Grading: Same as it Ever Was? There’s No Better Time than NOW, to Change

At the start of the pandemic, now over a year ago, it struck me that the words of the Talking Heads classic, Once in a Lifetime fit the situation well with a few tweaks (And you may find yourself, With online finals, With online meetings, And you may ask yourself, well, How did I get here?). Now, another part of that extremely hummable ditty is resonating in my head -Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

Higher education is looking forward to going back to normal. We missed face to face classes, seeing our students every week, being able to have discussions with the ability to read body language and eye contact, and all the impromptu conversations that took place. In March 2020, we pivoted to emergency remote teaching. Then for a year we taught and leant remotely as best as we could. With the discovery of the vaccine (yay science) and the increase in immunity (yay people getting their shots everywhere), Fall 2021 is looking like it will be the same as it ever was.  But should it?

There are many ways that higher education is going to change with what we learnt from the pandemic (a topic already addressed in multiple venues). Education should probably not be the same as it ever was. There is nothing like a pandemic to break routine. In addition to keeping the innovations we used to teach remotely, educators should jump at this opportunity to change what we did imperfectly before, and which did not get the close examination it needed. One of the best places to focus is how we measure learning.

Students go to college to learn and improve their job prospects, in addition to meeting friends and the lure of a rich social life. Instructors are paid to help students learn. Unfortunately, the measurement of learning leaves a lot to be desired. Most classes have students required to read material (often a textbook), go to a class (often lecture based), and then take an exam (often multiple-choice). While there are many classes, especially smaller ones, that are packed with smart course design, featuring active learning opportunities, class discussion, and writing and application assignments, most of these activities still result in a grade.

Grades are mostly earned on a scale from an A going down to an F. Sometimes there are half increments and decrements, the A+ or A-. Grades are either assigned based on points related to detailed rubrics, guides to what effort related to which grade, or awarded with instructors eye-balling essays using an implicit measure in their own heads, a general sense of whether the student “got it” or not.  Multiple-choice exams are commonly “graded” by a computer that tallies up the number of answers correctly mapping on to an answer key.

Same as it ever was. Or at least the same as it has been for about 80 years.

A large part of the issue for the use of grades has been the need for standardization often leading to an obsession with standardized testing (see Anya Kamenetz’s The Test). It is easy to do what has always been done. New teachers often use the syllabi of those who taught the course before them. Sometimes they even use versions of the exams and assignments of previous teachers. Even when teachers may feel, deep in their gut, or for that matter at the very surface, that a multiple-choice exam is not really measuring learning, there is an obvious impediment to change — the alternative would be an unreasonable amount of work. The sheer magnitude of grading written essays for 300 students makes considering an alternative untenable. Often, it is unclear what a good option can be.

But there are alternatives and THIS SUMMER, before classes start again in the Fall, may be just the time to consider changing age old practices. There is time to give grading some deep thought. Yes, get your summer fun in first and as well, but then do not squander this chance.

There are a range of possibilities for change. Two contenders are Ungrading, and Specifications Grading.  In ungrading, a movement that has already spawned an edited book with instructors providing ways to do it (Blum, 2020), the solution is simple:  Don’t grade!!  With ungrading, the instructor instead gives feedback, and structures peer and self review. If a university requires a grade (and most do) the student often provides their own grade in consultation with their instructor. For a concise introduction to this approach, see Jesse Stommel’s aptly titled “How to Ungrade.”  Inspired to experiment and want more, then get a copy of the Blum book and really dive in.

A slightly older concept involves the use of specifications. Popularized by Linda Nilson whose book also has a neat history of grading, specs grading as she calls it, involves specifying what would represent knowing the concept or mastering the skill required. The student submits an assignment and if it meets the specifications for that assignment it gets full points. If it does not, it gets no points but the student has the opportunity to revise it and try again. Sometimes instructors allow the student multiple opportunities to revise until the specifications are met. Here the emphasis is on mastery and not on levels of accomplishment pushed by traditional grading systems. Is there really an objective difference between a C and a C+? Between an A and a B-?  Instead the student focuses on nailing it.  For a short introduction to specification grading see Hall and listen to a great podcast with Linda Nilson.

Here is the bottom line. It is time we change how we measure learning. The best place to start is to think long and hard about our grading practices. It may even be a great time to think hard about assessment in general (for a great guide to assessment see this piece by Jane Halonen and colleagues). With the summer ahead of us, and a year of turbulence and emergency remote teaching behind us, this is the time to throw away old norms and break poor habits. Most of us have felt the needs to grade differently. THIS is the time to try something new.  Use it.


Blum, S. D. (Ed.). (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead).  West Virginia Press.

Halonen, J., Dunn, D., McEntaffer, R., Gurung, R. A. R., Franks, S., Gonzalez, S., Feldman, A., & Julian, M. (2018). Assessment guide for psychology teachers.  American Psychological Association.

Kamenetz, A. (2015).  The test: Why our schools are obsessed with standardized testing- but you don’t have to be. PublicAffairs Books.

Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time.  Stylus.

About the author: Regan A. R. Gurung, Ph.D. is Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Oregon State University and Professor of Psychological Science.

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