Clark, David and Robert Talbert. 2023. Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices That Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education. New York: Routledge.

A book cover with the following title: Grading for Growth: A Guide to Alternative Grading Practices That Promote Authentic Learning and Student Engagement in Higher Education. The authors are David Clark and Robert Talbert, with the foreword written by Linda B. Nilson.

Grades and grading have long plagued students and instructors alike. Faculty frequently lament the task of grading and bemoan students’ seeming fixation with the alphanumeric encapsulation of their work, haggling over points and half points on assignments large and small. Many students, for their part, memorize and discard information for tests, experience tremendous stress over each contributing factor to their GPA and class rank, and focus on their score at the expense of engaging with feedback. So why do we all continue this practice that seemingly achieves little but to cause anxiety, entrench students and instructors against one another, and frame the learning experience in such a transactional way?

Grading for Growth (David Clark and Robert Talbert) marks the most recent addition to a quickly emerging body of scholarship that seeks to reform grading practices one class at a time. Joining the shelf occupied by volumes such as Ungrading by Susan Blum et al. and Life Beyond Grades by Covington et al., Grading for Growth helpfully shifts the conversation away from the negatives associated with grading and reframes grading as a space for cultivating learning and empowering students. Indeed, even the book’s title and subtitle underscore the positive frame and forward-looking ethos of its message: readers can see this as an opportunity to move away from the framing of ungrading (as something that holds negative valence insofar as it is something a course doesn’t use) and towards useful alternatives that center on student learning and development. For instructors in the context of higher education, the volume’s centering of the university classroom offers a helpful scope for imagining how the practices detailed in the book might be implemented.

The book is divided into three distinct yet connected parts, with a foreword by specifications grading pioneer Linda Nilson and an appendix of frequently asked questions. Part one opens with discussions of different types of alternative grading methods (e.g., standards-based, specifications, etc.), and the benefits of utilizing these methods, then presents the four pillars of alternative grading. Part two provides a number of case studies for the reader to learn more about how different versions of alternative grading have been applied in numerous disciplines (e.g., STEM, social sciences, and more). In part three, the authors provide a workbook to help the reader develop an alternative grading framework to apply in their own class. In what follows, we discuss each part in more depth.

What Is Alternative Grading?

Part one (“What Is Alternative Grading?”) provides a definition and overview of alternative grading; through posing and offering responses to questions such as “why do we grade?” and “does alternative grading work?”, the authors set a conversational and inviting tone that runs throughout the entire book. This section serves to present a condensed recap of current discussions about grades and grading while drawing attention to the importance of terminology and the various forces that have contributed to the current (problematic) state of grading practices in the US. Although not a nuanced or in-depth history of education and assessment, the narratives provided here clearly communicate the range of factors that contributed to the emergence of grades around a century ago, the complex problems connected to grading, and a convincing articulation of the value and success of alternative approaches.

Clark and Talbert’s “four pillars” framework for attempting alternative assessment marks a key contribution to the literature on grading. This framework is presented after brief sections that summarize the history and origin of traditional grading alongside a note about what’s actually good about grades (grades communicate information about students’ work across institutional contexts; they communicate information about in-the-moment performance to students; they’re a built-in feature of almost every LMS; and they’re “fungible” [p. 17]) and a longer run of pages about the problems with traditional grading (it misrepresents learning; misuses statistics; is inequitable; and more, including that it can be demotivating for students and contribute to unhealthy student-faculty relationships). According to Clark and Talbert, alternative forms of grading can work as a mechanism that seeks to improve upon all of the issues found in traditional grading. Two areas for reform are promoted as spaces in which “we can rapidly improve” (p. 24): make grades meaningful by connecting them directly to demonstrated learning and using clear criteria for what is expected and what is satisfactory; and put feedback loops at the center (pp. 24-25).

The four pillars have their foundation in the two previously noted spaces for reform (meaning and feedback) and equip faculty with a set of common elements to bring to whatever specific strategy they see as accessible or optimal for them or for a particular course. The four pillars are:

  1. Clearly Defined Standards. Student work is evaluated using clearly defined and context-appropriate content standards for what constitutes acceptable evidence of learning.
  2. Helpful Feedback. Students are given helpful, actionable feedback that the student can and should use to improve their learning.
  3. Marks Indicate Progress. Student work doesn’t have to receive a mark, but if it does, the mark is a progress indicator toward meeting a standard and not an arbitrary number.
  4. Reassessment Without Penalty. Students can reassess work without penalty, using the feedback they receive, until the standards are met or exceeded (pp. 28-30).

A common, frequently repeated refrain throughout the book follows as an unofficial fifth pillar: keep it simple (p. 31). This “Prime Directive” should shape everything that the alternative grading adventurer attempts to do, both for their own sake and especially for the sake of their students; the benefits of alternative approaches can be obscured by an overly wrought or complicated assessment system.

This exhortation, along with the four pillars framework, is integrated throughout part one and the rest of the book, giving readers implicit and explicit reminders to locate their individualized reform in systems that are sensible, manageable, and sustainable. As Clark and Talbert note, much of the peer-reviewed research about alternative grading thus far remains located in practice, with case studies distributed in articles and edited volumes (p. 33); Grading for Growth’s four (or five) pillars clearly connect to the practical piece of alternative grading but also incorporate what we know from the science of learning, psychology, and other relevant fields to piece together a more holistic model. Although practical exempla occupy significant space in the book, this weaving together of theory and application emerges as a unique and important contribution to the swiftly evolving landscape of scholarship on alternative grading.

What Alternative Grading Can Look Like

In part two (“What Alternative Grading Can Look Like”), Clark and Talbert blend the introduction of particular systems with case studies of their implementation, thereby putting the theories and philosophies of the first part into the sometimes more familiar language of course syllabi, assignments, and assessments. The longest section in the book, here the authors offer an impressive array of models, including multiple examples of standards-based (chapter 5), specifications-based (chapter 6), or hybrid (chapter 7 — both standards-based and specifications-based) grading. In chapters 8 and 9, the authors focus on specific types of classes (e.g., large classes and laboratory classes) to help show the variety of ways in which alternative grading can be implemented across campus. The final chapter (chapter 10) in this section talks about ways to partially implement alternative grading if instructors aren’t ready or able to fully implement alternative grading (e.g., heavily coordinated class). That readers can pick and choose what they want to read based on their background, interests, and types of classes taught remains a strength of this section and solidifies the book as a “handbook” for implementing alternative assessment.

Further, the authors identify three important mantras that the reader should keep in mind when reading the case studies (pp. 49-50):

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. There isn’t just one way to do it.
  3. You don’t have to change everything.

This advice is crucial for faculty to keep in mind as they begin planning for the implementation of alternative grading into future classes. The case studies provide instructors multiple examples to consider as they plan their own grading schema. In these case studies, the authors provide excellent rubrics and descriptions of alternative grading methods that could be easily adapted and used by someone looking to start and not feel like they have to start from scratch.

By interweaving description of a theoretical model with an account (or a few) of how real-world instructors have applied the approach to a course context, Clark and Talbert provide readers with a refreshing mix of abstract idea and practical application. In the same vein, the diversity of course contexts included here, which range from philosophy to chemistry and almost everywhere in between, gives avenues for faculty in varied fields to find a way into the sorts of grading practices explored in the book. Despite the diversity of examples given, however, one potential weakness is that there are not many examples given in professional schools (e.g., health sciences, business, education, and communications) or creative disciplines (e.g., music, theater, and dance).

Making Alternative Grading Work for You

Part three (“Making Alternative Grading Work for You”) reflects the deeply user-oriented, practice-focused nature of the book, featuring a workbook along with a return to broader questions about how instructors might apply what they’ve learned and possible next steps. In doing so, Clark and Talbert also implicitly suggest audiences and contexts for reading the book. It would be easy to see, for example, how Grading for Growth could be used by a solo instructor looking to expand their current grading practices or try something new, but it could just as easily be the centerpiece of a reading group organized by a department or teaching and learning center. The tone struck throughout hits notes of optimism and efficiency, encouraging even a skeptical reader to dip their toes into the world of alternative grading, even if one toe at a time is a reader’s maximum capacity for experimentation.

The real strength of the book is in chapter 11, where the authors provide a workbook for instructors to convert their class to using an alternative grading method. They provide ten steps and walk the reader through each of these steps by explaining what needs to be done and give an estimated time to work through each of these steps. They suggest that the first nine steps can be worked on in one day where the reader blocks off time and reduces distractions to focus on the course. The final step happens the next day after the instructor has had a chance to sleep and look back at what they have created. This is not suggesting that the course is finalized, but a solid foundation will have been created to adjust as needed. Throughout this section, the authors highlight the advice given in the previous section, especially keeping it simple the first go-around.

Following the workbook’s step-by-step guidance for creating an alternative grading system for one’s course, Clark and Talbert offer two final chapters to help instructors think through implementation and redesign in more longitudinal ways. A meta-textual note here (p. 194) reminds readers of the user-oriented nature of this book, as the authors acknowledge that the sections that comprise these chapters can easily be accessed in whole or in part and in any order that a reader needs. Most of the advice centers on managing standards, offering reassessments, grading at multiple points of the semester, and giving helpful feedback. Much of the counsel offered in these chapters might feel like common sense, particularly for seasoned instructors, but all of the recommendations serve as valid reminders of simple yet significant roadblocks to the successful implementation of any pedagogy or assessment strategy. Throughout, Clark and Talbert strive to keep student learning at the forefront of all considerations. In a subsection about feedback, for example, they caution instructors not to assume that they’re right, noting that as assignment complexity increases, one’s “evaluation of student work could miss something, and what looks like an ‘issue’ in student work is more of a disagreement” (p. 197).

In this moment, as elsewhere, what might become a dispute or a fixation on points given or withheld in a course that uses conventional grading becomes, in the alternative grading practices advocated by the book, an opportunity for conversation, illumination, and growth — for students and for their instructors. Although less philosophical or interested in widespread cultural reform than other recent titles about grades and grading, Grading for Growth offers a refreshing blend of theory and practice with its process-based, user-oriented, and realistic framing for change and experimentation. Indeed, across the swiftly shifting landscape of literature about assessment, few books offer this particular mix of grounding in existing research, examples of successful strategies, and very practical guides to implementation. Grading for Growth should be a required read for faculty who wish to evaluate their grading practices as spaces in which they might foster student learning, increase intrinsic motivation, and cultivate equitable course climates.

Eric Hall is a professor of exercise science at Elon University and served as the inaugural CEL Senior Scholar. Kristina Meinking is an associate professor of classical languages at Elon University.

How to Cite this Post

Hall, Eric, and Kristina Meinking. 2024. “Keep It Simple: Strategies for Adopting Alternative Grading Practices to Enhance Student Learning.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. February 27, 2024.