Research shows that grades are often not a good reflection of student learning and growth, and that being graded can be stressful for students. In addition, many traditional grading practices can exacerbate existing academic inequalities. We encourage faculty to design assessments that directly support student learning first, with their evaluative role considered secondarily.

We have compiled some options for creating assessment activities and policies which are learning-focused, while also being equitable and compassionate. The suggestions are loosely grouped by expected faculty time commitment. Many suggest ways faculty can provide students with skills practice, feedback on their performance, and opportunities for reflection on their learning processes and growth. In all cases, the suggestions below assume some course design fundamentals including assessments and assignments aligned with course learning objectives.

Incremental Approaches 

The assessment practices in this section can be implemented in any class without substantially redesigning the course.

  • Provide many opportunities for practice:
    • Include practice assignments which are specifically aligned with the types of things students will be graded on (and make the connection explicit). This could be ungraded practice tests, sample essays or portions of essays, mock debates or any other relevant “practice” activities. As an added benefit, practice using the assessment technologies to be sure students are comfortable using those tools before being graded on assignments using them. 
    • Scaffold larger assignments (i.e., break large assignments into smaller pieces which build to the complete product, with instructions and feedback provided for each part). An additional benefit is that scaffolding assignments allows more opportunities for student-instructor interaction. 
    • Offer a larger number of lower-stakes assignments instead of a few high-stakes assignments.
    • Include more formative, ungraded assessment opportunities such as Classroom Assessment Techniques (ideally those will also provide you with insight to adjust teaching, based on how the formative assessment demonstrates student progress and understanding). 
  • Provide guides for students:
    • Where relevant (for papers, projects, presentations, etc.) use rubrics for grading, and share the rubrics with the students before the assignment due date (or even have the students create the rubrics). Using criterion-referenced assessment/grading rather than norm-referenced means students are each graded in comparison to standardized performance goals rather than in comparison to each other. 
    • Provide example submissions for assignments including your comments about what makes them good/poor.
Embracing UDL: blog post
  • Allow flexibility in how the course grade is determined (this also has the benefit of offsetting the impact of having a bad day on the day of a test or quiz): 
    • Drop the lowest in a category of assignments
    • Allow retakes of all or some assignments
    • Substitute a test grade for a final exam grade
    • Offer varied approaches to weighting assignments in grade calculations, and perhaps even allow students to choose which weighting approach they prefer for their own grade.
  • Offer opportunities for students to reflect on their learning and progress. Some examples: 
    • In addition to asking students to complete content-related questions or problems, ask them to explain how they got the answer they did, what their thought process was, what resources they used to respond to the assignment, how the assignment connects to prior learning in your course or earlier courses, how they felt when they were working on the assignment, or other reflective or “meta” questions. 
    • Provide written or verbal feedback instead of or in addition to a score or letter grade, and require students to reflect on and respond to the feedback.
    • Periodically ask students to step back and reflect on progress related to course learning goals. 
  • Iteratively review and revise your assessments
    • If giving tests or quizzes using a test platform such as Sakai or Gradescope, review student performance and assessment statistics to determine whether any questions need to be revised.
    • Share with students how the assessment went and get their feedback about whether it accurately reflected their learning.
    • Take time to reflect and make notes for yourself about how to improve the assessment in the future to better align with the course learning objectives and to better support student learning.
    • Review instructions and assignment description for completeness, clarity, and lack of jargon, acronyms or culturally-inaccessible statements. 

Course Component Redesign

The approaches in this section may need somewhat higher time-commitment than those above, but shouldn’t require full course redesigns.

Using podcasts in your classroom: blog post
  • Check the students’ level of baseline knowledge before the course and/or before each unit of the course, and adjust teaching and assessments/assignments accordingly.
  • Redesign tests and quizzes to focus more on application and analysis and less on knowledge-check questions, and make tests and quizzes open book and open note, to reduce stress and more accurately replicate expectations in the working world (also provide students with a link to the Academic Resource Center in case they would benefit from advice about good note-taking skills).
  • Allow students to use varied means of demonstrating progress and learning, such as projects, multimedia, oral exam, papers (see the example highlighted in the callout box to have students create a podcast).
  • Have students themselves create sample questions, sample prompts and sample answers/responses, and use some in your graded assessments.
  • Use a “public exam” system, in which students are given an incomplete version of the exam to study from and to augment. 
  • Switch from high-stress infrequent, high-stakes exams and tests to a relevant mixture of frequent quizzes, essays/papers/lab reports, projects, presentations, research.
  • To improve assessments in the future, review statistics about student performance and student feedback, and revise questions/prompts and assignments where needed.

Course Redesign

The approaches in this section either need intensive course redesign work (which could be time-consuming) or may need to be incorporated as part of a larger discussion about assessment within a department or major. 

Going Gradeless: blog post
  • Redesign a course with authentic assessments based on real-world problems and issues, incorporating real methodologies used in your discipline.
  • Use ungrading, an approach in which individual assignments are not given numerical or letter grades.
  • Redesign the course to be competency-based.
  • Offer significantly more feedback to students on their work, more 1:1 coaching and learning facilitation.
  • Use learning contracts (all or partly student-generated), or even individualized learning goals and learning plans.
  • Use contract grading (an example).
  • Use specifications grading, a form of contract grading based on how much work students choose to complete in a course.
  • Changing the course to S/U can reduce student stress and increase focus on learning rather than grades. In certain circumstances, faculty may want to advocate for changing a course to S/U, but this is a decision that must be approved by the appropriate academic committee for the major, department and/or school.

Last updated 06/09/2022.