Alternative Approaches to Grading


The Ungrading approach promotes the elimination (or minimization) of letter/point grades. In removing the use of letter and point grades, students experience less anxiety about academic expectations and, therefore, focus better on their learning.

Labor-Based Grading

Labor-Based Grading bases grades on the amount of labor that is agreed upon between students and the instructor. This grading style requires students and instructors to co-create a course contract that instructors will use to determine grades for all course members (Inoue, 2020).

Specifications Grading

Specifications Grading emphasizes the importance of transparency, mastery of learning objectives, clear alignment between assessments and learning objectives, and process-oriented approaches to learning. This alternative approach to grading encourages instructors to set clear expectations and objectives for graded work by defining the labor and expectations required to achieve an A, B, C, etc. This technique helps determine clear paths to each “grade level” by informing students about each grade level’s corresponding number of assignments and difficulty/complexity of the work. All three alternative approaches to grading offer transparency by giving students more voice and choice within the process of evaluation.

“Assigning grades was the easy way out of doing the actual work of teaching. They made it easy for me to avoid building relationships and meeting the needs of the individual student. Eliminating grades tested my creativity and patience. I was forced to rethink what went on in my class. Students had to take ownership of the class. I had to incorporate individualized learning and lots of voice and choice. I had to replace worksheets, tests, and quizzes with better forms of assessment. I had to make sure students were engaged and wanted to learn. I had to do the work with them.” 

Aaron Blackwelder, “What Going Gradeless Taught Me about Doing the Actual Work” (2020)

Criticisms of traditional grading approaches

This guide was developed in response to critiques of traditional grading approaches, particularly how inequities and negative behaviors are perpetuated by these grading practices. In her anthropological research on higher education and learning, Susan Blum has identified several detrimental effects of grades: 

  • Grading requires uniformity and assumes uniform process and uniform output;
  • Grades don’t provide accurate information about students’ accomplishments, adequacy, excellence, or gain in learning;
  • Grades don’t motivate students but instead promote and reinforce extrinsic motivation, fear and avoidance; and
  • Grades detract from the value of written feedback when given at the same time as that feedback (Blum, 2017).

Asao Inoue’s work is also vital for thinking critically about how risk-aversion in students’ writing, thinking and personal and intellectual development can be negatively affected by grading, and how its hegemonic effects can be especially harmful for multilingual students, working class students, and students of color (Inoue, 2012 & 2015).  

Bibliography & thank you

Special thanks to Alexa Easter, Sarah Hwang, Joscelyn Jurich, Emily Ndiokho, Alexandria Sessions, Annabelle Tseng, Duygu Oya Ula, and Guadalupe Vasquez for authoring portions of this resource and providing feedback on drafts.