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Lessons from Alternative Grading: What a “Fail” Taught Me
Learning from failure is important for instructors as well as students
This month we welcome Ashleigh Fox as our guest author. Prof. Fox is an Associate Professor of English, First-Year Experience coordinator, and Honors Program coordinator at the Community College of Allegheny County. A Ph.D candidate at Robert Morris University researching best practices in alternative grading, she earned her M.Ed in English Education at the University of Pittsburgh and her bachelor’s degree in English at Allegheny College. Ashleigh lives with her husband George and their two cats, Phoebe and Pasha, in Pittsburgh, PA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the past five years, I’ve been a staunch supporter of alternative grading methods. These can go by many names: standards-based grading, contract grading, mastery grading, labor-based grading, ungrading. Like many others who have experimented with alternative grading, I’ve tweaked processes and names along the way, but three things remained steadfast: replacing letters and numbers with written or spoken feedback (“Here are three things you did well in this essay, and here are three suggestions for revision”), giving students multiple chances to revise and resubmit work, and inviting students to propose their own midterm and final grades based on their engagement and, ultimately, learning.
Overwhelmingly, students in my community college English classes described positive experiences: they mentioned working harder, feeling less anxiety, and learning more. Alternative grading became my default approach, and it worked beautifully—until it didn’t.
In Fall 2022, I was teaching a first-year experience course with the goals of welcoming and transitioning students to college. As one of our institution’s first-year experience program coordinators, I had encouraged faculty to be as flexible as possible with students, understanding that they might need multiple chances to succeed as they acclimated to college. Given this focus, alternative grading seemed like a perfect fit.
On the first night of class, I asked students to define “success” in college. Not surprisingly, their responses focused on grades as the ultimate metric, so we launched into a discussion about the problems with traditional grading and its emphasis on compliance, not learning. I invited a dialogue about late work and maintained that late work should not be the reason someone didn’t succeed academically in our course.
I reviewed what alternative grading would look like in our class: in lieu of points or letter grades on individual assignments, students would receive feedback in our learning management system (Blackboard). If the assignments were incomplete or had significant issues, they would have a chance to resubmit them. There would be no penalty for either resubmitted work or late work. Students would write proposals for their midterm and final grades, outlining how their attendance, assignment completion, and overall engagement should contribute to those letter grades. I assured them that as long as they remained involved in the course and completed the assignments, they would do well. Above all, I emphasized that our grading method was intentionally designed to reduce their anxiety as new college students.
I thought I’d delivered a powerful motivational message to these first-year students who seemed more in need of nurturing than a strict “This is college—get used to it” attitude. I worked to establish trust with each member of the class of eight, confident that the relationship-building I’d been able to do remotely the last few years would be even more potent in person. I envisioned students staying engaged both academically and socially, leading to improved learning outcomes.
That is not what happened. Each Monday morning when I logged in to Blackboard to check the work that had been due on Sunday at midnight, I saw a sea of blank submissions. Two students pretty consistently attempted the work; the others did not. Additionally, they did not seem at all worried about these missing assignments: when I spoke with them about their missing work, they casually listed the ways in which the course was not a priority against their retail or fast food jobs, socializing with friends, and other classes. Indeed, they seemed to have deeply internalized my advice not to feel any stress or anxiety about our class: while they expressed interest in staying enrolled and completing the course, they showed a striking lack of initiative that I had never seen before, even at the height of the pandemic. While the students did eventually submit missing assignments, the cycle of constantly focusing on work from prior weeks rendered them consistently behind. They could never fully catch up.
I spoke openly with the class about the grading system and what I assumed was a negative impact on their motivation: “Honestly, would you feel more motivated to submit work if we were using a traditional grading system with point deductions for late assignments?” They begged me not to change it—while they fully admitted they were not succeeding within the current system, they felt a shift to traditional grading would be worse for their anxiety about workload management.
I spent the rest of the semester having heartfelt, compassionate one-on-one dialogues I was sure would result in the submission of what was by that point very late work. But the late work continued, right up until the final exam, which included the students’ final grade proposals. As was the established pattern by then, I chased everyone down until they were submitted.
I ended the semester feeling that I had failed both the students and myself: clearly I had never figured out how to inspire them to fully engage, even though our course content was directly tied to their future academic and career success. And I had created an absolute nightmare for myself by the added work of constantly cajoling them to submit late work. I was proud that I hadn’t “given up” on them, that no one had ended up failing the class, but I couldn’t say we had enjoyed the version of success we had discussed during our first class session.
In my other classes using alternative grading, the end-of-semester grade proposal meetings were joyful, a celebration of progress and growth. In this class, there was a distinct absence of this energy; students were, as they had been all semester, very honest about their choices. They did not propose grades that were at odds with those choices, but they certainly did not seem happy about where they had ended up. I tried to focus on what they had done well and encourage them to learn from their mistakes for next semester and beyond, but my words rang hollow. Alternative grading felt like a massive failure.
I’ve thought deeply about why the class unfolded the way it did, and I’ve arrived at this explanation: due to my own intention to ensure students were aware of their academic status at all times within a grading system that did not include a running percentage, I contacted students at a rate that probably seemed frenetic. I tried to communicate that I was both patient and invested in their success, but in doing so, I conveyed that I cared more about the work than they did. This was, quite strategically, a pedagogy of care—but it backfired. Caring more than the students do is not really care.
If I could do the class over again, I would work with students in a way that gave them far more accountability in monitoring their own missing assignments. After all, if work submission matters to student growth and learning, then our job is to create the conditions that will best support students’ ability to complete that work. We can do away with marks on individual assignments without also taking away deadlines and structure. If anything, students might benefit from more structure in a system of alternative grading, so we’re still caring for them when we have high expectations for attendance and on-time work submission. We’re not working against the fundamental spirit of alternative grading by, for example, closing assignments past a certain deadline, or indicating that a number of missed classes will result in a lower overall grade. If we feel that assignments and class attendance contribute to learning, these are policies that support that learning. And students seem to appreciate the transparency of linking policies to learning. If we can reinforce not only that the policies exist, but why they exist, we can avoid the potentially inequitable practice of assuming students know how to do these things and understand the rationale behind them.
Overall, I’m grateful for this alternative grading “fail.” Failure is an essential and valuable component of the learning process. When it comes to implementing new grading systems, we can certainly embrace failure as an opportunity to improve: we need to show ourselves as much patience as we show our students, understanding that while we won’t always get it right, we can grow from our mistakes and do better next time.
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