Three steps for getting started with alternative grading

Three steps for getting started with alternative grading
Photo by Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

This article originally appeared at Grading for Growth, my blog about alternative grading practices that I co-author with my colleague David Clark. I post there every other Monday (David does the other Mondays). Check the end of this post for some extra thoughts that don't appear in the original.

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In the five months since David and I started this blog, one thing has become crystal clear to us about alternatives to traditional grading: There is a great hunger among educators to change how assessment and grading are done. We're closing in on 500 subscribers here at Grading for Growth, for which we're deeply grateful, but it goes much farther than just this blog. Everywhere we go, in person or online, David and I are finding that people in education have had enough of the failures of traditional grading and are ready to make the leap to something better.

Maybe you are one of those people, and you're ready to make the leap now. You've been doing traditional grading forever but, as was my case in 2014, something's finally clicked inside you, and you want to make a move to an alternative grading system, as soon as possible: starting next semester. Which starts in six weeks. And you're wondering, Where do I even start?

If that's your situation, then this article is for you. Here are three next steps to take, to get off to a great start transitioning to an alternative grading system.

Step 1: Start with learning objectives

The first concrete step toward transitioning to alternative grading systems is simple and will improve your courses, even if you end up changing your mind about switching grading systems: Write clear and measurable learning objectives for each module of your course.

A learning objective for a lesson (or module, etc.) is nothing more, or less, than an action that a student should be able to do to demonstrate that they have learned some important topic or concept in the course. For example, in my discrete structures course, being able to apply the binomial coefficient to solve counting problems is an important thing I want students to be able to do. So I turn it into a formal learning objective: I can compute a binomial coefficient and apply it to solve counting problems. If I were teaching a US History class and wanted students to be able to discuss the causes of the Great Depression, that might become a learning objective too: I can explain the causes of the Great Depression.

Learning objectives need to be clear and measurable in order to be of use to us or students. "Clear" means understandable from the student's perspective (not ours, although it should obviously be clear to us too). "Measurable" means there is some way of knowing whether or not the student can do the action that the objective describes. The "measurement" you administer might be something quantitative, or it might be something qualitative like an essay, a project, or a sit-down discussion with a student.

In fact, this is where learning objectives tie into grading: The "measurement" you give to students to gauge their attainment of a learning objective is an assessment, and what do we do with assessments? We grade them. In traditional grading, it might be the first and only time this measurement is taken. Alternative methods, on the other hand, use assessments as opportunities to engage in a virtuous feedback loop that eventually leads to real understanding, a.k.a. meeting the learning objective. A set of clear and measurable learning objectives is therefore the skeleton of all effective grading systems. Without those objectives, our assessments may not align with what we want to measure, and the feedback loop goes nowhere.

So that's why I say, start with the learning objectives. In the next couple of weeks, set aside an hour or two to look through what you want to do in your courses for next semester. Break the whole course into smaller modules. (If you're using a textbook, you can just use the chapters and sections you plan to cover.) For each of those modules, write a list of clear, measurable learning objectives that captures all the important items you want students to learn. (Note that word important. As David mentioned last time, resist the temptation to cram too many things into a course. Cut stuff out now, before things start!)

Then you can work backwards from there: With the list of learning objectives in hand, you can then ask, What evidence might students give, that would demonstrate sufficient understanding of the objective? Next ask: What activities or assessments can students do, to provide that evidence? This is where you can start thinking about how exactly you intend to assess and grade those activities and assessments. But again, it starts with the learning objectives; and it's a good thing to do regardless of your grading preferences. And getting that done now, will make life much easier for you later.

I've written much more about the importance of learning objectives if you want to dive deeper. This article gives a tutorial on how to write good learning objectives; this one explains why good learning objectives are essential for good online and hybrid courses, and this one shows how I wrote the learning objectives for my Calculus 1 class in Fall 2020 (which used specifications grading).

Step 2: Build a professional network of alternative graders

The second step is not like the first one. Transitioning to an alternative grading system is exciting, but it's also challenging. The first time you use an alternative system, there will be times when you'll face difficulties: helping students understand your system and helping them onboard and buy in to the system; dealing with students who push back; loopholes in your system you overlooked and might need to change; questions you never considered and now need to answer. You need a support network of trusted colleagues to share ideas with, and lean on when things get tough. Building that network, and getting involved in a community of practice around alternative grading, is step 2.

Fortunately, there are several ways to go about building your support network:

  • The Alternative Grading Slack workspace, which David and I help administer, is an online community of practice with hundreds of practitioners from all over the planet and from all walks of academic life who practice, or are curious about, alternative grading. It costs nothing, and it's a strictly judgment-free zone for connecting with others and sharing ideas, materials, and questions.
  • If your college or university has a teaching/learning center, check with them to get connected with resources and people on your campus and with professional organizations. Many of these centers will help you set up faculty learning communities where you and some of your colleagues can band together for a semester and do alternative grading together. If you don't have a teaching/learning center, just start asking around. You might be surprised at how many people with whom you work may be interested in this.
  • Many disciplines have professional organizations, or branches of those, that focus on teaching and learning. The Mathematical Association of America is one example. Within those organizations might be colleagues at other institutions, but in your discipline, that either practice alternative grading or would be interested in doing so.

And don't forget to talk to your department chair and/or your dean about what you are thinking about doing next semester. You'll want to explain to them what your goals are and what your approach will be, to get them in your corner from the beginning. The first time they learn about your efforts should not be when a student goes to them to complain about it. Rather, you'd like them to be allies in your efforts.


The third and final step to get started with alternative grading goes back to your course design process. The first time you do alternative grading, you may be tempted to craft a complex system that covers every possible situation in the course. Don't. Instead, keep the whole thing as simple as humanly possible.

When I made the leap to specifications grading, I built a grading system that I felt really worked well, and, in my mind at the time, it seemed simple. It was fine --- except there were 68 (!) learning objectives, split into three groups (some of which overlapped!) with multiple assessment types on each. For all its benefits, which were numerous, my first-attempt grading system was kind of a disaster because it was so complicated.

What I learned from that experience is that in every system of grading, there's a tradeoff between accuracy on the one hand (the extent to which grades are valid measurements of learning) and simplicity on the other. It’s hard hit that sweet spot where accuracy and simplicity are both maximized. If you must err on one side or the other, I believe it’s better to make your system simple rather than to go overboard trying to make it 100% accurate.

I also believe a simple system is more likely to be accurate than a complex one, because students will understand it better, therefore will be more relaxed, therefore will do better work in most cases. A clearer set of targets is simply easier to hit.

So while you should put in the work to make a grading system for your courses that is based on sound principles of learning, that produces valid information about what students are learning, and that helps students grow in their learning — you should also not stress out over making it perfect, because it won’t be. Instead, just keep it simple and make it something that you and your students will actually like using.

You don't really even need to aim for a full-on alternative grading system next semester if it seems like too much to take on. Remember the four pillars of alternative grading. Even if you can just address one or two of those pillars, you are making major progress and doing great things for students. For example, you could implement a scaled-back approach and just focus on having clearly defined standards and allowing reattempts on assessments without penalty --- even if you stick with using points, and can't yet commit to providing lots of feedback on student work.

If you're ready to make the jump to an alternative grading system, realize that it's entirely doable! In just a few short weeks, you'll be helping your students grow and wondering how you ever did grading differently. It's not easy and you'll need help along the way. I do think these three steps will get you moving in the right direction. You can do it!

Bonus extra thoughts

  • Do clear and measurable learning objectives kill a spirit of free inquiry in a class? Some people think so (example, another example), but I disagree. Absolutely, you can over-program a class so that the course becomes more focused on standards than people. But that's not the fault of the objectives. When it happens, it's our fault (or the fault of administrators who impose cookie-cutter standards from the outside in). It's completely avoidable and completely possible to have a course that embraces the full learning process in all its messy humanity, and yet provides clear guidelines that communicate to students what they should be learning and how we as instructors plan to tell if and to what extent they've learned it. See this older post for more.
  • A point I made here that needs signal boosting: Alternative grading is not a religion and you do not have to "convert" fully to it in order to explore it. Right now it's about two weeks before the start of people's semesters. It's probably not the best time to make wholesale changes to how you grade starting from zero. So just realize, any step you make, no matter how small, toward the four pillars (or a subset of those) is good. Even if you just commit to, say, providing clear and measurable learning objectives in your course, it's a great step and you'll be part of the solution.
  • Also important: The importance of simplicity. I have a quote from Leonardo daVinci in my office: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. That goes for your course structure and grading as much as it does anything else.
Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.