Alternative Approaches to Traditional Grading

Recent faculty conversations about grading have focused on how to develop assessment practices that will better serve our teaching and our students’ learning. The pandemic, in part, catalyzed this focus, forcing us to reconsider many aspects of our pedagogy and examine evidence that traditional grading practices (such as using letter grades or percentages to represent student performance on exams and assignments) can dampen intrinsic motivation to learn, interfere with students’ uptake of qualitative feedback, and exacerbate educational inequities. As a result, more BU faculty have been reimagining the grading paradigm and discovering alternative grading systems that reflect their pedagogical goals and suit their teaching styles and situations. This guide provides instructors with a starting point for learning about alternative grading approaches that could be used to support both learning and equity.

How do I get started?

There are many alternatives to traditional grading. Some may be well-suited for your classes while others may not be feasible. Keeping the following guidelines in mind may help you gravitate towards an approach that works for you.

  • Articulate your goals as an instructor: Each course has its defined Learning Outcomes, based on acquisition of content knowledge and skills. However, your goals as an instructor could encompass softer facets in a classroom, such as imparting confidence or encouraging creativity. Keeping both the Learning Outcomes and other pedagogical goals in mind while exploring the possible systems below will facilitate your choice.
  • Reflect on the most important purpose of assessing students in your course: Does grading typically end up serving that purpose in your classes? In your past experiences of grading, what has helped you achieve your purposes and what has gotten in the way?
  • Identify your students’ reason for enrollment: There are a number of reasons students may decide to take any given course. Your students’ reasons for enrollment are may influence their (initial) motivation during the course. While every grading approach is flexible in implementation, some systems may cater more easily to certain motivations. For example, a student taking a major requirement may welcome the clarity of contract grading, while a student taking an elective may find more freedom in self-assessment.
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses as an instructor: Choosing an appropriate grading approach may not only facilitate your students’ learning but also bolster your strengths in teaching. If you excel in giving good feedback or if you excel in creating interesting exercises for in-class activities, you might choose an alternative method of grading that emphasizes these aspects of the course.
  • Keep things simple: While we outline a variety of approaches and considerations below, the simpler your grading system, the easier it will be for you and your students. You do not need to invent the perfect system for your classroom nor do you have to perfect any of the systems below. One of the strengths of alternative grading is the facilitation of conversation between you and your students. You can fine-tune the alternative grading system you set up throughout the course as long as you communicate clearly with your students about any changes.

More on getting started:
These two posts by Grand Valley State University mathematics professor Robert Talbert present a good framework for integrating alternative grading approaches into your courses.

Talbert, R. (2022, June 13). What to do before you do alternative grading. Grading for Growth. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from

Talbert, R. (2021, November 29). Three steps for getting started with alternative grading. Grading for Growth. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from

What small changes can I make right away?

Changing your approach to grading requires some planning, and switching an entire course may feel like a daunting task. But keep in mind that there are many different levels of intervention.

Instead of tackling it all at once, you might start by implementing one of the approaches below. You might even realize that you are using some practices that are foundational to alternative grading already:

  • Eliminate grading policies that rely on extrinsic motivation and don’t reflect learning, such as taking points off for late work and other factors that aren’t relevant to the knowledge and skills an assessment is meant to measure. Make deadlines soft, and put the onus on students to request a new due date if they need a bit more time.
  • Allow room for mistakes. Mistakes are a crucial part of the learning process. Enhance learning and decrease anxiety by assigning more low-stakes assignments and/or quizzes that you mark only for completion.
  • Separate feedback from grading. Provide feedback throughout the semester on ungraded formative assessments of work in progress rather than at the end on summative assessments.
  • Allow revisions or retakes for at least some high-stakes assignments or tests. Give your students a chance to show you what they’ve learned rather than focusing on performance at an isolated point in time.

What are some of the most common alternatives to traditional grading?

Most alternatives to traditional grading fall under the following categories: criterion-referenced grading, specifications grading, contract grading, and ungrading (also known as self-assessment grading). There is room to adapt each approach to your own purposes, and the categories overlap in various ways. All of these approaches assume that instructors will assign each student a letter grade at the end of a class. 

Criterion-referenced grading

In this method of grading, the student’s learning is measured against a pre-specified set of criteria, without reference to the achievement of other students. The criteria are described in a rubric that you share with students before they hand in their assignment. The central intervention is to be explicit about criteria and to focus on evidence of learning rather than comparisons among a group of students (i.e., grading on a curve). 

Learn more about Criterion Referenced Assessment in this resource:

Criterion referenced assessment. Teaching & Learning – University of Tasmania, Australia. (2022, April 14). Retrieved September 22, 2022, from

Specifications grading

In this method, individual assignments do not receive letter grades; each assignment gets credit only when it meets all of a carefully defined set of specifications. Instead of attempting to parse fine gradations in quality of student work, an instructor sets the expectations for each assignment to a level that indicates an acceptable amount of learning as defined in reference to relevant learning objectives for the assignment. In order to lower the stakes of this credit/no credit system, (limited) revision opportunities are allowed, and instructors provide process-oriented feedback on each assignment so that assignments that do not yet meet all specifications may be improved. Students earn higher grades by demonstrating more mastery through completing more learning modules.

More resources:

Hall, M. (2018, April 11). What is specifications grading and why should you consider using it? The innovative instructor. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from

Alternative grading: Practices to support both equity and learning. UVA Center for Teaching Excellence. (2022, June 1). Retrieved September 22, 2022, from

Contract grading

In this method, teachers and students enter into an agreement about the amount and kind of class work students need to do to earn a given grade, which often includes both evidence of learning and engagement with process. The advantage of a grading contract is that it makes assessment criteria transparent and can be tailored easily for different contexts. Some contracts lay out clearly defined criteria for each letter grade. Others set a baseline grade (often B) and adjust according to criteria in the contract. Some instructors ask their students for input on the terms of the contract. Individual assignments aren’t graded, allowing students to focus on feedback.

More resources:

College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program (2022). CAS Writing Program_Template of Grading Contract. Boston University.

Melzer, D., Quinn, D. J., Sperber, L., & Faye, S. (2021, November 8). So your instructor is using contract grading… Writing Commons. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from

Ungrading or self-assessment grading

In this method, students are asked to assess their own learning. They practice metacognition throughout the semester and evaluate their efforts in ways structured and supported by their instructor. For example, the instructor might guide students in co-creating rubrics that help them accurately assess their work. The instructor offers formative feedback throughout the term. At the end of the course, the student proposes a final grade, which is then confirmed or adjusted in dialogue with the instructor.

More resources:

Blum, S (2022, April 19). Alternative Grading Practices for Learning and Equity. Boston University. A BU log in is required to view this video.

Stommel, J. (2020, March 4). Ungrading: An FAQ. Jesse Stommel. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from

Exam Wrappers. Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2022, from

How should I talk to my students about alternative grading approaches?

Most students come to BU having experienced success as defined through traditional grading. Communicating with students about your alternative approach is crucial.

Whatever alternative grading method you choose to implement, explain your system carefully to students at the beginning of the semester, outline it clearly on the syllabus, and expect to field questions about it throughout the course. Make it clear to your students how your grading system reflects their learning, be explicit about what you are assessing with each assignment, and make sure your feedback is focused on those assessment criteria. You might also emphasize how your approach is advantageous to them. For example, you might tell your students how your grading system makes it safe for them to go down blind alleys and even to fail periodically as a normal part of the learning process, or you might tell them how it can alleviate stress and open up creativity.

What contexts do I need to consider?

Some of BU’s schools, departments, and courses have grading policies that their instructors are asked to adhere to. It is important to check with your school or department to make sure you have support for any change. The following situational factors are also likely to affect which kind of alternative approach may work best for you in your teaching context.

Class size

Most public discussions of alternative grading approaches assume a small class size. Smaller class size generally makes it more straightforward for instructors to implement alternative grading approaches in ways that are not overly burdensome for them. For example, ungrading or self-grading normally requires individual conversation between instructor and student, which is significantly easier in classes of 25 students than it is in classes of 50 or 100.  And in a higher-level course where analysis skills are key, for example, allowing a single resubmission of a paper may drastically increase the workload for the instructor.

Nonetheless, there are options for alternative grading that can be used with classes of any size to more fairly account for student learning. Larger classes may lend themselves well to things like mastery-based learning and quiz banks. These tools ask students to focus on the material but reduce the stress of “one-chance” assignments and tests. However, instructor workload remains a concern, so the number of assessments and revisions are particularly important to keep in mind for larger classes. Resubmission or retesting is a solid option to ensure mastery of the material. Re-assessment is not feasible or necessary for every single assignment or test in a large class, but some reassessment can be offered without putting a huge burden on the instructor. Opportunities for incorporating automatic grading should be explored, albeit with caution; since these systems tend to assume a traditional grading schema, some adjustment will probably be needed.

Here’s a case study about incorporating standards-based grading in a large one-section class.

This article discusses using specifications grading in a large chemistry class with multiple TAs vs. smaller classes.

Multi-section courses

While there’s strong evidence that traditional grading is not very reliable, it offers the “illusion of objectivity,” which students and instructors alike hope will offer a consistent measure of learning across contexts. Questions about consistency in grading receive special scrutiny in multi-section courses, and alternative grading may make it more pronounced.

If you are teaching in a multi-section course that shares a common syllabus or set of standards, it’s important that any assessment system you use is aligned with those common elements and that you communicate with your team as well as your students about any alternative methods you want to incorporate. Even in multi-section courses where instructors have more autonomy, common learning objectives need to be maintained, and there may be concerns about inconsistencies across sections. This can be an opportunity to start a conversation with your colleagues and students about your reasons for wanting to implement an alternative approach.

Classes that are part of a progression

If the class is part of a progression—i.e., students will go from your class to the next class in a sequence—you will need to keep in mind what skills, standards, processes that the instructors of the next class in the progression are expecting you to have covered and how you can cover them within the alternative grading context. In courses that provide foundational material, alternative grading processes must support the students’ mastery of the material required to be successful at the next level.

Want to learn more?

The following resources, from Boston University and beyond, provide additional information to assist you as you investigate alternative approaches to grading.

Reimagining the Grading Paradigm

The Center for Teaching & Learning partnered with Digital Learning & Innovation to bring five BU faculty presenters together to discuss their approaches to different forms of grading across various disciplines. March 18, 2022.

Alternative Grading Practices for Learning and Equity

The Center for Teaching & Learning hosted a talk by Susan D. Blum, editor of Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). April 19, 2022.

Equity in Writing Assessment

BU’s Teaching Writing site offers resources for faculty across the disciplines who are interested in alternatives to traditional grading in classes that assess student writing.

Beyond BU

Beyond “The grade”: Teaching students to assess themselves. Derek Bok Center, Harvard University. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2022, from

Clark, D., & Talbert, R. (n.d.). Grading for growth. Grading for Growth. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from

Stommel, J. (2021, April 28). How to ungrade. Jesse Stommel. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from

Streifer, A., & Palmer, M. (2020, December 4). Alternative grading: Practices to support both equity and learning. University of Virginia Center for Teaching Excellence. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from


This resource was created as part of the Center for Teaching & Learning’s Summer 2022 partnership projects with faculty and graduate student instructors.

CTL is grateful to the following people in the project team for the enthusiasm and energy they brought to this project. The project team would also like to thank Sam Cook (Clinical Associate Professor, Math Education, Wheelock College of Education & Human Development) for his helpful feedback.

  • Lisa Liberty Becker (Master Lecturer, Writing Program, College of Communication)
  • Cliff Chuang (Part-time Instructor, Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, Wheelock College of Education & Human Development)
  • Sarah Madsen Hardy (Director, Writing Program, College of Arts & Sciences)
  • Jae Hyung (John) Sim (PhD Candidate, Mathematics, College of Arts & Sciences) and
  • Lucy Steinert (Lecturer, Strategy & Innovation, Questrom School of Business)

Last updated September 26, 2022.

Contributed by Lisa Liberty Becker, Cliff Chuang, Sarah Madsen Hardy, Jae Hyung (John) Sim, and Lucy Steinert