Professors embrace alternative grading methods
Keira Stenson | Friday, March 31, 2023
In recent years, an increasing tide of colleges and professors, including many at Notre Dame, have begun to rethink the traditional grading system.
Susan Blum, professor of anthropology and author of multiple books on education, is a particularly active voice in the transition to alternative grading methods. Her latest book, titled “Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What To Do Instead),” was published in 2020.
Blum said she was struck by the inefficacy of traditional grading.
“It relies on flawed methods of motivation, such as fear, and isn’t particularly effective in communicating the feedback necessary to facilitate growth. Grading doesn’t reflect the process of learning in the real world,” Blum said.
Wanting to obtain a certain grade is what drives some students to academic dishonesty, Blum added.
“If the goal is the learning, you can’t cheat,” Blum said.
In contrast, Blum has embraced a process of continual, constructive communication through short, in-person check-ins, combined with both peer and self-evaluation. She said it feels more like individual dialogues with students, rather than the drudgery that often comes with grading for professors.
Another method that’s become more popular, especially in STEM fields, is standards-based grading. This system establishes clear milestones that students must reach, but doesn’t subtract credit for mistakes made along the way (as long as the student achieves the goal).
“In conventional grading, you’re penalized for making a mistake, which basically means you’re penalized for not already knowing,” Blum said. “And that’s not how people actually learn.”
Francisco Robles, assistant professor of English, has also embraced an alternative grading system in his classes. He uses a method called contract grading, which clearly outlines the work required to earn a particular grade and allows students to choose the level they’ll complete.
He says the pandemic was a key catalyst in encouraging the shift.
“I was trying to figure out how to make feedback useful instead of punitive,” Robles said.
He said the change has allowed him a greater sense of freedom in providing feedback without having to tie his notes to specific grade changes. It has also encouraged more discussion with students about the remarks themselves, rather than questions about why their grade was impacted, he added.
“Grades are very unfortunately linked to self-worth, and I really don’t like that,” Robles said. “And that’s one of the biggest reasons I do upgrading now, or contract grading.”
In addition, Robles said that contract grading changes the way students approach his classes.
“It lets students just explore [and] take risks. If they don’t argue something very well, if it doesn’t work, that’s OK. They will know next time to change things, instead of feeling the desperation of a bad grade,” he said.
Alternative grading is not just limited to the humanities or social sciences. Brian Mulholland, an assistant professor in the mathematics department, has incorporated it into his classes as well.
Mulholland’s desire to seek a different approach came from his experience with a dedicated student who eventually worked his way to the top of the class, but whose grade was ultimately dictated by a poor performance on the very first exam.
“I was reflecting on this, as well as the Holy Cross mission on educating the mind but not at the expense of the heart,” Mulholland said. “My faith motivates me in a lot of ways and forgiveness is something that’s crucial. [Traditional grading] didn’t allow for mercy in the classroom, especially for someone who had worked so hard, and I felt earned a higher grade.”
The pandemic once again offered the opportunity to adapt grading policies. Now, Mulholland uses a standards-based grading method.
After learning a new skill, students in Mulholland’s class complete a “formation problem” using any resources they need, followed by an in-class quiz using the formation problems. Feedback is provided at each step, with evaluation done on a pass/fail basis. Students have the chance to reflect on their errors and complete an explanation of their mistakes to earn back credit.
Finally, students complete a closed-book multiple choice problem assessing that skill, for which they can again reflect on their errors and attempt a different problem if necessary. If they meet the criteria for each step, they are considered to have “mastered” that skill.
He spoke to the benefits of this new system, saying that in a survey “most students said they actually worked harder in this class than a traditional system, but with significantly less stress.”
These methods differ greatly from grading on a curve. Several professors pointed out a curve’s tendency to encourage unhealthy rivalry between students.
“We’re claiming we’re going to educate everybody. And so if we predetermine that some number of students have to do badly, that is in contradiction to everything noble about education,” Blum said.