A page upon which is written the phrase, "Am I good enough?"

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

By Carolyn Ives, CELT

Over the years, I’ve heard many students and faculty alike question the validity and reliability of grades. In addition, some faculty have concerns that learners may seem overly focused on grades, and some students worry that instructors seem to wish for their grades to fall along a specific distribution. It’s no wonder, though, that some students care so much about grades, as in some programs, the university requires high grades for entrance. Once learners are here, how can we then tell them to stop worrying about their grades? This focus on marks is not unique to TRU, nor is it new; in fact, in 2007, Boud and Falchikov suggested that 93% of students value grades more, and only 7% of students value learning more.

While some might argue that there is a relationship between grades and learning, I’m not convinced that performance always demonstrate learning, and it even less frequently demonstrates deep learning. Case in point: according to Rojstaczer and Healy (2012), in 1961, 15% of all grades awarded were “A,” but in 2008, 43% of all grades were “A.” If grades really demonstrated learning accurately and effectively, this would mean that students in 2008 were three times smarter than they were in 1961 or, more likely, that it was three times easier to get an A in 2008 than it was in 1961. However, this begs the question: Is an A even consistent throughout your department or across campus?

So I’d like to suggest that traditional grades can, at the very least, be inconsistent and problematic. If you are finding grades to be unmotivating for learners, here are a few other options that have been proven to facilitate deeper learning:

Contract grading

For this type of grading, the final mark is based on satisfactorily meeting contractual criteria agreed to by instructor and student. Different criteria apply to different grades, but students must achieve a minimum satisfactory level for assignments to earn that grade. Contracts may be individualized for each student, and due dates may or may not be negotiable. As well, contracts may also be renegotiated.

Specifications grading

For a course that uses specifications grading, the instructor creates several bundles of assessments for which completion correspond with different grades. Specifications are created in advance and shared with students. As with contract grading, students must achieve a minimum satisfactory level for assignments within specifications to earn the final mark. While due dates may or may not be negotiable, bundles generally are not individualized.


In an ungrading scenario, students receive no grades on assignments, only feedback for improvement; therefore, the focus is on an iterative feedback cycle through which student work improves. Depending on the instructor, students may or may not have input into what makes assignments satisfactory. While students have opportunities to progress, at the end of the course, the onus is on the student to demonstrate satisfactory achievement of course’s learning outcomes.

However, if the institution requires letter grades, instructors have options. Often, instructors convert feedback to grades based on overall learner achievement (sometimes demonstrated through a portfolio submission with demonstration of learning), or they ask students to submit reflections with descriptions of the grade they think they earned with evidence—and then follow up with a conversation if they don’t match.

What do all these alternative marking strategies have in common?

  • A focus on student autonomy;
  • An increased focus on achieving a minimum standard;
  • Increased use of feedback—and closing the feedback loop—rather than numbers or letters; and
  • Encouragement for students to consider their learning in meaningful ways—and how to demonstrate that learning.

While not everyone is able to transition to alternative grading, anyone can harness the positive impacts of reducing student focus solely on grades. First, consider learner motivation. People feel motivated when they have autonomy to make decisions, mastery over content, and a sense of purpose (Pink, 2011). Therefore, you can foster learner motivation by offering choice when possible, opportunities to master skills and knowledge through many low-stakes practice activities, and real-life scenarios to demonstrate relevance of course content.

Second, consider integrating more opportunities for feedback. This doesn’t always have to come from you, but teaching learners to self-assess can be both empowering and powerful. When appropriate, integrate peer feedback as well, as students hear things from their peers differently than they do from you. CELT can help you develop student self- and peer-assessment tools.

Finally, consider integrating more opportunities for reflection with carefully crafted prompts to invite students to think about their learning. Reflection on learning leads to deeper learning than experience alone (Bain, 2004; Brown et all, 2014; Dewey, 1938; and others).

In conclusion, it’s likely that grades don’t tell us everything about learning. But offering students frequent and iterative feedback can support learning, as can encouraging students to focus on skill and knowledge acquisition instead of performance. If we work to engage learners and help them shape their learning experiences and environment, we will be more likely to see positive outcomes.

I’ll leave you with these thoughts from the late Joe Bower:

“Let’s dive into this. I’ve had some people, when I tell people, that I don’t grade students, there’s no tests or grades in my class. It’s almost like they get the impression that I hate assessment.

“I don’t hate assessment, but I want to reclaim the language. Technocrats have hijacked education. Bureaucrats as well. They’ve stolen our language.

“Assessment has been bastardized into meaning measurement. It’s not the same thing. Assessment is not measurement. I assess my students every single day, but it’s not in what is maybe the conventional sense. Assessment is not a spreadsheet, it’s a conversation.”

References and Resources

Here are several sites to check out from faculty who use alternative grading strategies:

And this one from Boston University that contains a useful bibliography:

These other sites may also be of interest:

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (1st edition). Jossey-Bass.  

Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.  

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

Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (2007). Rethinking assessment in higher education: Learning for the longer term. 1st edition. Routledge.

Bower, J. (2017). For the love of learning. http://joe-bower.blogspot.com/

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press.  

Bowen, J. A. (2012). Teaching naked: How moving technology out of your college classroom will improve student learning (1st edition). Jossey-Bass.  

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education. New York, NY: Collier Macmillan. 

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: Putting the research on learning into practice. Stylus Publishing.  

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. John Wiley & Sons. 

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

Pink, D.H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Riverhead Books.

Rojstaczer, S., & Healy, C. (2012). Where A is ordinary: The evolution of American college and university grading, 1940-2009, Teachers College Record, 114(7), 1-23. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-22137-007