An Alternative Grading Glossary
What did that word mean, again?!
Every field of study has specialized terminology that makes communication quicker, easier, and more precise. But jargon can also hide meanings behind a wall of words and exclude new people from discussions. This is just as true for alternative grading as for any area of study.
So today, I present a glossary of commonly used alternative grading terms. This isn’t a detailed discussion but rather a quick reference to help make sense of the wide range of terminology that gets used across the community.
And nearly all of these definitions are serious.
Types of alternative grading
There are an enormous number of names for special kinds of alternative grading. Some developed independently in multiple places and refer to the same thing. Other terms have different meanings in different contexts.
Alternative grading: An umbrella term for any approaches to grading that attempt to improve on traditional grading, especially by following at least one of the four pillars.
Competency-Based Education (CBE): A method for structuring entire educational programs in which students must “demonstrate competence” with very broad “competencies” (program goals) before graduating. CBE is much bigger than any individual grading system and often involves self-pacing, credit for “real life experience,” and online delivery. Western Governors University is founded on the idea of using CBE in all of its programs. More details: Standards and Contracts and Competencies, oh my!
Contract Grading: A type of alternative grading in which each student signs a contract with the instructor that specifies what the student must do to earn a specific grade. These contracts can be written by the instructor, but are often negotiated individually by each student and can vary between students. Contracts cover specific assignments to be completed, levels at which to complete them, and any other requirements that the instructor and student agree on. Closely related to Specifications grading. More details: Standards and Contracts and Competencies, oh my!
Labor-Based Grading: A specific type of contract grading in which the contracts focus entirely on the amount of work (labor) a student completes. Often used in writing classes, there is no judgment or requirement placed on the quality of writing. Labor grading aims to refocus the power dynamic between instructors and students and encourages students to develop the habits of successful writers. See Asao B. Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contracts for much more detail.
Specifications Grading (Specs): A type of alternative grading described by Linda Nilson in her book Specifications Grading. Each assignment includes a list of specifications: a clear description of what a successful submission includes, typically set at a “B” level (a high bar, but not perfect). Submissions are graded holistically on whether they meet all of the specs or not, earning a single mark (for example, “Satisfactory” or “Not Yet”). Final grades are determined by meeting specs on related “bundles” of assignments. Specifications grading works especially well with essays, proofs, portfolios, and other larger-scale assignments that are meant to show synthesis and integrated understanding.
Specifications-Based Grading: Not actually a thing. Nobody really knows if a person who uses this term means specifications grading (but really likes the word “based”), standards-based grading (but got “specs” and “standards” mixed up), or something else entirely.
Standards-Based Grading (SBG): A type of alternative grading in which each assignment addresses one or more clear, specific, and fine-grained standards. Separate marks are assigned for each standard rather than for the entire assignment. The same work may lead to different marks on different standards. Final grades are determined by how many, or which, standards have been successfully completed. SBG works well in settings where there are multiple discrete skills that can be practiced and demonstrated separately. Note: We’re a higher education-focused blog, so be aware that SBG can look quite different in K-12 education.
Standards-Based Testing (SBT): A form of standards-based grading that is used only on tests or quizzes, while other parts of the class are traditionally graded. SBT can be easily added to an existing traditionally graded class. Also called “Mastery-Based Testing (MBT)”. Details in this classic paper: Mastery-Based Testing in Undergraduate Mathematics Courses.
Traditional Grading: A collection of grading systems based on assigning points or percentages on individual assignments, which are then fed into an averaging or weighting formula to produce a final grade. Grades usually involve partial credit and are permanently averaged into the final calculation without the option to reassess.
Ungrading: One of the following, probably.
An umbrella term for alternative grading practices (including standards-based grading, specifications grading, contract grading, etc.)
A specific form of alternative grading that seeks to remove grades from assignments to the extent possible and focusing on feedback instead. Ungrading often involves regular meetings with students to discuss their progress, leading to an increasingly common name: “collaborative grading”, a term championed by Lindsay Masland. Edit: As you can see in the comments, even this isn’t quite right! Lindsay uses “ungrading” more in the sense of #3 below, with “collaborative grading” as a specific way to implement it. Moral of the story: “ungrading” is confusing!
A broad philosophy of how to think about and push back on the problems with grades as a whole. In the words of Jesse Stommel, “It’s a way of engaging with grades as a system, distinct from ‘not grading’. It means acknowledging context and material circumstances of students and teachers, then doing whatever we can to push back against broken systems.”
Which one is meant in any given situation? It depends on who’s talking, when they’re talking, and who they’re talking to. Two people talking to each other about “ungrading” can easily be using different meanings without realizing it. As a result the term tends to muddle the waters rather than clarify them.
Upgrading: What happens when ungraders use autocorrect.
Alternative grading systems often use a common language to refer to their elements and features.
Bundle: A group of thematically related assignments. For example, a quiz covering basic understanding, an essay showing deeper understanding, and mini-project all covering the same topic may be a bundle that students need to complete in order to earn a certain grade. Most often used in specifications grading as part of a grade requirement, especially if the bundles are organized into levels of difficulty. For example, “Complete bundles 1 – 3 to earn a D, bundles 1 – 5 to earn a C…” or “Complete 3 basic bundles to earn a D, 4 basic bundles and 1 advanced bundle to earn a C, …”. By extension, “bundle” can refer to the list of all requirements for a single grade level. For example, the following could be considered a single bundle necessary to earn a B: “Complete 15 standards, pass the Gateway Exam, and earn ‘Pass’ on one project.”
EMRF, EMRN, EMPX: A collection of commonly used marks for alternative grading that allow multiple gradations of “success” vs. “not yet.” In each case “E” stands for “Excellent”, “Exemplary”, or “Exceeds expectations” and indicates that the work goes above and beyond requirements, often in terms of communication quality. “M” indicates “Meets expectations”. The final two letters distinguish between work that shows good progress (e.g. Revisable (R) or Progressing (P)) or is incomplete or needs to be started from scratch. The original EMRF rubric was proposed by Stutzman and Race (2004).
Four Pillars: A conceptual framework that describes key features of alternative grading systems. The four pillars are: clear standards, helpful feedback, marks that indicate progress, and reassessments without penalty, all in support of feedback loops.
Mark: A letter, symbol, or short phrase used to indicate a student’s progress on a standard or specifications. Similar to a grade, but primarily used as a short summary of feedback rather than a summative judgment. Marks typically reflect a binary choice between meeting the requirements or not. Examples include “Satisfactory”, “Meets (or exceeds) expectations”, “Progressing”, “Needs new attempt”. See also EMRF/EMRN/EMPX and “Not yet”.
Module: A unit of course organization rather than a grading term. A “module” is a collection of thematically related class activities, lectures, materials, assignments, or anything else used in a class to address a single broad topic. Modules often follow chapters or units in a textbook. Some sources use “module” as a synonym for “bundle”, or sometimes “bundle, but contents have to be completed in a certain order.”
New attempt: A type of reassessment in which students try wholly new problems covering the same standards or specifications as a previous assessment. The new attempt often replaces the results of the previous attempt.
Not yet: A frequently used phrase in alternative grading, emphasizing that learning is a continuing process that involves feedback loops. When a student doesn’t successfully complete a standard or assignment, they often earn a mark of not yet or something similar (“revisable”, “needs new attempt”) to indicate that they can and should keep working towards understanding. Reassessments allow students to demonstrate their eventual learning. “Not yet” is also useful when talking with students, to encourage them to keep improving their understanding.
Portfolio: A collection of learning artifacts (e.g. individual assignments) and reflective essays that summarizes a student’s learning over a period of time. Typically assembled by a student over the course of a semester with guidance from the instructor. Portfolios provide a way for students to show their growth through carefully curated selection of artifacts. Often used with ungrading.
Reassessment (or reattempt): A general name for the various ways in which students obtain multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning. Examples include “new attempts” and “revisions”.
Revision: A specific type of reassessment in which students make edits (revisions) to previous work and resubmit it to be regraded.
Specification: A detailed description of what a “successful submission” of an assignment involves. “Specs” can include mechanics like completion, word counts, spelling, grammar, etc., but often focus more on general qualities, integration, synthesis, etc. Used especially with specifications grading, but specs are one of the fundamental elements of many types of grading.
Standard: A clear and observable description of an action that a student can take to demonstrate their learning of some specific topic. Located at a level of granularity between course- or program-level objectives (which are much broader and harder to assess) and lesson-level objectives (more fine-grained, and usually too many to assess individually). Often used interchangeably with terms like “objective”, “learning target”, etc., although many sources try to distinguish between these. Used especially in standards-based grading, but standards are one of the fundamental elements of many types of grading.
Token: A type of virtual currency that students can “spend” to bend course policies in specified ways. Often used to unlock a due date extension, an additional reassessment, or similar grade-related benefits.
Thanks for joining us! Next time, join me for a brief survey of common marks used in alternative grading (part 1 of 73).
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