract grading, ungrading, specifications grading, and mastery-based grading—and they all center around a common goal of grading for growth. When you gradually implement alternative grading techniques, the result is a shift toward student ownership and a better educational experience for all. 

This guide offers practical ways to incorporate alternative grading in the classroom. Use these tips to change the focus in your class from traditional grades to knowledge acquisition and self-reflection.

Define Learning Goals as a Class

Alternative grading seeks to evaluate progress qualitatively, while granting students a sense of ownership over their learning. Because many institutions still require educators to report final grades, alternative grading is a creative way to make assessment more inclusive and equitable without eliminating grades completely. 

Start the semester by articulating your reasons for alternative grading. Then, work together as a class to define learning objectives. On day one, ask students to actively engage in shaping the expectations and outcomes of the course. By involving students in the creation of grading contracts, you signal that the learning environment is co-constructed. 

When students have a hand in setting their own goals and measuring their progress, their motivation becomes intrinsically driven by curiosity and personal growth.

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Guide students toward thinking about the class holistically. While an “A” in the class may not require high scores on every assignment, it may require students to show up to a specified number of meetings, respect their classmates, and engage in critical discussion.

Involve Students in Creating Rubrics

Educators use rubrics to clarify expectations and make grading fair. But even rubrics with clear guidelines often fall into the traditional grading trap. The goal of alternative grading is to remove some of the pressure created by traditional grades by making the assessment process a collaborative effort.

One form of alternative grading is to give students agency of what expectations should be. While the grading contract exercise focuses on the course in its entirety, rubrics focus on specific projects and assignments.

Student-created rubrics should emphasize the learning process, as opposed to the end product.

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Instead of starting from scratch, try adapting your existing rubrics using alternative grading principles. This may involve requesting student feedback on the rubric, eliminating points or letter tiers, or making your criteria more subjective.

Prioritize Active Learning

Active learning is a cornerstone of alternative grading. When students learn through hands-on experience, the classroom focus shifts from passive absorption to dynamic engagement. 

With this shift, students become participants in knowledge construction. You can prioritize active learning in the classroom through discussions and group activities. 

Small and whole-group discussions encourage students to empathize with others and refine their perspectives. Group work stimulates critical thinking while nurturing teamwork skills.

When facilitating active learning, explain to students that the purpose of these in-class exercises is to learn from one another, not to be assessed.

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Identify an existing activity in your curriculum that typically involves individual assessment or performance. This could be a reading response, problem-solving exercise, case study analysis, or any other task that can be adapted for group engagement.

Put students into small groups, and explain the activity’s new purpose: to collectively delve into the material, ask questions, share ideas, and construct knowledge. Emphasize that the focus should be on process and active engagement, not on a final product. Spark student discussions by providing thought-provoking questions for each group.

Promote Student Choice

Alternative grading highlights the problematic nature of grading all students through one lens. Each student has a unique learning experience based on a wide range of factors, and traditional grades don’t account for this diversity. One way for students to showcase their individuality is through student choice.

Promote student choice in the classroom by allowing students to embark on projects that resonate with them. Research shows that making learning relevant in the context of the student’s own life improves both engagement with and memory of material.

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Provide an array of assessment options so students can take charge of how they learn and how they demonstrate that learning. These options may include multimedia presentations, oral exams, written papers, or any other format they propose.

Offer Flexibility with Assignments

To embrace alternative grading, you may need to reimagine your assignments. Instead of fixating on individual tasks, look at student work as a whole and evaluate their progress. Offering flexibility with assignments accommodates the variance in how students absorb and demonstrate knowledge.

Some ways to offer flexibility include dropping the lowest test score or changing up the weight of each assignment. These methods give students a chance to learn from their mistakes and improve their understanding. You can also substitute a student’s higher test grade for a final exam grade, which acknowledges that learning isn’t limited to a single assessment.

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Replace high-stakes exams with a mixture of quizzes, essays, projects, presentations, and research assignments. By diversifying forms of assessment, you can create a more well-rounded and learner-centric evaluation approach.

Allow Revisions to Obtain Mastery

Embracing alternative grading means embracing the concept of mastery. Instead of treating learning as a sprint, treat it as a marathon—one where students gradually refine their understanding. 

One way to prioritize “the marathon” is to allow revisions of student work. Fabiola Torres, Department Chair of Ethnic Studies at Glendale Community College, says in her ebook that “Building in second chances or revisions gives students a sense of security and the confidence to make a mistake—and learn from it.”

Humans learn through failure, but the consequences that accompany failure can cause students to shy away from trying again.

When you remove penalties for initial mistakes, you remove the fear around making them.

Conduct Short Conferences

Student-teacher relationships are at the heart of alternative grading. Conferences—even short ones—allow you to get to know your students, hear their point of view, and offer personalized guidance. These conversations provide insights into students’ experiences and help you understand how and if they’re grasping the material.

When students reflect and articulate on how they’re learning, they engage in metacognition. Metacognition enhances self-awareness, which can help students determine their own success in your course. If you have large classes, consider holding conferences during small group work or make them optional.

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During conferences, ask questions like: How do you feel about what you’re learning in this course? What are ways I can help you succeed in this class? What are some specific ways you’ve demonstrated your learning so far?

Rely on Peer Review

Peer assessment is a powerful alternative grading tool. It shifts the role of evaluator from the instructor to the entire learning community. Peer assessments can be formal—(having students evaluate each other’s work) or informal (having students actively engage with one another’s work). Both types of peer review challenge students to hone their communications skills and evaluate work holistically.

For more guidance on peer review, try the following resources:

  • Making Peer Review Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison. This resource offers general guidelines and a model for structuring peer review.
  • Using Student Peer Review, WAC Clearinghouse. This resource offers guidance on planning for peer review and helping students give effective feedback. It also provides sample peer review sheets.

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For group work, have students write process letters—written self-reflections of their own work and the work of their peers. Process letters help students reflect on their own contributions to the group as well as the collaborative dynamics of their team.

Engage Students in Self-Reflection

Self-reflections offer invaluable moments of introspection. At the midpoint of the course, urge students to assess what’s worked well, what excites them, and the challenges they’ve encountered. Encourage them to link to specific examples of their work, weaving their personal narratives into the learning experience.

As the course concludes, delve deeper. Pose an open-ended prompt where students pen a letter reflecting on their journey through the course. Ask them to evaluate their progress and showcase their growth. This final reflection solidifies the idea that alternative grading isn’t just about achieving a predefined benchmark; it’s about the continuous pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement.

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In the final self-reflection, ask students to propose a self-assigned grade. This is an alternative grading strategy because it provides transparency in the grading process.

Foster Honest Communication

Honest communication between students and teachers is crucial when incorporating alternative grading in your classroom. In the traditional grading model, discussions about grades can be fraught with anxiety.

In classrooms with alternative grading systems, conversations about learning and progress become a natural part of the educational journey.

Engage in candid conversations with your students about grades. Acknowledge that, while institutions might still require some form of reporting, the primary focus of your course is to facilitate learning.

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Prompt students to share thoughts about their progress in the course. Shift the dialogue from a fixation on numbers to an exploration of the learning process. Emily Dosmar, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, offers prompt examples based in three areas:

  • Will
    • Are you trying things on your own, following instructions, and being careful about your work?
    • Do you actively pursue knowledge or have I had to nudge you toward learning?
  • Skill
    • Are you able to start the assignments on your own without help?
    • If I asked you to do XYZ, could you do it?
  • Output
    • What is the quality of work you have produced so far?
    • Are you proud of what you’ve submitted?

Provide Authentic Assessment with Alternative Grading

Alternative grading is both a change in assessment and a shift in mindset. Instead of fixating on grades as the goal, redirect the emphasis toward learning itself. Remind students that education is not a series of tasks to complete for a grade but a journey of self-discovery and intellectual growth.

Alternative grading requires compromise and creativity in a world where standardized grading methods still reign. While alternative grading practices have yet to overhaul the educational system entirely, it’s still possible to remodel your classroom toward a more authentic and equitable assessment structure. Doing so can result in better relationships with your students and a stronger community of learners.

Additional Resources

About the Author

Morgan Westling is an Associate Content Specialist at Course Hero. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Portland and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from The University of the South. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and has been writing for over 7 years. Find more of her work at http://www.morganwestling.com.

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