Experiments in Alternative Grading

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For the past several years I have experimented with small tweaks to my grading policies in first year composition.  Despite these adjustments, I continued to be frustrated with grading each semester:  as long as traditional “quality-based” assessment is in place, I feel obligated to tailor feedback to a grading rubric, with an eye always to “getting the paper to pass,” even when that traditional assessment accounted for 50% or less of the final course grade.   The link between feedback and a grade, regardless of how I framed my comments, certainly shaped the way my students interpreted my feedback.  They sought a way of quantifying: “Dr. Moore, if I ‘fix’ this [i.e., do something in response to this comment], how much will my grade go up?”


So this semester, instead of the small tweaks, I have overhauled the system—and the language I am using to talk about grades.  Blending a version of labor-based assessment—which I call “The Process”—and Nilson’s specifications grading, my goal is simple: separate my feedback on writing from course grades, allowing students to make strategic decisions in response to feedback without feeling pressured to “get it right” and avoid a failing grade.


Here’s how it works:

This semester, 60% of the student’s grade comes from their good-faith participation in our weekly class activities, as the following excerpt from my syllabus shows:

The Process

Writers need to engage in the process of improvement; the process grade in this course allows you to earn points through participation.   Full credit for each unit is 25 points, although up to 29 points are offered for each unit.   The process points you earn over the course of the semester (maximum 150) account for 60% of your course grade.


Points possible

Watch videos prior to class (with verifications)4
Complete readings (with verifications) prior to class4
Attend 2 class sessions and complete assigned writing (word count)8
Attend 2 class sessions and complete assigned writing8
Attend ENGL 0999 (corequisite) and complete assigned writing1
Visit with Writing Fellows (available only certain weeks)1
Visit Writing Center1
Complete a review exercise (or other options)1
Visit instructor’s office for 15 minute conference1


The process portion of the grade offers students a measure of choice while fostering engagement and the development of the habits we traditionally associate with success.  Verifications are either simple open-book content quizzes (for readings) or a short response for the 8 to 12 minutes videos.


The final 40% of the grade comes from a student-curated portfolio—for which I am using specifications grading, as indicated here.  This portion of the grade—which will not be determined until the end of the semester—requires students to be thoughtful evaluators of their own work.  The specifications still ask students to be deliberate and thorough in the writing process, revising and editing in response to feedback.  But the specifications remove the uncertainty associated with a traditional grading rubric so that students can make writing decisions for the portfolio with more confidence.


Will this system work?  After only two weeks into the course, I cannot say for sure. I know, however, that I will tackle my feedback on next week’s literacy drafts differently—because letter grades are off the table for the moment.   And that’s a good thing. 


I will keep you posted as the semester goes on.


What changes have you made in your grading strategies this term?  I would love to hear from you.


About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.