Equity-Minded Assessment: The Overall Course Grading Scheme

In addition to thinking about the types and format of the ways we assess students, equity-minded instructors consider the assumptions undergirding the entire grading system for the course. They consider whether the overall grading scheme offers all students, even the less advantaged ones, a chance to succeed. They ponder what their system assumes and what it communicates to students when they see it described in the syllabus. They consider motivation and what behaviors they want to incentivize and reward.

Strategies for Equity-Minded Instructors to Consider

Offer more frequent assignments which have less weight rather than just a few major high-stakes assessments

This approach reduces opportunity gaps. “When a single exam or a paper carries a lot of weight,” note Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, “you risk letting that one experience or day wreak havoc on a student’s grade.” When instead an instructor reduces the stakes of major papers and tests in favor of giving more smaller assessments, “you increase the validity of your grading while helping students cultivate a sense of hope in the face of a single setback.”

Elon Professor Practices: Ryne Vankrevelen (Statistics)

Ryne Vankrevelen allows students to drop the lowest grade they received on a homework assignment and on an exam. This policy means a student’s overall course grade isn’t significantly harmed by a low score the student may receive while dealing with other issues in their life.

Vankrevelen also offers some flexibility in due dates for some assignments with “Life Happens Extensions.” Students are given up to three 1-day extensions, with no questions asked; they may choose to take a one-day extension on three occasions or a three-day extension on one occasion, for example.

He does this because all people encounter difficulties, and he has no way of knowing the stresses or obligations an individual student may be facing – which may be related to jobs, physical or mental health challenges, distress over personal, political, or campus events, or other things.

Vankrevelen realizes that not all students feel comfortable revealing to their professor the reasons for their difficulty in meeting a deadline, and not all students feel empowered to ask for an extension. The policy makes it explicit to all students that they have this chance, ensuring equal opportunities and more opportunities for students to succeed and do their best work.

Offer ways for students to grow and improve.

Our job is to find ways to help students learn the material, not to weed them out. Too often students who are new to a field or who come from less advantaged groups don’t perform as well as they hoped on a first assessment. If our grading scheme makes it difficult to salvage their overall course grade after that first disappointing performance, demoralized students might well drop the course. A better outcome would be for them to learn smarter methods for preparation, become more adept at assessing their understanding of the content, ask lots of questions, use available resources, and show resilience so that they will perform better in the future. Ideally, our grading schema will make it possible for them to do that.

To create room in our course for student growth over the course of the semester we might try one or more of the following options.

  • Make the first exam, paper, or other assessment count for a just small percentage of the final grade
  • Allow chances to improve a score through revision of work (Jungels and Patel)
  • Let students replace an earlier score with a later cumulative assessment
  • Use portfolios to allow students to revise, showcase their best work, and highlight their thinking and/or creative process and understanding of course concepts (Council of Writing Program Administrators)
  • Offer students the opportunity to drop their worst score on an exam, quiz, or other assessment.

Elon Professor Practices: Jessica Merricks (Biology)

In Jessica Merricks‘ biology courses for non-majors, Jessica assigns a lot of informal, low-stakes, in-class work – often done in groups – with the goal of having students apply their understanding of the content and express it in ways that a non-academic audience could understand. For example, groups might create trailers or posters for apocalypse movies using info about the effects of human activity on natural ecosystem services.

Merricks also spreads out the students’ final grade over many different tasks, not simply a few heavily weighted exams. There are some traditional quizzes and lab reports, but none of these count for a very large portion of the grade.

Hoping to minimize the effects of unequal preparation, her grading scheme doesn’t compare students to one another. Instead, students are asked to communicate in personal reflection essays at the end of each unit about how own their understanding of key content and ideas has changed from the beginning of the course.

She also is experimenting with end-of-semester portfolios – for which students will reflect back on their work throughout the semester (building metacognition) and choose products that best demonstrate their understanding. Students may revise their work before it goes into the portfolio, thus providing room for growth and improvement.

Consider alternatives to traditional grading

Specifications grading

On some kinds of student work instructors might want to make fine distinctions in quality, but on others, we might be satisfied once the work has reached a specified level of competence. If an instructor has created clear specifications for the characteristics of acceptable work, this system makes it easier for faculty to assess work (because it’s a yes or no decision) and it decreases the likelihood of haggling over grades. Sally Hang, a Humboldt State psychology professor and former first-generation college student, talks about why she uses specs grading.

Grading contracts

There are many kinds of grading contracts; some are instructor-generated, some are created collaboratively with students, some spell out what students must do to achieve certain grades, while others offer a menu of choices for student work.

What most have in common is that they aim to encourage intellectual exploration and risk-taking, shift students’ focus to practicing certain processes, separate feedback from grades (and decrease students’ fear of the grade), build students’ abilities to self-assess or monitor their own progress, and give students more agency in the learning process.

Some contract systems ask students to write process letters that describe or show evidence of their learning, which may influence or determine the final grade.

Some instructors explicitly use contracts as anti-racist practice. Asao Inoue argues that grading is often employed to control students, rank them, and enforce a single, dominant, white-defined standard, purposes he finds “detrimental to learning generally, and more harmful to many students of color and raciolinguistically diverse students” (Inoue).

Labor-based grades

Labor-based systems reward regular hard work and/or the consistent practice of certain cognitive, writing, or reflective practices. For an example of a system where the entire course grade is labor-based, see Asao Inoue’s sample contract for a first-year writing course and labor log.

It’s also possible to set up a hybrid system in which only part of the final course grade is labor-based. Mary Jo Festle asks students in a course on the history of race and gender in American sports to write traditional evidence-based essays and analyze primary sources, but because she wants to encourage students to reflect on some potentially controversial events and ideas without fear of being graded based on the content of their opinions, she also assigns informal writings. Students get full credit on these assignments as long as they address all the prompts, and the more reflections they do, the higher their grade. Both she and they are pleased with the system because it encourages students to explore their own thinking on important societal topics.


Works Cited & Resources

Council of Writing Program Administrators Anti-Racist Assessment Task Force. “Statement on Anti-Racist Assessment.”

Hall, Macie. “What is Specifications Grading and Why Should You Consider It?” Johns Hopkins University Innovative Instructor Blog, April 11, 2018.

Hang, Sally. “Empowering Students Through Specs Grading.” Humboldt State Center for Teaching and Learning.

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

Jungels, Amanda M., and Chandani Patel. “Inclusive and Equitable Practices for a Flexible Learning Environment.” POD Conference, 2020.

Sathy, Viji, and Kelly A. Hogan. “How To Make Your Teaching More Inclusive.” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2019.