A black and white photo of a woman wearing a dress, cardigan, and dark glasses, sitting at a large computer terminal. Three men stand and sit around her. All are looking toward the computer.
Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960. Credit: Unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

Many people would likely categorize the phrase, “it’s always been done that way” as a weak justification for a particular course of action. This phrase is contained in a larger quote attributed to Grace Hopper (1906-1992), Rear Admiral in the United States Navy. Her quote reads, “The most damaging phrase in the language is: It’s always been done that way.” Admiral Hopper was no lightweight when it came to leadership through critically examining practice and making purposeful change. Around 1950, she called for a computer programming language based solely in English words and was immediately criticized for the perceived impossibility of such a feat. Instead of accepting the way things had always been done, she wrote and published a paper that explained the idea, which was generally accepted a few years later. This work heavily influenced the creation of a language called common business-oriented language (COBAL), one of the most important and widely used programming languages in computing history. Hopper’s story resonates with me as I embark on a two-year exploration of alternate models of assessment and feedback.

A few years ago, I remember reading a short article that commented on differences in perception among generations. Although I have forgotten the author’s name, he made a point that has stuck with me. He explained that the assumptions and expectations of the time period in which a person experiences adolescence and realizes there is a larger world out there typically become the assumptions and expectations that are adopted as permanent for life. For example, consider how many people think the popular music they grew up with is the best to listen to. The degree to which his explanation is true is clearly debatable; however, I believe it is worth considering as a lens to teaching praxis. In a similar manner, the models of assessment and feedback university faculty experienced as college students may have directly translated to how they end up practicing assessment and feedback with their current students. Like older generations have different views and opinions than younger generations on how the world works, university faculty likely practice assessment and feedback in ways that do not fully align with best practices for our students. Furthermore, there is limited agreement among university faculty on how students are to use the feedback we give them (Rawlusyk 2018).

The hands of a person are visible writing on a paper at a classroom desk. A water bottle also sits on the desk. Another row of students is visible on the left side of the photo.

I have been an educator in some capacity for the past 23 years, teaching mostly mathematics courses along with some courses in teacher preparation. Many people assume that grading in mathematics is a cut-and-dried practice with simply assessing the correctness of an answer to a problem. While some problems in mathematics do lend themselves to this assessment approach, I learned early on that this view is limited when one considers the richness of mathematical thinking and activity. In describing student mathematical activity for different task types, Smith and Stein (1998) provided the identifier of doing mathematics, which they characterized in a number of ways including, “complex and nonalgorithmic thinking – a predictable, well-rehearsed approach or pathway is not explicitly suggested by the task, task instructions or a worked-out example” (p. 348). This characterization may surprise some readers who remember demonstrating mathematical understanding as simply plugging numbers into the correct formula and circling a correct answer. How do we assess evidence of student understanding in tasks that go beyond direct application of procedures to doing mathematics?

How does the characterization of doing mathematics reflect the demands of understanding, mitigating, and solving the problems we find in life? What does doing (fill in your content area here) look like in your professional discipline? How can the models of assessment and feedback you employ honor the complexity of this activity? Providing meaningful feedback requires the teacher to consider multiple examples of student thinking, activity, and products that model the potential and explanatory power of the discipline.

This blog post is the first in a series on models of assessment and feedback. To set the stage I will use the definition of assessment provided by Gronlund (2006) as referring to a variety of tasks by which teachers collect information. Feedback has traditionally been thought of as the transmission of information from the teacher to the student (Boud and Molloy 2013) but has been reconceptualized in broader ways in recent years. My investigation of assessment and feedback is open to practices outside of traditional grading assumptions and approaches. This includes but is not limited to learning-oriented assessments (e.g., Carless 2007), peer and self-assessments, authentic assessment, feedforward strategies, contract grading, and ungrading (e.g., Stommel 2020). The work reported in this series of blog posts will test the assumption that the way it’s always been done must be the best way. Quality teaching is not separate from quality assessment and feedback, and I look forward to sharing my developing understanding of this complementary relationship in forthcoming posts.


Boud, David, and Elizabeth Molloy. 2013. “Rethinking Models of Feedback for Learning: The Challenge of Design.” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 38 (6): 698-712.

Carless, David. 2007. “Learning‐Oriented Assessment: Conceptual Bases and Practical Implications.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 44: 57-66.

Gronlund, Norman. 2006. Assessment of Student Achievement. Third Custom Edition for the University of Alberta. Toronto: Pearson Education, Inc.

Rawlusyk, Patricia. 2018. “Assessment in Higher Education and Student Learning.” Journal of Instructional Pedagogies 21: 1-34.

Smith, Margaret, and Mary Stein. 1998. “Selecting and Creating Mathematical Tasks: From Research to Practice.” Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School 3 (5): 344-350.

Stommel, Jesse. 2020. “Ungrading: A Bibliography.” Jesse Stommel (blog). March 3, 2020.  https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-a-bibliography/.

Aaron Trocki is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Elon University. He is the CEL Scholar for 2023-2024 and is focusing on models of assessment and feedback outside of traditional grading assumptions and approaches.

How to Cite this Post

Trocki, Aaron. 2023. “It’s Always Been Done That Way: Models of Assessment and Feedback.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. June 27, 2023. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/its-always-been-done-that-way-models-of-assessment-and-feedback.