Recently, a colleague and I reconnected at a professional conference and discussed my efforts in writing this blog series. We have known each other for about seven years and have always enjoyed talking shop and joking around. In an effort to be humorous, he bluntly asked, “So what’s wrong with traditional grading?” Knowing that he uses a mix of traditional and alternative grading approaches, I smiled and said, “Well… nothing and everything.” We followed this lighthearted exchange with talking about some successes and challenges we’ve had when practicing aspects of both grading approaches. 

His question is an important one and it behooves us to consider it. I’ve been reading Clark and Talbert’s (2023) book, Grading for Growth, wherein they provide an informative section on benefits and drawbacks of traditional grading (TG). I highly recommend their book and the section on TG. Sharing some significant takeaways from their treatment of TG is in order. They summarize four positive features. 

  1. TG helps different schools communicate about a student’s work. 
  1. TG at the assignment level lets students calculate their “current grade” in a course at any time, giving a sense for “where they are at in the class” and whether they need to adjust their efforts. 
  1. TG is the default, including and especially in learning management systems, which are almost universally designed to use numerical points and nothing else. 
  1. In TG, points are fungible, which means 1 point is 1 point, whether it was earned on a final exam or a homework set (2023, 17). 

Regarding the final positive feature, authors note that this is typically perceived positively by students but does not necessarily promote learning. Consider extra credit assignments that are sometimes repetitive work, which improves a grade but does not promote learning. 

Clark and Talbert also delineate a number of problems with TG. To do so they rely on a hypothetical grading scenario, the field of statistics, and citations from assessment literature such as the book, Grading for Equity, by Feldman (2018). Due to the limited space allotted in this blog post, I will simply summarize their list of problems without diving into their detailed explanation of each.  

  • TG misrepresents learning by generating false positives, a grade that overstates a student’s actual level of learning. 
  • TG misrepresents learning by generating false negatives, a grade that understates a student’s actual level of learning. 
  • TG misuses statistics; although grades are numbers, they are not numerical data, and averaging them leads to nonsensical results. 
  • TG is inequitable because it is inaccurate, bias-prone, and demotivating. 
  • TG promotes unhealthy student-faculty relationships (2023, 19-22). 

The reader is encouraged to critically examine this list of problems and accompanying explanations in their book.  

In recognition of problems with TG, other faculty have sought to reframe assessment research. Boud et al. (2018) explained that TG is heavily influenced by the measurement tradition of assessment, which focuses on tests and examinations. In this view, assessments are “designed to measure particular learning outcomes or characteristics of students and that the purpose of research [on assessment] is to improve their efficacy in so doing” (1108). In this view the student is the unit of analysis with the assessments viewed as functioning independently of place and time and prearranged with little to no student input. Boud et al. invoke socio-cultural and socio-material perspectives to articulate a broader view of assessment as practice. 

The field of assessment is acknowledgement of the everyday activities of assessment as conducted, without framing them normatively in terms of what assessment should do. It provides an emphasis on assessment-as-practiced and how it operates, thereby attending to the many issues rendered invisible when it is configured as marking students (2018, 1109-1110). 

This practice perspective goes beyond just measuring performance on tasks and accounts for the “before, during, and after,” along with effects on students and faculty. For example, the measurement perspective does not address the phenomenon of students who do well on a final exam but avoid the subject thereafter, whereas the practice perspective allows for prioritizing an understanding of why this phenomenon occurs.  

Considering assessment from a practice perspective invites faculty and students to shift their views from assessment OF learning towards assessment FOR learning. The practice perspective aligns well with many alternative approaches to grading. Understanding the underpinnings of alternative grading can assist us in shifting our thinking about assessment. In Grading for Growth, Clark and Talbert (2023) provide a framework for alternative grading that is based on four interrelated pillars. 

  1. Student work is evaluated using clearly defined and context-appropriate content standards for what constitutes acceptable evidence of learning. 
  1. Students are given helpful, actionable feedback that the student can and should use to improve their learning. 
  1. 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. 
  1. Students can reassess work without penalty, using the feedback they receive, until the standards are met or exceeded (2023, 28-29).  

These student-centered pillars put a priority on growth and learning in response to clear standards. Compare these against your own experiences as both a learner and teacher under TG practices. 

To summarize, TG has its benefits and drawbacks. Broadening our perspective of assessment may help us appreciate what alternative grading approaches have to offer faculty and students. In future blog posts we will address various alternative grading and feedback practices and compare them against some perspectives of assessment and Clark and Talbert’s four pillars for alternative grading. We recognize that alternative practices may not fully align to all four pillars; however, these pillars will provide us with a lens through which to explore the intent and process of various assessment and feedback practices. This investigative method will eventually lead to our treatment of hybrid models and research on applications of alternative approaches. 


Bouda, David, Phillip Dawson, Margaret Bearman, Sue Bennett, Gordon Joughin, and Elizabeth Molloy. 2018. “Reframing Assessment Research: Through a Practice Perspective.” Studies in Higher Education 43(7): 1107-1118. 

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

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: Stylus Publishing, LLC. 

Feldman, Joe. 2018. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin Press. 

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. “Traditional and Alternative Approaches to Grading: Models of Assessment and Feedback ” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. November 14, 2023.