TEACHING AT PITT: Three ideas for piloting scaled alternative grading methods


Several years ago, one of my students approached me after class to ask why they had received an 89 percent instead of a 90 percent on an assignment. We ultimately spent half an hour discussing the rationale for a single percentage point difference in grading.

This conversation was a catalyst for me to examine my grading system and how it was (or was not) working for me and my students. Like many instructors, I determined that I wanted to make assessment more about improvement and less about allocating points. Alternative grading systems, schemas which often prioritize student reflection, self-assessment, and the application of feedback over evaluation, offered a promising but daunting way to achieve my goal.   

Although alternative grading systems are not a new idea, they have proliferated over the past decade as instructors have questioned the efficacy, efficiency, and equity of traditional criterion- and norm-based grading. Faculty have argued (Blum, 2020; Kohn, 2011) that traditional grading systems build students’ extrinsic motivation, potentially to the detriment of intrinsic motivation. They can also contribute to a power and responsibility imbalance between instructors and students, displacing students as the primary agents of their own learning.  

Alternative grading systems like contract grading, specifications (specs) grading, and ungrading are designed to address some of these issues and give students more agency over the learning process but also require significant, often time-consuming course redesign. Many instructors are interested in alternative grading but are understandably hesitant to make such radical changes without knowing which will work best in their discipline and courses and whether they will benefit students. Piloting scaled-down versions allows you to test and collect data on alternative grading strategies before scaling up to major course transformations.

Below are three ideas for quickly and easily testing alternative grading in your courses. Prior to piloting these types of changes, it is important to communicate the purpose and benefits of alternative grading strategies to your students. To determine whether the pilot was successful, collect and review student feedback and academic performance data afterward.

Grade-free zones

What is it?

Using grade-free zones involves prioritizing process-based learning and improvement by not assigning grades or points during some portion of a course and only offering feedback instead. 

How can I scale it?

  1. Identify a time period in one of your courses when all of the assessments are low-stakes and formative to pilot a grade-free zone. This might be during the first few weeks of the semester or when students are in the early stages of working on a scaffolded project. 
  2. Determine how to create incentives for students to submit work and apply feedback. For example, you could offer a small quantity of points for completing assessments without grading for quality or allocate class time to review feedback or strategize revisions.

Minimal grading

What is it?

Elbow (1997) argued that simplifying a grading scale down to a few, clearly defined performance levels (exemplary, satisfactory, and developing, for example) makes grading more transparent and fair for students. A simpler grading scheme can also reduce requests to regrade for a negligible quantity of points.  

How can I scale it?

  1. Select one assignment or type of assignment for your pilot. Recurring, low-stakes assignments with similar performance criteria, like discussion boards, can be ideal for testing minimal grading.
  2. Decide how minimal grading will integrate into the larger grading schema. What percentage of the final grade will minimally graded items be worth? If you use minimal grading for multiple assessments, will you consider those assessments collectively or individually as part of a final grade?  
  3. Determine and define two to four levels of performance. These could be as simple as satisfactory/unsatisfactory or a simplified version of letter grades like A/B/C/F. Create clear descriptions of performance criteria at each level to essentially create a rubric.


What is it?

Ungrading (Blum, 2020) replaces instructor-assigned grades with student reflections, self-assessments, or grades determined collaboratively between the instructor and student. Ungrading emphasizes developing student meta learning and creating an instructor/student learning partnership.  

How can I scale it?

  1. Review your assignments. Select one based on where and when you believe students could benefit from self-assessment and reflection. Avoid using assessments with objectively correct or incorrect answers like multiple choice exams.
  2. Restructure your course schedule to create time to teach and model self-assessment and reflection to your class. Students will need guidance to engage in these activities in a meaningful way.
  3. Create tools or prompts to help students self-assess or reflect. These can be checklists, rubrics or questions that prompt students to evaluate their work based on assignment criteria and to reflect on how they went about completing the assignment, what they learned about their own learning processes, or what and how they could improve.
  4. Decide whether students should assign their own grades independently with a rationale based on their self-assessment or whether students should discuss, compare, and arrive at an agreement about the assignment grade with you.

Considerations for large classes

In large classes, it can become difficult to offer the individualized feedback that is often the hallmark of alternative grading to every student. To offer feedback efficiently, consider using automated feedback in practice quizzes or comment banks, delivering whole-class feedback on trends in strengths and areas for improvement, or incorporating student self and peer feedback.  

Considerations for online classes

Canvas’ grade center is designed from traditional grading, which can create challenges in online courses. Some alternative grading systems like ungrading would require manually entering grades after discussions with students. Others, like minimal grading, could be done by using simplified grading based on traditional grades. For example, an instructor could use only letter grades with no plusses or minuses.

Selecting and implementing an alternative grading system is an iterative process that requires reflection and revision. This list is not comprehensive, but hopefully demonstrates that, for instructors who are interested in trying alternative grading, there are feasible ways to begin that process. If you need information about alternative grading systems or support selecting or designing an alternative grading pilot, the University Center for Teaching and Learning is here to help.  

Lindsay Onufer is program manager and senior teaching consultant in the Center for Teaching and Learning.


Blum. S.D. (2020) “Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead).” West Virginia University Press.

Elbow. P. (1997). Grading student writing: Making it simpler, fairer, clearer. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 69, 127-140.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership.