Alternative Grading

alternative grading alternative grading
Specifications grading, Contract grading, and Ungrading


At a Glance

Alternative grading systems like specifications grading, contract grading, and ungrading decenter grades and instead, utilize evaluative feedback to foster metacognitive and critical thinking, bolster student agency, and encourage authentic learning.

Research Team

This investigation was led by Amanda Valdespino (Instructional Designer) and Solsiree Skarlinsky (Instructional Designer), members of Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement.

What is it?

Unlike traditional grade systems like norm-referenced and criterion-referenced grading, alternative grading forgoes a conventional points-based approach to grading and favors holistic and continuous forms of assessment and feedback.  Studies have shown that traditional grading systems often play on students’ fear of punishment, lessens their intrinsic motivation and performance, and increases their desire to outcompete peers (Schinske & Tanner, 2017). Conversely, alternative grading systems such as specifications grading, contract grading, and ungrading encourage students to think critically about their own learning and educational goals (Palmer & Streifer, 2020). 

Specifications grading relies on transparent and clearly outlined pass/fail criteria (or specifications) and course content structured into modules and bundles.  Students have opportunities for revision and both the flexibility and autonomy to determine their final grade by completing the corresponding assignments and bundles.

Contract grading is a more collaborative method of grading that allows students to set goals for the semester via a contract (Hiller, 2001). The contract is developed at the beginning of the semester based on the information provided in the syllabus and specifies what grade the student wants to receive and what assignments the student will complete to attain that grade, and more. 

Ungrading is an approach that centers around self-evaluation and decenters grades. Instructors instead emphasize reflection and revision while also  providing students detailed feedback. At the end of the semester there are a variety of approaches to official institutional grades such as allowing students to assign themselves a grade. 

These three alternative approaches are not the only methods and have evolved over time. Additionally, instructors often blend these grading systems to develop one that better suits their needs and the needs of their students.

How does it work?

Alternative grading emphasizes providing detailed and frequent feedback to students, giving students further agency in how they will be assessed. These methods are meant to reduce students’ anxiety and fixation on grades by emphasizing the learning process.

Here is a breakdown of some of the more unique features related to the three alternative grading methods:

Creating Specifications : Instructors create specifications (or “specs”) that outlines what constitutes passing work from students. Instead of multi- level rubrics that try to sparse out differences between a B or B- work, there is just one level of criteria that needs to be written. Instructors need to be selective in which specs to include for assignments as these will be the only criteria they will be looking at in a student's work. It is also crucial to be explicit in specifications, instructions, and provide models of exemplary work so students are able to submit assignments that can receive full marks. If work does not meet specs, students receive zero credit, but instructors can allow for revision and provide feedback on which specs they missed or need to improve. 

Creating Bundles : Bundles are groups of assessments that students need to complete in order to receive a passing grade. The bundles are differentiated to meet different competencies based on course objectives. As an example, for a student to earn a ‘B’ in the course, they would need to complete a certain “bundle” of assessments such as completing more work at a masterly level versus a ‘C’ bundle.

specificationsImage by Dr. Robert Talbert, Grand Valley State University

Token Economy: A common element in specifications grading is for instructors to allocate a select amount of “tokens” for students to use throughout the semester as forms of rewards or free passes. Students can exchange one or more of these tokens for various opportunities such as revising or dropping one piece of work that did not meet specs, submitting one assignment past the required deadline or skipping an assignment altogether (Nilson, 2014). It is up to the instructor on whether or not to provide these tokens to students and what are the different conditions.

Creating Contracts: Similar to specifications grading, instructors should set clear guidelines on how students can earn a particular grade on an assignment or for the class, although the requirements might be broader in their descriptions. For example, an instructor might stipulate that to earn a ‘B’ in the course, students need to attend a majority of classes, submit a certain amount of assignments, provide peer feedback to other students, etc. Percentages or points do not weigh assignments differently; all are of equal importance. Contracts can be solely created by the instructor (non-negotiable) or negotiated by students by making amendments to original criteria or co-creating them as a class (Volk, 2016).  To earn a high grade in the class, instructors may specify in the contract whether students need to produce higher quality work and/or complete additional tasks (i.e. labor-based grading). This method works well with writing-intensive courses as it allows for multiple revisions and for students to be assessed on their paper’s progress versus just a final draft.


Image by Ryan Cordell, University of Illinois

Image by Ryan Cordell, University of Illinois

Reflection and Dialogue: Ungrading builds upon similar aspects of specifications and contract grading. Assignments provide clear instructions, although not necessarily criteria or contracts, for students to follow. Instructors should also offer students flexibility with assignment deadlines and provide opportunities for revision. Ungrading does encourage instructors to have more open conversations with students about their performance, whether it is through bi-weekly conferences, feedback surveys, or asking students outright what grade to put in the system at the end of the term (Blum & Kohn, 2020). These conversations in addition to other self-reflective exercises (i.e. minute tickets, process letters, peer feedback, etc.) require students to think critically about what they’ve learned and articulate how they have developed their knowledge and skills throughout the semester.


Image by Blum, & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading. West Virginia University Press.

Image by Blum, & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading. West Virginia University Press.

Who's doing it?

Alternative grading is becoming increasingly popular in higher ed, and the following examples from the University of Miami and other institutions illustrate some of the most common usage scenarios. 

Usage Scenario from University of Miami

April Mann, Senior Lecturer in English and Director of the Writing Center

"I enjoyed the grading contract because I didn't spend the class focusing on what my instructor was looking for, but instead on the quality of my paper, with respect to the readers. I tried to focus on clarifying my papers throughout this semester and polishing them instead of focusing on what would my teacher like to see. I felt like I wrote personal and individualized papers." -Student Response

Since the fall semester of 2020, April Mann has implemented contract grading through an anti-racist pedagogy lens into her two English Composition courses, ENG105 and ENG 107. She was inspired to implement this methodology after attending Asao Inoue’s workshop on anti-racist and social justice practices in writing assessments. Dr. Mann has also been doing this work in collaboration with other colleagues within the English department and has found it helpful to have peers to discuss the process, pros/cons, student feedback, etc. 

The course contract is developed by Professor Mann to include general guidelines on how to pass the class. If students complete all of the necessary work, they are guaranteed a ‘B’. If they wish for a higher grade, they must complete additional work and/or revisions. To ease students’ apprehension toward contract grading, Professor Mann offers students the opportunity to renegotiate their contracts, develop their own rubrics for each writing assignment, and revise assignments that do not meet passing criteria. Professor Mann also includes language on contract grading in the syllabus, has students read “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn, and allows them to reflect on their past grading experiences.

Based on feedback surveys shared by Professor Mann at the end of the semester, students have found this new grading system to be overall less stressful than traditional grading. Although some students are hesitant or resistant to the approach at first, a majority find it allows them to focus on their writing and produce quality papers they are proud of. Professor Mann has made various adjustments to the course plan since implementing contract grading, including changing deadlines for major assignments and finding ways to be more transparent with students. If anyone is interested in this style of grading, Professor Mann advises finding various ways to be open and to reassure students about the process, and to blend strategies that work best for instructor and student needs.

Additional Usage Scenarios

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  • Specifications & Ungrading, FIU

    Heather BlattDepartment of English

    As part of our collaborative efforts with the Miami Teaching, Learning, and Technology Collective, we discussed upgrading with Dr. Heather Blatt. Dr.Blatt has integrated both specifications grading and ungrading into her graduate and undergraduate level courses at Florida International University. She first integrated specifications grading during her fall 2016 course Medieval Monstrosity (ENL 4210) and later used it in other undergraduate and graduate classes. To help students better understand specifications grading, she developed a handout called Chart Your Way to Your Final Grade. Students completed the handout three times over the semester to check in on their progress. In her Advanced Research Methods in the Humanities course (ENG 5009), Dr. Blatt used ungrading along with token-based economies, Slack group discussions, social annotations, and more to offer students flexibility and the opportunity to connect during the pandemic. Additionally, Dr.Blatt used qualitative forms of assessment and self-reflection to encourage students to think critically about their learning. To help students better understand alternative grading systems and ease their anxieties, students are also offered an opportunity to read The Case Against Grades by Alfie Kohn and confer with Dr.Blatt throughout the semester. To learn more about Dr. Blatt and her experience with specifications grading and ungrading, please email her at

  • Specifications Grading, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

    Eric ReyesDepartment of Mathematics

    For the past five years, Dr. Reyes has been integrating specifications grading into his statistics courses at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. In order to prepare students for his specifications-based grading system and elucidate what specifications mean, Dr. Reyes provided at least 3 annotated examples of assignments that met the specifications and assignments that did not. Additionally, Dr. Reyes uses phrases such as “successfully complete” or “did not successfully complete” instead of pass/fail. He found that altering the language eased students' fears and anxieties regarding alternative grading. This phrasing and grading system better aligns with Dr.Reyes’ course design where assignments and homework are both made to inspire discussion regarding course concepts. Dr.Reyes has also found that for specifications grading to succeed, the specifications must be clearly defined and communicated in advance. As a result, setting the bundle, specifications, and assignments can be time-consuming at first.


  • Contract Grading, Bridgewater State University

    Lisa M. LitterioDepartment of English

    In fall 2014, Dr. Litterio piloted an initial study where she examined the implementation of contract grading in her technical writing class at Bridgewater State University. Students were able to generate their own criteria for each assignment, but Dr.Litterio provided students with their final assessment grades. As a result, although students became more involved in the grading process, they experienced difficulty seeing themselves as experts and resisted participation. In 2017, Dr.Litterio revised her contract grading system and completed a secondary study. To mitigate the hurdles students faced in her previous study, Dr.Litterio integrated more opportunities for students to participate in the grading process through student-generated criteria, community-based assessments, and self-assessments. Students were asked to submit a self-assessment with each submitted assignment that prompted students to explain how their writing adhered to the class criteria. Through these opportunities, students not only felt more involved in the grading process but also found that the self-assessments became more than a justification for criteria. Students instead used the opportunity to learn and reflect metacognitively about their writing (Litterio, 2017).

What are the benefits?

Alternative grading is an attempt to remove the transactional nature of grading and allows instructors and students to engage in more authentic learning. With traditional grading, students can become frustrated at the notion of having to complete assignments only with the purpose to receive a certain score or letter grade, and not for the sake of actual learning.  If grades are not as important of a factor or don’t factor in at all, students can better acquire intrinsic motivation for completing assignments. 

Additional benefits for students include (Center for the Integration of Teaching, Learning and Scholarship, Lafayette College):

  • Allowing students to take greater risks without penalty or consequences (i.e receiving a bad grade)
  • Reducing grade-related stress and better-promoting student well-being
  • Help offset inequities among students arising from socioeconomic, racial, gender, and other social forms of difference
  • Foster greater dialogues on challenging traditional grading systems

Although considerable effort is required, there are plenty of benefits for faculty who implement alternative grading in the classroom. With traditional methods, instructors may become stymied in their capability to support students by being preoccupied with the logistics of grading such as making numerous calculations, needing to debate whether to give partial credit or having to justify grades. With alternative grading, there can be more thought put into providing feedback and enjoying the process of conversing with students about their progress. Also, in creating better expectations for students to complete assignments with lesser restrictions in grading, students actually produce a higher quality of work (Blum & Kohn, 2020). Overall, alternative grading can lead to a newfound appreciation in assessing learning and interacting with students.

What are the challenges?

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  • Time and Effort

    Although some instructors find that using alternative grading reduces and better distributes their grading load, the upfront preparation to integrate these systems is high. Instructors need to update their syllabus and course objectives. And depending on the system, instructors also need to develop criteria or specifications, rubrics, contract examples, reflective assignments, token opportunities, and more. Additionally, these systems rely on in-depth feedback so students have the opportunity to revise which can be time-consuming.

  • Student Adjustment

    If students have not taken a class with an alternative grading system, it may take some time for students to adjust. And in some cases, students may display resistance to a new system and experience added anxieties about their progress (Spidell & Thelin, 2006).  Instructors can circumvent this by being transparent about the system and why it was adopted. Additionally, instructors should offer students opportunities to request a conference and review their progress.

  • Explaining Alternative Grading to Colleagues and Finding Support

    Instructors not only have to help students understand the new grading system but also their colleagues and/or leadership since alternative grading is relatively new. It is recommended to find a support group, internally or externally, to discuss and troubleshoot any potential issues and share ideas. For example, faculty can network with other instructors through social media and communication platforms. Robert Talbert, author of Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty, administers an Alternative Grading Slack Workspace. Twitter is also a popular platform for instructors to share their experiences and resources.

  • Implementation into Large Courses

    For larger courses, it may be harder to provide students with personal, in-depth feedback. There are several ways to integrate alternative grading into larger courses. Instructors can provide students with verbal or group feedback and offer students more opportunities to complete self-evaluations. Additionally, instructors can address the entire class and offer students feedback through a letter or in-class announcement. The feedback should outline trends and answer common questions (Stommel, 2020).

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Accordion Group

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  • Transparency

    Using alternative grading strategies encourages better communication between students and instructors on assessments and learning goals. With any chosen system, it is paramount for the instructor to take the time to introduce and explain alternative grading to their students. This can be done by making time for discussion in the first week of class on how students will be assessed and the justifications behind chosen strategies. It is recommended for instructors to also include language in their syllabus on alternative grading.

  • Authentic Assessments

    With less emphasis on grading, instructors may wish to forgo traditional assignments such as exams or research papers and instead create assessments where students perform, “real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills'' (Broadbent et al 2017, Mueller 2005). With more opportunities for feedback and multiple revisions, students can work on a problem, project, or inquiry-based learning that can better capture understanding of course content. With methods like ungrading, students can participate in more metacognitive practices of self-reflection on their progress and educational goals. You can read more about authentic assessments in this guide.

  • Empowering Students

    Alternative grading methodologies not only encourage students to think critically about their own learning but also empower them to make critical choices about how they will be evaluated.  Alternative grading systems facilitate collaborative partnerships between students and the instructor and as a result, complements antiracist and decolonizing pedagogies (Stommel, 2020). Unlike traditional grading systems that reinforce teacher/learner hierarchies, alternative grading dismantles them. For example, Asao B. Inoue, professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Arizona State University, incorporates contract grading along with community-based assessment in his writing courses to bolster anti-racist practice in the classroom (Inoue, 2019). 

Where is it going?

In the wake of the pandemic, several universities adopted a temporary pass/fail grading system. This system was implemented to ease student anxieties about their grades and to mitigate the effects COVID-19 had on student performance. These university-wide initiatives have amplified the discourse around traditional grading, its merit, and potential alternatives. Although some institutions have ended the temporary pass/fail system, various universities continue to be a proponent for alternate grades (Flaherty, 2020). Universities such as Pennsylvania State University have enacted opt-in alternative grading for the Spring 2022 semester. Moreover, various prominent universities have already permanently diverged from traditional grading systems. For example, for most undergraduate and graduate courses at Brown University, students can elect to be graded on a binary system of Satisfactory/No Credit or A/B/C/No Credit. Students at Sarah Lawrence  College receive three modes of evaluation– traditional letter grades for external use, in-depth narrative evaluations, and a critical abilities assessment.


Broadbent, J., Panadero, E., & Boud, D. (2018). Implementing summative assessment with a formative flavour: A case study in a large class. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(2), 307–322.

Blum, S., & Kohn, A. (2020). Ungrading. West Virginia University Press.

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Flaherty, C. (2020, November 30). Students seek pass-fail options again for fall in light of COVID-19. Inside Higher Ed, Retrieved February 16, 2022. 

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Inoue, Asao B. (2019). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. The WAC Clearinghouse; University Press of Colorado.

Litterio, L. (2018). Contract grading in the technical writing classroom: Blending community-based assessment and self-assessment. Assessing Writing, 38, 1–9.

Mueller, J. 2005. “The Authentic Assessment Toolbox: Enhancing Student Learning through Online Faculty Development.” Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 1 (1): 1–7.

Nilson, L. (January 19, 2016). Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade. Inside Higher Ed.

Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Parker, J. (2021). Specifications Grading: A Method for Improving Student Performance, University of Connecticut.

Palmer, M., & Streifer, A. (2020) Alternative Grading: Practices Support Both Equity and Learning.

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE life sciences education, 13(2), 159–166.

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Stommel, J. (2020). Ungrading: a FAQ.

Volk, S. (2016, March 27). Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading | After Class [Blog]. After Class: Education & Democracy.

Why Do Ungrading? · CITLS · Lafayette College. (n.d.). Retrieved February 17, 2022, from