Yes, Virginia, There's a Better Way to Grade

While we in higher education keep using it, our grading system is broken, argues Linda B. Nilson, and she offers some concrete ways to fix it.

January 19, 2016

Pause a moment to consider the way we’ve been grading our students’ work since time immemorial. The way we allocate points on the basis of apparent quality. The way we struggle to be fair in giving the same number of points to works of comparable quality, even though they differ a great deal -- and the time it takes us to make these hairsplitting decisions. The way students stress over the points their work does or doesn’t get. The way they challenge our grading decisions in the hope of squeezing more points out of us -- despite the agonizing care and attention to detail we give to their work. For students, it’s all about maximizing partial credit.

Consider, too, the value that external stakeholders attach to our grading. Most employers of our graduates give grades little heed in hiring. They want experience. At the program and university level, accreditors eschew grades and demand independent evidence of student achievement of learning outcomes.

Our grading system is broken, yet we educators keep using it. You may think you have no alternative. But you do. And you can comfortably make the change in your own classes and not confront your administration.

Imagine another grading system, one where you grade all assignments and tests satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail. Students earn all of the points associated with the work, or none of them, depending on whether their work meets the particular specifications you laid out for it. This is why I call this grading system specifications, or specs, grading. Think of the specs as a one-level, uni-dimensional rubric. But don’t think of them as defining D or even C minus work. Rather, imagine that they define truly “satisfactory” as at least B work -- maybe even A minus work. This assures rigor.

The specs may be as simple as “completeness”: for instance, all the questions are answered, all the problems attempted in good faith or all the directions followed (that is, the work satisfies the assignment), plus the work meets a required length. Or the specs may be more complex: for instance, the work fulfills the criteria you set out for a good literature review, research proposal or substantial reflection.

You must write the specs for a complex assignment very carefully, clearly and thoroughly. They must describe exactly what features in the work you want and will look for. This may mean specifying the organization as well as contents of each section of the work, perhaps even paragraph by paragraph.

Too formulaic? Let’s be real: most of our assignments follow a formula. All you have to do is lay out that formula or whatever part of the formula is important for your students to learn and follow. If you’re bothered by late work, you can include on-time submission among the specs, too.

If your objective for an assignment is creativity, simply provide loose specs of the various ways that students can demonstrate their ability to explain and apply the material -- such as a 20-minute informational video or dramatic performance, a four-minute original musical performance, a 15-page short story or an eight-minute persuasive speech. You can specify basic parameters for creative assignments and not worry about “grading” them.

In sum, complete, satisfactory work receives full credit (full value), and incomplete, unsatisfactory receives no credit/value. For students, it’s all or nothing. No skipping the directions and no sliding by on partial credit for sloppy, last-minute work.

In fact, research reveals that this kind of assignment grading increases student motivation and produces higher-quality work than traditional grading systems do. And the 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement has found that only 54 percent of freshmen and 61 percent of seniors believe that they have been “highly challenged to do their best work” in college. Clearly, our students have room to meet higher and more rigorous academic standards. Maybe we’ve gone too far with lowering the stakes of our assignments and tests. Now, nothing students do matters much to them.

But what about second chances, redemption and flexibility? Consider this second element of specs grading: a virtual-token economy, which buffers the riskiness of no partial credit and allows the opportunity for redemption.

At the beginning of the term, you give your students one, two or three virtual tokens that give them the chance to revise an unsatisfactory assignment, hand in an assignment 24 hours late without penalty or to take a makeup exam. (It’s easier to keep track of three tokens than points docked.) Of course, students who consistently submit satisfactory work on time will keep their tokens. If you choose, you can even let students earn tokens by submitting satisfactory work early, successfully completing additional assignments or doing whatever you’d like to reward. Then, at the end of the course, you can give the student(s) with the most tokens something desirable -- perhaps the chance to skip the final exam or a gift certificate for a pizza.

Actually, you can import this token economy into any grading system. Many students regard it as a game and want to hoard their tokens.

Bundles of Assignments

Specs grading has one more exotic feature: course grades are based on the bundles of assignments and tests that students complete at a pass/satisfactory level. Bundles that require more work, more challenging work or both earn students higher grades. No more points to painstakingly allocate and haggle over with students. By choosing the bundle they want to complete, students select the final grade they want to earn, taking into account their motivation, time available, grade point needs and commitment. If a student chooses a C because that’s all he or she needs in your course, you can respect that. Under such conditions, students are often more motivated to learn because they have a sense of choice, volition, self-determination and responsibility for their grade, as well as less grade anxiety.

Another benefit is the option to associate each bundle with one or more student learning outcomes, so completing a given bundle indicates that the student has achieved certain of those outcomes. Why shouldn’t our grades reflect the outcomes students have and have not achieved? Then our grades may actually mean something.

Let’s admit that, right now, our grades have little connection to outcomes. Students earning an A may have achieved all the outcomes of a course, but what about those getting a B, a C or a D? Did they achieve some outcomes and not others? If so, which ones? Or did they achieve few or none at an acceptable level? Even so, they passed the course.

The idea of bundles can be hard to grasp without examples. Let’s say you set up 10 assignments and tests. These may be papers, essays, objective items, problem sets, programs, designs or some combination of these. Each assignment and test has a companion assignment that enhances its learning value, such as a self-regulated learning exercise, a self-assessment, a paraphrase of your feedback or a plan for doing better next time. Together, they form a bundle.

Then, number each bundle according to the challenge level so that the lower numbers designate relatively easy and lower-level thinking assignments and tests and the higher numbers indicate increasingly demanding and higher-level thinking assignments and tests. Therefore, your course offers 10 bundles.

  • For a D, students have to complete bundles 1 through 5, which require achieving only knowledge/recall outcomes, plus the ability to write brief reflections.
  • For a C, they have to complete bundles 1 through 6, where bundle 6 also requires comprehension, plus the ability to correct their errors.
  • For a B, they have to complete bundles 1 through 8, where bundles 7 and 8 also require application, plus the ability to plan improvement strategies.
  • For an A, they have to complete all 10 bundles, where bundles 9 and 10 also require evaluation and creation, plus the ability to assess their work.

Here is an even simpler system with only four bundles of assignments and tests, ranging from relatively easy/basic to very challenging/advanced. The more challenging bundles will require students to achieve more learning outcomes, including higher levels of thinking about broader and more complex knowledge.

  • For a D, students have to complete only the easiest and most basic bundle.
  • For a C, they have to complete that basic bundle and a somewhat more challenging one.
  • For a B, they have to complete these two bundles and a third one that is even more challenging.
  • For an A, they have to complete all four bundles, the fourth of which is the most challenging.

Again, to complete a bundle, a student must finish all the assignments and tests within it at a satisfactory level -- which means at least a B level. That is, each piece of work within a bundle must meet all your specs for satisfactory completion.

Specs grading is flexible. You can adopt one or two of the three elements, or apply an element in some cases and not others. For instance, you can integrate pass/fail grading and tokens into a course but retain your current point system. Or you may choose to grade only some assignments and tests pass/fail. Or you may institute bundles only for grades C and D, or only for grades A and B.

Some faculty members already use specs grading in their courses, in whole or in part, and they get better results than they did grading the traditional way. Most of them claim that their students produce higher-quality work, pay more attention to feedback, feel more responsible for their grades and are less grade anxious and less likely to protest their grades.

In addition, these instructors find the grading process simpler and less stressful and time-consuming. More of their time goes more toward figuring out what they want their students to show they can do and at what level.

So take heart. If you don’t like the impact that our grading system has on you and your students, you don’t have to tolerate it anymore.


Linda B. Nilson is director of the office of teaching effectiveness and innovation at Clemson University.


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