We want our students to grow and develop in our courses, and we especially love those occasions when our students overcome barriers and achieve huge leaps in learning. But is it possible that our grading practices unintentionally punish students for slow starts, disruptive events or circumstances related to their environment rather than their learning?  

A group of Metropolitan State University of Denver faculty members recently discussed the book “Grading for Equity” by Joe Feldman as part of the Teaching Book Discussion series hosted by the Center for Teaching, Learning and Design. This SIP highlights issues and promising practices from that discussion and is also the first in a three-part series on equitable practices we will cover this year in the SIPs. 

Although Feldman’s book is written for a K-12 settings and some of the specific recommendations may not apply directly to higher education, the ideas behind these principles still warrant consideration. We don’t often think of grading as a motivational act, but we can design our grading policies in a way that creates formative space for deeper learning and encourages students to keep working to be successful. 

Take a SIP of this: equitable grading through accurate, bias-resistant and motivational practices

In the book, Feldman organizes ideas and suggestions for grading around three principles, suggesting that equitable grading is accurate, bias-resistant and motivational. The following strategies allow faculty members to vary their approach to equitable grading that falls under these categories.


Give students the chance to recover 

Many of our traditional grading policies do not give students a chance to recover from a slow start or a disruptive event. When students have no chance of recovery, it looks quite appealing to drop a course rather than work extremely hard only to receive a low grade. For example, if a course has four major assessments (exams, papers, projects), we might average the scores to calculate a final grade. If a student fails or does not turn in the first assessment but then completes the last three with flying colors, we may feel satisfied that our student overcame great obstacles and ended the course with strong evidence of learning. However, with grades of zero, 100, 100 and 100, a student would never be able to get higher than a C in the course.  

Some suggestions to address this include:  

  • Weight/prioritize more recent performance to allow our grades to accurately reflect how well a student has learned what we want them to learn by the end of the course. 
  • Avoid zero-grade policies or using minimum grading (lowest score is 50%). 
  • Use a 0-4 scale instead of 0-100. 


Normalize revisions and retakes 

Feldman argues that some students have support networks that will strongly encourage them to retake a failed test, ask for an extension or take the instructor up on an offer to revise a big assignment. Students without the same support structure may not know these options exist or feel empowered to take advantage of them. Allowing students to revise or retake an assessment gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge or, at the very least, learn from their mistakes.   

While the logistical implications of this can vary, possible strategies to encourage revision and retakes include:  

  • Creating set times within a course for revising/improving/redoing assessments (midterm and end of term), which can normalize continual improvement. 
  • Providing a few standard alternative options to demonstrate learning from mistakes, such as a memo addressing feedback or a student-created artifact, to earn additional points. 
  • Using cumulative exams or projects that reveal whether a student has learned from their mistakes and shows overall mastery of knowledge and skills.


Be cognizant of bias

Feldman argues that our grades should reflect valid evidence of a student’s performance and learning and not be based on “evidence that is likely to be corrupted by a teacher’s implicit bias or reflect a student’s environment” (p. 72). For example, we want to prioritize mastery of content and skills in an assessment over issues of language or formatting, which can drastically reduce a grade. We may also want to reconsider the importance of the timing of our assessments. Sometimes, a strict due date is essential, but other times it doesn’t really matter if a paper is turned in a few days late. If our true goal is student learning, we would rather have them complete the assignment with quality and focus on the essential learning tasks.  

Strategies to address potential bias:  

  • When possible, resist harsh penalties for factors unrelated to content or skills (timing, format, language learning). 
  • Be open to creative and student-directed expressions of learning. 
  • Allow students to suggest alternative assessment methods. 
  • Ensure that grading participation, effort or extra credit does not reward or punish students for circumstances outside of their control. 
  • Create some “grade-free” zones in your course such as practice quizzes, self-assessed activities, rough drafts and practice presentations.   


Use grading structures that motivate and enable success 

Feldman cautions against grading formative or practice work and argues that when we grade everything, we risk undermining intrinsic motivation and inadvertently teach students to care more about points than learning. However, faculty members may need to provide incentives for students to complete practice work. In fact, many recommendations in higher education suggest that grading students for effort and participation is considered good practice (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).  

Strategies that allow faculty members to balance motivation and feedback: 

  • Be transparent and clearly explain assessments. 
  • Use small-stakes assignments in addition to larger assessments. 
  • Create rubrics and share them with students. 
  • Incorporate self-assessment and peer assessment to promote meaningful feedback.  
  • Include reflective questions to promote a growth mindset. 

Still thirsty? Take another SIP of Equitable Grading

There is a lot of work going on at MSU Denver to promote equitable teaching practices. For example, the Writing Center is conducting anti-racist-writing pedagogy workshops, and the Center for Teaching, Learning and Design is offering more Teaching and Learning Book Discussions to explore these topics.    

Feldman, J. (2018). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press. 

Grading for Equity website with resources: https://gradingforequity.org/ 

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159-166. lifescied.org/doi/full/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054 

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