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Four key research results
A summary of some important research on alternative grading
Academic articles, books, and even blogs – like this one! – are often filled with personal anecdotes about alternative grading, both from instructors and students. And that’s not a bad thing: There’s a lot that can be learned from individual stories of alternative grading, especially when it comes to figuring out what works best in a given situation.
This might lead to the impression that there isn’t much research on alternative grading, which is anything but the case (see my bibliography, or Matt Townsley’s bibliography for starters). These articles include many studies, often small-scale, addressing a wide range of issues, types of classes, and types of grading.
When I speak about alternative grading and bring up research, I often find myself referring over and over to a few essential articles from those lists. These aren’t necessarily the studies with the largest n-values or the grandest research questions. Rather, they are results that directly and clearly address some of the most common concerns about alternative grading, or confirm important but otherwise anecdotal benefits. Today, I’ll summarize four key results related to feedback, test anxiety, cheating, and performance in later traditionally graded classes.
Feedback encourages intrinsic motivation and can improve performance
The first piece of research I’ll summarize isn’t directly about alternative grading. Rather, it’s a classic result that shows how feedback is more helpful than grades in many circumstances:
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. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06188.8.131.52
There’s a lot here, and it’s worth reading the article or Robert’s longer summary. In short: sixth grade students were given a sequence of tasks. The students were divided into groups who received either comments (e.g. written feedback, both positive and negative), numerical grades, or nothing at all on the first tasks. They were able to review any feedback or grades before completing the later tasks. Afterward, students were surveyed about their motivation related to these tasks.
The study found a number of important results. First, students overwhelmingly indicated that they preferred comments over grades or nothing. Second, students who received comments were much more likely to express intrinsic interest in the tasks, and were also more likely to attribute their success to skill or effort. Those in the graded group were more likely to say that their performance depended more on the instructor’s mood, the neatness of their work, or similar factors. Finally, students who received comments performed as well or better than the other groups on the later tasks – and on some tasks, the comment groups performed better than any others, with the graded group showing no difference over the “nothing” group!
As the authors write, the results suggest “that the information routinely given in schools — that is, grades — may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and undermine interest. They also suggest that no such negative results ensue from the use of task-related individualized comments.”
This article is most often used to emphasize the importance of comments – such as written or verbal feedback – over grades, and is often at the core of arguments in favor of “going gradeless” (and focusing on feedback instead). It also suggests that in certain circumstances, assigning grades actively works against many important goals of education.
There is plenty to be careful about here, but it’s worth knowing that this work has been replicated and spawned follow-up studies that find similar results in many other contexts.
Lipnevich, A. A., & Smith, J. K. (2008). Response to assessment feedback: The effects of grades, praise, and source of information. ETS Research Report Series, 2008(1), i-57. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2333-8504.2008.tb02116.x
These authors find similar results in a college writing context, while addressing interesting questions about the source of the feedback.
Students feel and exhibit less test anxiety
One of the most common things that students say about alternatively graded classes is that they feel less stress. That result is also quantifiable:
Lewis, D. (2022). Impacts of standards-based grading on students’ mindset and test anxiety. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 22(2), 67–77. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v22i2.31308
Lewis surveyed students in alternatively-graded math classes about their test anxiety. He used the “Short Test Anxiety Inventory,” a validated survey instrument. Surveys were given at both the start and end of a semester, and at the end, students were given the survey twice: once while prompted to think about their alternatively-graded class, and once while prompted to think of their other classes.
Post-tests showed significantly less test anxiety when thinking of their alternatively-graded classes compared to other classes. That test anxiety decreased throughout the semester in alternatively graded classes, while it increased in others. In addition, a pre-class gender difference in test anxiety disappeared for the alternatively graded class’s post-class survey, but persisted for the traditionally graded classes.
Other studies have similarly reported reduced stress (for various definitions of “stress”), both self-reported and measured through survey instruments. You can read about these, and more about Lewis’s article, in my summary post. Lewis also digs more into the idea of achievement goal orientations, which underlie his article, in his guest post.
The number of articles that cite student comments about “less stress” is remarkable, as are those that cite other benefits for student well-being. Check out Chapter 4 of our book for a long list of citations. Here’s one additional article that discusses well-being:
Normann, D. A., Sandvik, L. V., & Fjørtoft, H. (2023). Reduced grading in assessment: A scoping review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 135, 104336. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2023.104336
In a survey of work on “reduced grading”, the authors found that “reduced grading increases intrinsic motivation by facilitating reflection and self-regulation” and “reduced grading increases students' well-being, risk-taking, and learning from mistakes.” The entire article says much more, and is a fascinating summary.
The four pillars make cheating less likely
Our next article is another one that doesn’t directly reference alternative grading. Rather, it shows how the practices central to alternative grading – which we call the four pillars – can reduce the motivation to cheat by encouraging positive motivation goals.
Anderman, E. M., & Koenka, A. C. (2017). The Relation Between Academic Motivation and Cheating. Theory Into Practice, 56(2), 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2017.1308172
The authors survey decades of research on academic dishonesty in the context of motivation theory, and summarize the results into a few key pieces of advice to reduce cheating. Those results could be summarized as “use the four pillars”.
More specifically, research on motivation consistently and strongly shows that students who perceive that their class has a “mastery goal structure” (or who themselves hold a “mastery goal orientation”), are less likely to cheat. How do you demonstrate a mastery goal orientation in your class? The authors give this advice:
“Emphasize mastery” by focusing on the importance of “eventual learning” and “deep learning”.
“Clearly communicate expectations”, for example by using “a detailed rubric or other means” to communicate progress and standards. The authors specifically call out the importance of using criterion-referenced rather than norm-referenced grades – that is, grading with clear standards, rather than comparing students against each other.
Providing feedback “in such a way that emphasizes it should lead students to answer this question in terms of a focus on mastery”.
Finally, “provide students with opportunities to remediate and possibly retake exams or rewrite assignments to improve”.
In other words: Using the four pillars helps show that the instructor values deep learning, and this in turn encourages students to focus on learning over earning grades – which reduces cheating.
For more details, check out Robert’s summary of the article.
Students coming from alternatively-graded classes do well in later traditionally-graded classes
A question I often hear is: “I like the idea of alternative grading, but how will students manage in later classes that aren’t alternatively graded?” Or more succinctly, “Will students still be able to succeed if they don’t have reattempts?”
Luckily, that’s exactly what this work shows:
DeKorver, B. K., Clark, S., Henderleiter, J., & Barrows, N. J. (2022, July 31 – August 4). Mastery-based grading across a first-year chemistry sequence at Grand Valley State University [Conference presentation]. Biennial Conference on Chemical Education, West Lafayette, IN, United States.1
The authors analyzed several semesters of grade data from introductory chemistry classes, covering hundreds of students. All students in the study took a “prep chem” course, some sections of which were graded using standards-based testing (SBT), while other sections were graded traditionally. The goal of the prep chem course was to prepare students for a two-semester general chemistry sequence, where all classes were graded traditionally.
Students who took the prep course with SBT earned higher final grades in the traditionally graded general chemistry classes (on average, 1/4 - 1/3 of a grade point higher), compared to those who took the traditionally graded prep course.2 In other words, students coming from the SBT course did just fine – and even better than many peers! – when moving into a traditionally graded course that used their previous knowledge.
This is preliminary data, but it lends support to anecdotal evidence that students in alternatively graded courses learn material better due to the alternative grading methods, which then helps them in later courses. Another possible explanation is that alternative grading helps students develop better study skills (such as reflecting on and revising previous work) that are beneficial in later classes.
As always, I’d love to see studies like this in other contexts!
Guskey, T. R., Townsley, M., & Buckmiller, T. M. (2020). The impact of standards-based learning: Tracking high school students’ transition to the university. NASSP Bulletin, 104(4), 257-269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192636520975862
Students transitioning from high schools using standards-based grading to traditionally graded college courses noted no significant issues related to that change.
It’s quite possible that, after reading my summaries, you’re skeptical: Many of these studies were done within only one discipline or class, using a particular kind of alternative grading, or with other limitations. I agree. Nonetheless, they all hint at important benefits of alternative grading, and align well with widespread evidence provided through instructor and student testimony. They also consistently show that alternative grading is not harmful compared to traditional grading, which is not surprising to those of us who use it, but is important to confirm and also helps alternative grading establish credibility with skeptics.
If you have the time and resources, I encourage you to replicate or extend one of these studies in your context, and add to the growing body of literature on alternative grading!
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Full disclosure: “Clark, S.” is my wife, who uses standards-based testing in her chemistry classes, along with the others on this presentation.
Students in the SBT prep chem also had 1/4 - 1/3 of a grade point higher prep chem grades, compared to students in the traditionally graded prep chem. So, SBT also helped in the classes where it was used, as well as in the following classes. This is consistent with a wide range of other studies that examine the effect of having clear standards in a class.