Students and Faculty Weigh Alternative Grading Systems

Some professors at Dickinson have chosen to adopt alternative grading systems in their classes, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, to evaluate their students more effectively and fairly.

Alternative grading systems fall under three categories: specifications, contract and ungrading. Professors at Dickinson who use alternative grading mostly choose contract or ungrading.

Contract grading uses an agreement between the professor and student of what and how the student wants to learn based on the work the student commits to the class.

Ungrading is a system of feedback from the professor and constant reflection from the student on the quality of work. Students don’t receive a letter grade for assignments but can request grades from the professor.

Noreen Lape, director of the Writing Program, is an advocate for ungrading. She has experimented with ungrading in several classes and will continue to use it going forward, saying “I only ever try something if I think this will be an interesting learning experience for them.”

Sarah McGaughey, Associate Professor of German, has used contract grading in her upper level classes since the pandemic began when faculty in the languages discussed switching to alternative grading. She said, “the grade contracting was a way for me to better communicate with students about all of the things going into class and not just the [expectations] I expect of them.”

McGaughey’s primary reasoning for using contract grading stems from her experience as a faculty member and former student, saying “I get the feeling that students are doing something for me and not for themselves.” She cited the pressure of having report cards as a child in making her realize that it is not healthy for students to always have grades looming over them.

Halima Mughal ’23 has had a class with Lape that used ungrading. She described herself as a motivated but anxious student and that the system “challenged me to actually think about how I’m doing in the class… I had to actually think about my performance.”

Emily Poland ’25 said the feedback in a class she took with Lape was based on voice memos that gave detailed, constructive comments. Poland described her high school environment as competitive and stressful; she said, “I had friends in high school that if they got a 97%, they would cry.” She said she has learned through Lape’s class to change her outlook on grades and that more professors should use alternative grading systems.

There are colleges that have no grades at all or use the same grading system universally, but Lape believes that Dickinson will not head in that direction as an institution, because of the autonomy professors have to organize a course’s format.

Not all Dickinson students have responded positively, though. Lape and McGaughey said they have had several students who objected to their alternative grading systems and requested to receive traditional grades.

A challenge that remains is implementing alternative grading in STEM courses where students are often evaluated on quantitative answers.