“Alternative” grading practices are becoming more and more common in the Writing Program and in the wider academic community. Departing from traditional assessment systems can allow for greater equity in a writing class, less stress for students and instructors, and more focus on course content, writing practices, and the learning process. It can also help to build a stronger sense of community in the classroom. There are many approaches to more equitable grading, but in our program, most of these fall under the following three main categories:
1. Less Grading
How does it work?
- Instructor: builds in more formative ungraded activities, such as presentations, short written assignments, or proposals/pitches, in order to scaffold graded assignments.
- Students: take more risks in ungraded/low-stakes activities, have more opportunities for dialogue around writing practices rather than grades, and place a greater value on peer feedback and exchange.
Why do it?
- Instructors using this approach choose to focus on formative and descriptive assessment rather than summative and evaluative assessment. Formative assessment occurs during the early steps of projects, helping students identify how they can improve their learning by describing what they are doing, asking questions for further reflection, and making recommendations for revision; formative assessments also allow teachers to monitor the effectiveness of their teaching. Research says that students are more likely to read such feedback and find it helpful if it is not accompanied by a grade. Conversely, summative assessment occurs at the end of a unit or project and usually yields a grade. Where summative assessment measures students’ mastery of the learning goals for the project or course, formative assessment addresses the student as an individual with their own learning goals and a unique trajectory.
- When summative assessment with a grade is necessary, students may tend to focus on the grade and ignore the instructor comments that accompany it; asking students to write a response back to your feedback, pose a question they have in response, and/or note one thing they will work on in a future assignment, based on the feedback, can help ensure that students pay attention to the comments and may set students up for more effective transfer from one assignment to the next.
2. Contract Grading
How does it work?
- Instructor: sets clear expectations on all the work required to achieve a base grade (usually B or B+), then provides a menu of options of activities students can complete to work toward a higher grade.
- Students: take greater risks on all assignments, rely on feedback from peers and instructors instead of grades to determine the value of their work, and, if working towards a higher grade, have the opportunity to choose their own pathway to the grade that they would like to earn.
Why do it?
- The goal of the grading contract is to reward behaviors which are within the student’s control (expenditure of time and effort) rather than those outside of their control (mastery of generic conventions, previous exposure to academic English, etc.); the contract usually includes attendance, preparation, and completion of assignments on time.
- In order to earn a grade higher than the minimum grade stipulated in the contract, students may choose to complete additional tasks and assignments, which often focus on enriching the class community or extending students’ learning beyond the classroom. While contract grading often lessens instructors’ work of recording and calculating grades, instructors still read and comment on drafts and revisions; offer students frequent formal and informal feedback; and monitor students’ overall progress in the course.
Tips for instructors:
- Craft one contract, with the requirements very clearly laid out.
- Give up judging your students’ work for quality. What makes this kind of grading more equitable is precisely that you don’t base a grade on quality. You coach students and offer plenty of feedback on quality, and you expect substantial revisions, but the A is there for everyone. Students get credit for putting in the work, no matter where they start.
- Make sure students know where they stand: Check in with students mid-semester to make sure you all are on the same page. Have them add up their points/units (or whatever you call them) periodically. Students should always know how they are doing in the class.
How does it work?
- Instructor: provides rubrics for assignment and course grades, then integrates occasions for formal (written and/or oral) self-assessment in dialogue with the instructor at particular points in the semester to determine the final grade.
- Students: take ownership of their learning, practice reflection regularly, and hold themselves accountable for completion and evaluation of coursework.
Why do it?
- Ungrading promotes student autonomy and a mutually respectful relationship between students and teachers; it gives us the opportunity to trust students to be “experts in their own learning.” Since students determine their own final grades in strategically-placed self-assessment(s), students and instructors remain in dialogue throughout the semester about the student’s performance and development. This dialogue occurs not only through feedback on formal and informal assignments but also through periodic self-assessment exercises (for example, cover letters for essays, conferences, or mid-semester self-evaluations) on which the instructor provides generous feedback.
- For instructors, ungrading, like contract grading, allows us to enjoy reading our students’ writing and to write feedback that truly engages with the student’s writing rather than feedback that simply justifies the assigned grade; it also removes much of the busywork around keeping track of and calculating grades.
Interested in using one of these approaches in your classroom?
- Adapt this sample grading contract or this ungrading statement for your own use.
- Whatever approach you use, describe it in detail on your syllabus. Note that if you are using contract grading, your contract must be part of your syllabus.
- Reach out to Curriculum Coordinators with questions.
- Talk about contract grading with your Collaborative Mentoring cluster and/or sign up to join a cluster if you have not already done so.
Rationale and Further Reading
We know that our students arrive in our classrooms with different levels of preparation and different experiences of writing instruction. We know that they speak and write different varieties of English. We also know that the conditions of their learning vary widely: some have jobs and some don’t; some are struggling with illness, disability, or trauma. Our students are impacted by their intersectional positioning and personal histories. Yet traditional grading smooths over these differences and purports to evaluate students by a single, “objective” standard. In this context, we may conclude, as does Adam Rosenblatt, that “traditional grading is one of the academy’s most pervasive and unquestioned forms of structural injustice.”
Research suggests that traditional grades reflect a student’s privilege: students with more privilege, who have often received far more exposure to the linguistic and behavioral norms deployed in the college writing classroom, earn higher grades, while students with less privilege earn lower ones. As Asao B. Inoue comments, “Grading, because it requires a single, dominant standard, is a racist and White supremacist practice. There is no way around it.” Moreover, grades have been shown to increase students’ anxiety and prevent them from taking risks: students seek to please the teacher rather than to write for themselves – to discover and explore, to experiment with their writing and take risks with their thinking. Joe Feldman reports that research conclusively shows that “intrinsic motivation—the kind of motivation that generates creative thinking and fuels effective learning—is undermined by extrinsic rewards and punishments.” Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner summarize the research succinctly: grades “enhance fear of failure, reduce interest, decrease enjoyment in class work, increase anxiety, hamper performance on follow-up tasks, stimulate avoidance of challenging tasks, and heighten competitiveness.” Students who are already affected by racism, sexism, ableism, and classism – among other structural inequalities targeting identities and experiences – can be impacted exponentially.
Instead, alternatives to traditional grading seek to create what Peter Elbow calls, in a letter he distributes to his students, “a culture of support: a culture where you and I function as allies rather than adversaries and where you cooperate with classmates rather than compete with them.” Within this alternative context, feedback on writing becomes the center of the course, and conversations with students revolve around their writing–not their grades.
When using a grading contract or another of the approaches outlined here, instructors need to be careful not to exacerbate existing inequities in the classroom. Be aware that some students with chronic illness or other disabilities may struggle to meet strict deadlines and attendance requirements. While Asao Inoue does not consider students with disabilities in his work on contract grading, Peter Elbow’s work has been applied in part at least to a disability context, and Ellen C. Carillo has begun to probe some of the potential inequities in this context as well. Ungrading or contract grading in general both seem like appealing approaches–assuming there is a certain amount of flexibility in the contract–to helping students with disabilities succeed.
Similarly, with a significant proportion of international and multilingual students in our classrooms, any approach to considering equity in assessment needs to also directly consider its effect on multilingual and/or English language learner (ELL) writers. Assessment of multilingual students’ writing in English needs to move beyond the level of the sentence and consider issues more meaningful to students’ ideas and arguments than simply their grammar. Furthermore, no student should feel that their status as an English language learner automatically prohibits them from reaching the highest tier of grading, in a contract grading scheme or otherwise.
Critical Language Awareness, popularized in college-level writing studies by Shawna Shapiro and others, is a useful lens to use when considering how to approach the assessment of student language in the classroom. Instructors using CLA may focus on raising students’ metalinguistic awareness and guiding them to reflect on their choices, which help all students (whether or not they are ELL) become better writers and revisers.
A translingual approach to writing studies also sees multilingualism as an asset and can also help instructors navigate the issue of assessment of language; in recent years, translingual approaches have invited students to negotiate the diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds they come from in their writing (Horner et al). Throughout the semester, instructors may want to recognize the varied linguistic backgrounds of students as a resource in the classroom and to incorporate classroom activities and assignments that build on this resource. Canagarajah writes, for example, that oral traditions can be used as resources for narrative and voice for multilingual students. Lee talks about “translanguaging assessment” that provides “an opportunity to reimagine assessment philosophies in ways that can work to promote linguistic social justice.” Lee also argues that, in a translingual approach, assessment criteria should be “de-universalized” because “different kinds of writing have different values for different students.” Other researchers have questioned the accuracy of formal assessment on multilingual students and the effectiveness of error correction that aims to make multilingual writing look more like the idealized “native speaker” standard. Instead of looking at multilingual student writing as deficient or as somehow not as good as the “standard,” instructors can choose to incorporate assessment practices that take into account the diversity of language backgrounds and language practices.
First-year students–who are just beginning to learn the norms of college-level classes–may need clear frames of reference provided to them in order to evaluate their own work and take advantage of the reflective space that comes with contract grading or ungrading. Similarly, some students who work best with clear parameters (particularly some lower-income and/or neurodivergent students) might find ungrading disorienting and even anxiety-provoking. Instructors might also need to prompt some students–especially first-gen college students, ELLs, BIPOC students, women, and/or nonbinary students–to assign themselves a higher rating or grade than they would otherwise feel comfortable claiming for themselves.
Both ungrading and contract grading lessen student anxiety about performing to a certain standard and encourage intellectual creativity and risk-taking. However, all of these alternative grading strategies require that instructors let go of any attachment they might have to “correct” grades – grades defined in relation to a single, putatively objective standard. Practicing equity in assessment asks instructors to unlearn long-standing habits and attend instead to the complexity of each student in their specific learning context.
- Review the CTL guide, “Alternative Approaches to Traditional Grading: A Resource for Instructors” (9/26/2022).
- Read Writing Program voices on the subject: Sarah Madsen Hardy co-authored a BU Today argument for a reconceptualization of grading across the university (5/11/2022) and Marisa Milanese and Gwen Kordonowy argued for contract grading on Cognoscenti (1/12/2022).
- Consult the reading list from our Faculty Seminar on “Grading Equitably: Rethinking Grading from Contract Grading to Ungrading, Specs Grading, and More” (Spring 2021).