25 Alternative Grading in Online Learning

Sharon Lauricella


After the first pivot to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many universities invited students the option of receiving their semester grades on a pass-fail scale. The shift accommodated students who experienced challenges related to illness, technology, and newly-online educators (Zimmerman, 2020). Some students chose to take a pass instead of a B because an 80% grade might, conceptually, destroy an otherwise pristine GPA. Others decided to take the pass instead of a C because it was easier. However, while the scale of implementation was indeed new, fundamental grading structure changes are not. The movement to challenge traditional grading builds on emerging issues with education with an awareness of modern education’s scale and scope (Kohn, 2020).
Fundamentally, report cards, grades, marks, standardized tests, and grade point average calculations are part of most students’ academic experiences. Indeed, university enrollment, scholarships, and formal recognition are associated with the measurements. However, if our goal as educators is to enhance learning, we also need to be aware of the implications of grade distribution.

Challenges with Traditional Grading

Despite the tradition of grading, there are significant problems with the practice of ranking students and assigning a numerical value to their work (Durm, 1993; Morris, 2021). Kohn (2013) suggests that aligning a grade to learning outcomes is akin to bombing for peace. Consider the following issues associated with grading:

  • Grades do not equal feedback. When students receive a grade for their work – even with a rubric – instructors often expect them to see where they missed the mark or did something well. Unfortunately, a student’s focus on the grade will usually disregard educator feedback (Butler & Nisan, 1986; Butler, 1987, 1988). The focus on a grade limits the effectiveness of the activity as often the student won’t understand the why associated with the learning activity (Weaver, 2006).
  • Although grades may be considered incentives to pay attention to requirements, guidelines, or rubrics, students may understand that grades prioritize conformity. If students think they could complete, perform, or present something different from what a rubric or instructions dictate, they are often penalized (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).
  • Grading can foster deconstructive competition between students, which can inhibit the effectiveness and engagement of collaboration (Feldman, 2020; Stommel, 2020). Similarly, traditional grading can reinforce socioeconomic status through practices such as the ‘Gentleman’s C’ or the ‘gift’ of a grade to a student of status (Merelman, 1973).

What is Alt-Grading?

The movement toward alternative grading, revised grading schemes, or ungrading generates increased attention. Kohn (2020) suggests that going gradeless is part of a systemic overhaul that demands instructors reconsider curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and control (Kohn, 2020). As an increasing number of courses are adopted in online environments and are revised to suit the digital domain, instructors can simultaneously reconsider grading strategies.

The alternative grading movement rejects the notion that grades should be a ‘gotcha’ strategy in which educators use grades as a punitive measure. Instead, this framework suggests that instructors consider how students can best demonstrate their understanding of course concepts and have a fair and equitable space. It also promotes an instructor’s more fulsome understanding of how students have learned and grown in their academic experiences.


For many students, grades are a form of extrinsic motivation as getting a good grade on a test, exam, or course can encourage them to study and perform well to have better chances at a prize, recognition, or honour (Covington & Müeller, 2001). The ungrading framework may provide freedom for the learning environment to facilitate intrinsic motivation or a student’s personal desire to learn (Covington & Müeller, 2001), no matter the outcome in terms of a grade or measurement.

Removing, revising, and reconstructing the meaning of grades affords students to focus more on learning and less on how someone else will judge their work (Covington & Müeller, 2001). Even ungraded assignments offer students freedom from the ambiguity associated with the precision of grades, including the + and – scale (Elbow, 1997). Ungrading in whatever degree or format it takes can open the time and space for students to learn for their own personal and professional benefit rather than the external praise, marks, or satisfaction of being ranked at the top of the class.

General Guidelines

  • Start by trusting students (HASTAC, 2014; Stommel, 2018, 2020).
    • You’re not alone if you get cold sweats thinking about trusting students. It’s challenging to concede our perceived power and control, especially in the transition from in-person to online (Hasinoff, 2018).
    • By trusting students to explore their motivations and goals, instructors can redefine roles and partner with students rather than play the exhausting part of enforcer.
  • Communicate.
    • Students have likely been immersed in the boundaries associated with grades since kindergarten and may believe that they are inherent to education and learning. The parameters provide a sense of security, limitation, and expectation. As a result, students may face unique challenges in the context of personal goals, creative output, peer-review, and self-assessment. So, communicating the new normal can help to enhance their experience.
    • Decide which assignments in your course will receive grading and which ones won’t. For graded work, explain grade determination in self-assessment, peer assessment, and contracts.
  • Progress gradually.
    • In your first iterations of teaching with ungrading in the online environment, begin by incorporating a few low-stakes or no-stakes assignments (see example below). Then, once you and your students become more comfortable with the spirit of ungrading, introduce a few more strategies that buck the traditional grading trend, such as self- or peer-assessment. See the chapter on Fair and Formative Assessments in this book.
  • Be flexible.
    • Learning goals and objectives are essential in framing activities and learning experiences. Yet when students can present their work in alternative formats or more creative ways in the online environment, their work may not fit into a concise rubric. Be prepared to realign rubric lines or redefine a course deliverable based on a student’s stated goal, format, or idea.
    • Learning goals can be dynamic and unique, so try to be open to what students deem personally relevant about the subject. Consider examples of a content-related epiphany, creation, or a need for increased awareness (Stommel, 2017).
  • Create authentic assignments.
    • Authentic assignments are “student activities that replicate real-world performances as closely as possible” (Svinicki, 2004, p. 23). In other words, an authentic assessment or assignment asks students to apply disciplinary or course concepts to a situation as they would if they were professionals in the field. As much of the professional world has shifted to online and remote work, these assignments are particularly relevant to online teaching and learning.
    • Authentic assignments are meaningful to students beyond a grade after completing a course or assignment (Frey, Schmitt & Allen, 2012). Identifying the value of learning beyond the grade on their transcripts is inherent in authentic education.


Example 1: No Stakes or Low Stakes Assignments


Moving from a full-on graded course to an entirely ungraded semester is likely to be overwhelming or confusing for both faculty and students, whether one does it online or in f2f format. Start to play with ungrading by offering some assignments and activities that either count very little or not at all to a student’s final mark in a course.


  • Low- or no-stakes assignments tend to be informal. This informal work can include freewriting, practicing a math problem, or brainstorming hypotheses for a lab experiment. Students can keep an online journal or contribute to a digital, classwide document annotated asynchronously by all students in online environments. Another no-stakes activity could be a 5-minute problem or case that students discuss in small groups, attempt to convince one another of a particular outcome, or one student who knows the answer can help others.
  • Informal assignments are suited to informal grading schema. Elbow (1997) suggests that we inform students that most professional work will not be assessed in detail, so it is best to get on with it.
  • All disciplines and learning environments can incorporate reflection on the process. Elbow (1997) suggests a low-stakes assignment that asks students to write out the steps they went through when solving a problem. This reflective process can help students identify helpful strategies and become increasingly self-aware.
  • Online games are an informal no-stakes activity. Games can raise motivation during learning processes and increase learning because they generally require fewer cognitive resources (Iten & Petko, 2016; Robson et al., 2015) than other static learning contexts. Although some online games such as Kahoot or Blooket can tally scores, there’s no reason to record them or account for them in calculating a final course mark. In this case, games can be considered activities or ‘teaching’ rather than assessment.
  • Model ungraded assignments. Provide an example of a reflection, annotation, or process reflection so that students can see how it may be helpful. Another – and perhaps more effective – strategy is to participate in the ungraded exercise yourself. As students engage in an ungraded online activity, write your reflection, journal entry, process note, or annotation on a problem simultaneously.

Possible Challenges

It is plausible that if work is not graded, students will perceive that it doesn’t count. However, as soon as they realize that ungraded assignments can help them prepare for larger stakes or graded submissions, they’re likely to realize the benefit of assignments that enable them to learn without explicitly connecting to a grade.


Example 2: Contract Grading


Rather than focusing on a final product or exam in a course or unit, contract grading considers effort and labour (Jordan, 2020). This grading method is a different way of calculating points and can also lower stress, helping students focus on the learning process rather than a summative outcome (Melzer et al., n.d.). Contract grading is particularly suitable to arts, humanities, and social science online courses in which grades can be more subjective or interpretive.


Instructors who use contract grading emphasize process over product, and some base an entire course grade on steps in the learning process and the work that students put into the course (Melzer et al., n.d.).

  • Most grades are based on final revisions to a summative assignment in traditional classes such as an essay, lab report, or project. A contract-graded course can include pre-writing activities, following steps in solving an equation or problem, participating in digitally-mediated peer review exercises, or revising previous errors. This grading schema places less weight on details such as grammar or mistakes during formative assignments but still encourages attention to detail in final submissions.
  • Do not penalize students for taking risks in digital presentations. The grades should not suffer if the learning outcomes are recognized, but technology errors can be unpredictable. However, I recommend encouraging students to have a technologically-basic backup if such events occur.
  • A contract might outline that students must outline definitive parameters around certain variables such as timelines to receive the defined grade (Melzer et al., n.d.).
  • The advantage of contract grading is that students decide how much work they wish to do for a particular assignment or in a specific semester. If they complete the work and follow clear standards using a rubric, they secure the grade outlined in the contract (Davidson, 2015).
  • Contract grading can be done in a variety of ways. One can stipulate that there are only two possible grades for an assignment: satisfactory (full credit) or unsatisfactory (poor quality, late, or not submitted). If a student fails to complete a contracted assignment or the assignment is deemed unsatisfactory by educators or peers, they will receive a contract-defined penalty. Another approach is to invite students to develop a contract for a specific mark. This process is either negotiated individually or constructed from a set of requirements prepared by the instructor. For example, to earn an A, a student must complete ten or more satisfactory assignments in a specific category. To achieve an A- they must complete 8-9 satisfactory assignments, and so on. See the section on Specifications Grading below.
  • At the start of the term, learning contract details should be outlined and constructed either by the instructor or collaboratively with students. It guides students’ understanding of expectations associated with a specific grade.

Possible Challenges

  • Contract grading requires significant front-end work as the instructor must outline particular requirements for each assignment and the minimum standards for each final grade. However, educators can work with students at the start of the term to construct the outlines. Even in an online format, the criteria for contract grading are arguably no more than in a traditional course in which quizzes, tests, and assignments carry specific weights as outlined at the start of the semester. Communication must be clear; a video posted in the course LMS is helpful in that students can revisit it to clarify questions about the grading scheme.
  • Students may develop contracts for a particular grade but face personal challenges that change their desired grade. Perhaps circumstances prevent students from completing coursework, or, conversely, students are more enthusiastic about the course than they initially thought and therefore seek to contract a higher mark. Or maybe – imagine – that there’s a global pandemic and students or their families become ill. Be prepared to address changes with students that consider specific personal needs or challenges.
  • Potential criticisms of contract grading argue that because effort and labour are considered (instead of a final exam or assessment), students who try hard can be rewarded even if they do not produce something polished or perfect. However, building in satisfactory/unsatisfactory criteria helps ensure the grade’s integrity. If a student receives an unsatisfactory mark, they can either accept it and the associated penalty or resubmit until their work meets the satisfactory elements of the assignment.


Example 3: Specifications Grading


Specifications, or specs, grading is an assessment strategy based on mastery, clear learning objectives, and frequent evaluations and feedback (Tsoi et al., 2019). Instead of using points to assess student work, the specifications grading scheme considers work on a two-level rubric: Pass/Fail or Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory. Instructors establish a set of specifications, colloquially called ‘specs,’ for assignments so that all students have an example of a satisfactory submission. When assignments are complete, the instructor simply categorizes them as Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory depending upon whether it meets the specs or does not. In this grading system, there are no points, so there is no partial credit. Specs grading is particularly suitable to STEM fields, where learning is less subjective, and a student can either demonstrate understanding or mastery or cannot. Proponents of specs grading argue that it saves time and helps to eliminate ambiguity (Talbert, 2015).


  • Students earn letter grades in the specs system by completing “bundles” of work like traditional grading. The higher the grade, the larger and broader the collection of work becomes. For example, students who aim for a C in the course will complete some work that meets the specs. Those seeking a B have to do everything the C people do, but more work at a higher quality or difficulty level. Similarly, students working toward an A do everything for a B level, plus even greater quantity and quality.
  • Consider Talbert’s (2015) specs graded mathematics course. He created a list of 20 basic skills that he deemed essential building-block skills. These became students’ Learning Targets and were connected to the four major topics in the course (proof, graphs, relations, trees). For example, specifications included:
    • The ability to identify the used predicate in a proof by mathematical induction and use it to set up a framework of assumptions and conclusions for an induction proof; and
    • Describe a valid vertex colouring for a graph and determine a graph’s chromatic number.
  • Specs grading should not be a one-shot deal for students. Tsoi et al. (2019) suggest that courses graded by specs should offer students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding and abilities.

Possible Challenges

  • Specs grading can demand additional time from instructors when students resubmit assignments multiple times. Mitigate these demands by offering peer review opportunities or providing video instruction for common errors so that students can revise their work accordingly.
  • Specs grading requires organization and planning. Although the specs grading system is not more complex than traditional grading systems, it is different. Therefore, it requires that students buy into the system. They need to read the syllabus carefully, organize their work promptly, mark due dates, and resubmit dates well in advance. While time management is often not amongst students’ most significant assets, the organization and planning demanded in specs grading offers the opportunity to practice this vital skill.


General Resources



Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(4), 474-82. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/0022-0663.79.4.474

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology 58(1), 1-14. https://10.1111/j.2044-8279.1988.tb00874.x

Butler, R., & Nisan, M. (1986). Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 210–216. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.78.3.210

Covington, M. V., & Müeller, K. J. (2001). Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation: An approach/avoidance reformulation. Educational Psychology Review, 13(2), 157-176. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009009219144

Davidson, K. (2015, August 16). Contract grading and peer review. Hastac. https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/08/16/getting-started-6-contract-grading-and-peer-review

Durm, M. W. (1993). An A is not an A is not an A: A history of grading. The Educational Forum, 57(3), 294-297. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131729309335429

Elbow, P. (1997a). Grading student writing: Making it simpler, fairer, clearer. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1997(69), 127-140. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.6911

Elbow, P. (1997b). High stakes and low stakes in assigning and responding to writing. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1997(69), 5-13. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.6901

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Feldman, J. (2020, January 27). Improved grading makes classrooms more equitable. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/01/27/advice-how-make-grading-more-equitable-opinion

Hasinoff, A. (2018, August 22). Do you trust your students?. Hybrid Pedagogy. https://hybridpedagogy.org/do-you-trust-your-students/

HASTAC. (2014, October 16). Technologies of meta-learning, trust, and power: Interview with Jesse Stommel. https://www.hastac.org/blogs/superadmin/2014/10/16/technologies-meta-learning-trust-and-power-interview-jesse-stommel

Jordan, H. (2020, July 15). Canvas gradebook and labor-based grading contracts [Video]. Digital Pedagogy Collective. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDVRaFjSs7k

Kohn, A. (2013). The case against grades. Counterpoints, 451, 143-153. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42982088

Kohn, A. (2020). Foreword. In S. D. Blum (Ed.), Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia University Press.

Lee, H. Y, Jamieson, J. P., Miu, A. S., Josephs, R. A., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). An entity theory of intelligence predicts higher cortisol levels when high school grades are declining. Child Development, 9(6), e849-e867. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13116

Merelman, R. M. (1973). Public education and social structure: Three modes of adjustment. The Journal of Politics, 35(4), 798-829. https://doi.org/10.2307/2129210

Morris, S. M. (2021, June 09). When we talk about grades, we are talking about people. https://www.seanmichaelmorris.com/when-we-talk-about-grading-we-are-talking-about-people/

​​Schinske, J. & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159-166. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054

Stommel, J. (2018, March 11). How to ungrade. Jesse Stommel. https://www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/

Tsoi, M. Y., Anzovino, M. E., Lin Erickson, A. H., Forringer E. R. & Henary, E. (2019). Variations in implementation of specifications grading in STEM courses. Georgia Journal of Science 77(2). https://digitalcommons.gaacademy.org/gjs/vol77/iss2/10/

Weaver, M. R. (2006). Do students value feedback? Student perceptions of tutors’ written responses. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(3), 379-394. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930500353061

Zimmerman, J. (2020, March 26). Reviving the original purpose of pass-fail. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/03/26/reviewing-history-pass-fail-reminds-us-how-we-should-consider-option-today-opinion

About the author

Sharon Lauricella is a Full Professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ontario (Canada).  She is the university’s inaugural Teaching Scholar in Residence and is a scholar of Communication Studies. Sharon holds a doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge (UK) and a BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts). Her research focuses on teaching with technology, digital feminist identities, and the mental health of undergraduate students.  She tweets via @AcademicBatgirl and is an active member of the #AcademicTwitter community.


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Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators Copyright © 2022 by Sharon Lauricella is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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