An Alternative to Traditional Grading

Five years ago, University of Michigan adopted an alternative grading system for their political science classes. Professor Mika LaVaque-Manty encourages students to designate how they will be graded on 60 percent of their class. Alternative grading is less about ‘going through the motions’ of school and rather encourages students to take an initiative in their own learning. Its high success rate at U of M and other colleges certainly warrants a use in high school curriculum. Alternative grading would be realistic and a valuable goal for high schools.

The first and foremost benefit of alternative grading is its pliability. It can be easily adapted to accommodate any student. Traditional grading assumes that all students, at any given age, are working at the same pace, and have the same goals. It also conforms students to a very ‘black and white’ sense of achievement. Everyone works to achieve the same goal, even if it will not necessarily benefit each student. Alternative grading moves away from the rigid letter grade structure. The student is more involved in creating their own goals for the class, which are topic oriented, not centered around letter or percent. There are then several different ways to measure the success of their progress. Some classes employ self-evaluation, some use a simple pass-fail system, and some use the process of gamification, which involves the awarding of trophies, badges, achievements, etc.

Sarah Pancost is operating her Theory of Knowledge class based on self-evaluation this quarter. She asked her students to create a goal for themselves that was related to furthering their learning. She then had them devise a way to continuously measure themselves. Most students chose to make a journal entry every time they made a step towards completing their goal. At the end of the semester, each student will have a self-evaluation meeting with Pancost, which will then determine his or her grade. Because there is no rigid structure, students can work to achieve goals that are more likely to benefit them.

Alternative grading also encourages creativity, and an interest in the students own learning. Students now have responsibility and control over their own learning, which can be a powerful thing.

“[I think that] being able to collaborate and find out what are [the students] interested in, what skills do they think they need to get better in, really makes students more self-motivated learners, I think,” Pancost said.

Pancost suggests that this power shift encourages her students to really think about the effort that they are putting in each day. There is not any slacking off when each day’s participation is critical to your final assessment.

There are some setbacks in trying to implement alternative grading. For one thing, it can be a complicated and a foreign topic, and most teachers are not well versed in how to teach it.

“A lot of people are treading in an area they just haven’t been very trained on,” Pancost said.

Without the proper training, it can be an intimidating process for both the teachers and the students. It can also be less comprehensive than traditional grading, because it is not based off a set system. Regardless, the system can be taught, to teachers, students, and parents alike and its benefits far outweighs the troubles. Furthermore, not every aspect of an alternative grading system needs to be applied, across the entire year. It could be used for students to self-evaluate on one or two projects.

Alternative grading focuses on trying to deviate from going through the motions of school. It encourages students to take an initiative in their learning, and to make it work for them. It has numerous benefits, and prepares students for similar experiences in college. Although there might be a bit of speculation due to the unknown territory, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives, and it would bring a positive impact and atmosphere into the classroom.


Alternative Grading Types





“A comprehensive systems of badges, trophies, points, XP, achievements. This uncovers nuance and is capable of far more resolution and precision than a letter.”



Live Feedback


“Here, students are given verbal and written feedback immediately–as work is being completed. Live scoring without the scoring and iteration. No letters or numbers, just feedback.”
Grade –> Iterate –> Replace

“In this process, work is graded as it traditionally has been, then, through revision and iteration, is gradually improved and curated. Eventually “lesser” performance (as determined by students, peers, families, and teachers) is replaced by better work, but without the grades. Grades jump-start the revision process, and that’s it.”

Always-on Proving Grounds

(Continuous Climate of Assessment)

“In this model, assessment never stops–the result of one assessment is another. Not tests, but demonstrations. It doesn’t stop, so rather than halting the process to assign a letter, the process continues on.”

“So? So What? What Now?”

“Here, students are asked–and ask themselves–at the end of every assignment–So, So What? What Now? Okay, you’re “finished” with this work. Now:


So: What did you “do”? Summarize details and big picture


So What? Why was this work important?


What now? What is the logical next step with this assignment, idea, or topic?”

Metacognitive Action/Reflection/Narrative/Anecdotal

“This approach dovetails behind #6. Rather than halting the learning process with a letter-as-performance-indicator, instead learners are tasked with reflecting on their thinking process. This can be based on metacognition, reflective on the progression through the content, or more anecdotal about the learning process itself.”



“No letter grade–you either pass or fail. Not a great solution to anything other than the shades of grey between an A and a D, but an alternative nonetheless.”

Heick, Terry. “12 Alternatives To Letter Grades In Education.” <i>TeachThought</i>. TeachThought, 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.

By: Hanna Melichar

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