Alternative grading: A framework for emphasizing learning and de-emphasizing grades

Grades Can Hinder Learning. What Should Professors Use Instead?

What does an A, B, C, or D really mean in terms of student learning? Grades are overly emphasized in the assessment of student learning. Instructors give agonizing attention to decisions about how many points or how much partial credit to allocate to students’ work. Students stress about the points they get and oftentimes engage instructors in uncomfortable conversations about how to get more points. The fixation on grades at the expense of deep learning has generated widespread criticism of the traditional points- and letter-grade system.

Critics note that grades tend to diminish students’ intrinsic interest in learning, take the focus off feedback, produce anxiety, cause learning to stop, promote cheating, and perpetuate a fixed rather a growth mindset (Kohn, 2011; Stommel, 2020). The perception that the traditional grading system is broken (Nilson, 2016) has fueled the emergence of an ungrading movement that calls for replacing the traditional points- and letter-grade system with narrative assessments and having students give themselves a grade (Blum, 2020).

To grade or not to grade? Getting rid of grades is not the immediate or only answer. Instructors teach in graded systems. Grades will continue to be the currency of the evaluation of formal student learning in most higher education settings for the foreseeable future (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). Besides, ungrading (as the movement is often called) may inadvertently contribute to equity gaps (Talbert, 2022). There is a better approach to grading.

Alternative grading is the umbrella name for criterion-referenced grading practices that engage students in striving to achieve mastery of course learning outcomes. It is an all or nothing approach with multiple feedback and revision opportunities to help students address their mistakes and correct them. It is a significant departure from traditional grading practices where students usually have a single opportunity to show proficiency (Townsley & Schmid, 2020). Variations of alternative grading include mastery-based testing, standards-based grading, and specifications grading (Elsinger & Lewis, 2020; Kelly, 2020; Nilson, 2015).

What are the benefits of alternative grading practices?  Anecdotal reports indicated that most students appreciate the opportunity to redo tests and assignments as they work toward mastery of learning outcomes. The absence of letter grades, numerical scores, or partial credit on tests and assignments motivated students to pay close attention to instructors’ feedback and use it to revise their work. Instructors reported that alternative grading fostered greater student engagement, reduced test anxiety, and greatly decreased complaints about grades (Blackstone & Oldmixon, 2019; Pope et al., 2020). Beyond anecdotal reports, research evidence affirmed that the application of alternative grading methods improved students’ learning. Here are two examples:

  • One college algebra class of 140 students used a traditional points-based grading system and a second class with 50 students utilized standards-based grading (SBG). From college algebra, students went on to trigonometry or survey of calculus. The researcher tracked students in both pathways. In trigonometry, comparison of SBG students with a lower math placement score and traditionally-graded students with a similar placement score showed a significant difference. SBG students had an average final grade of 3.0 compared to traditionally-graded students who had an average final grade of 2.03. In survey of calculus, SBG students with a lower math placement score had an average final grade of 2.22 compared to their counterparts with an average final grade of 1.88 (Zimmerman, 2020).
  • Specifications grading was used in six sections of an undergraduate cell biology course in Spring 2019. Two sections used a traditional grading system. The end-of-semester survey indicated that the students enrolled in the specifications-graded sections demonstrated significantly higher knowledge and retention of the content being assessed than their peers in the traditionally-graded sections (Katzman et al., 2021).

Furthermore, the results indicated that SBG helped to close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students who entered the math sequence less prepared. Also, the use of specifications-grading fostered student understanding and retention of course content.

Finally, how do alternative grading methods work? Here are three preparation guides that instructors can adapt to implement these methods in their courses:

Implementing an alternative grading method requires a significant amount of work. If a comprehensive adaptation is not feasible, faculty can start small by incorporating simple ways to take the spotlight off grades (Miller 2022). Examples include grading some assignments and tests satisfactory or unsatisfactory (S/U) and giving students opportunities to use the instructor’s feedback to learn from their mistakes and revise their work.


Blackstone, B., & Oldmixon, E. (2019). Specifications grading in political science. Journal of Political Science Education, 15(2), 191-205.

Blum, S. D. (2020). Just one change (just kidding): Ungrading and its necessary accompaniments. In S. D. Blum (Ed.). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning and what you can do (pp. 53 – 73). West Virginia University Press: Morgantown.

Elsinger, J., Lewis, D. (2020). Applying a standards-based grading framework across lower level mathematics courses. PRIMUS, 30(8-10), 885-907.

Katzman. S. D., Hurst-Kelly, J., Barrera, A., Talley, J., & Javanon, E. (2021). The effects of specifications grading on students’ learning in an undergraduate-level cell biology course. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 22(3), 1-8.

Kelly, J. S. (2020). Mastering your sales pitch: Selling mastery grading to your students and yourself. PRIMUS, 30(8-10), 979-994.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Miller, D. M. (2022). Ungrading light: 4 simple ways to ease the spotlight off points. Chronicle of Higher Education.

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

Nilson, L. B. (2016). Yes, Virginia, There is a better way to grade. Inside HigherEd.

Pope, L., Parker, H. B., & Ultsch, S. (2019). Assessment of specifications grading in an undergraduate dietetics course. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 52(4), 439-446.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). Life Sciences Education, 13, 159 -166.

Stommel, J. (2020). How to ungrade. In S. D. Blum (Ed.). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning and what you can do (pp. 25 – 41). West Virginia University Press: Morgantown.

Talbert, R. (2022). Ungrading after 11 weeks. Alternative Grading.

Townsley, M., & Schmid, D. (2020). Alternative grading practices: An entry point for faculty in competency-based education. The Journal of Competency-based Education, 5(3), 1- 5

Zimmerman, J. K. (2020). Implementing standards-based grading in large courses across multiple sections. PRIMUS, 30(8-10), 1040-1053.

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