Alternatives to Grading: New wine in Old Bottles?

Critics of grading have offered arguments (some compelling, and others not so compelling) to discredit the system of grading that we have grown accustomed to. While some have advocated for a complete overhaul of the grading system, others have been less daring in their recommendations, and have only recommended we do away with letter grades. Common to all, however, is the sentiment that grading is fraught with problems that need addressing.

A major problem of grading is what I call the “subjectivity of the grader”. Elbow (1993) referred to this as the unreliability of graders, highlighting it as one of the problems facing the traditional grading system. From a personal standpoint, I can attest to this. For example, last semester, I taught a leadership course titled, “The Dynamics of Leadership,” which required me to grade my students’ assignments and project. Over the course of the semester, my students were asked to write an essay about a current event happening in the society that had to do with leadership dynamics. The assignment follows a “what?” “so what?” and “now what?” format. The grading rubric looks like this:

10 points for the “what?”

10 points for “so what?”

10 points for “now what?”

10 points for “connection to course concepts” and

10 points for what we call “overall impression.”

While grading each criterion had some element of subjectivity, I would say the last criterion – overall impression – was the most subjective.  ‘What is overall impression?’ I thought to myself. How do I have a  metric for the overall impression that is consistent across the board?  This is not due to a lack of metrics – in fact, there were metrics like grammar, writing style etc. that I was supposed to look for in their essay. However, this was quite difficult to implement – Sometimes, I would spend several minutes on an essay trying to decide what score is appropriate.

While I agree that this traditional grading system is insufficient, I am yet to be convinced on the practicability of the alternatives. As an alternative, Elbow (1993) and Alfie Kohn suggested we use a system of testimonials or portfolios, where teachers write extensively on the proficiency of students. Then I began to wonder how that would look like for a high school graduate, how many pages of testimonials they would have accumulated throughout high school and how much of work it would be for college admission committee to review such documents. Moreover, can the teachers who write such testimonials be completely objective in their assessment of the student? What about the admission personnel reviewing it? Can we say with utmost certainty that they would be perfectly objective in their assessment of such testimonials?

At the end of the day, I think this whole debate begs the question, “can we as humans completely eliminate subjectivity in our assessment?” If the answer to the question is yes, then great, I would like to learn about such systems of assessment. If the answer is No (which I suppose), then it adds a whole level of complexity to this already complex issue. If alternatives are still liable to subjectivity, then this may well be new wine in old bottles.

Minh Duong


Thank you for a wonderful post on the subjectivity of the grades and the grader. I agree with you totally that it comes down to whether or not we can fairly assess and evaluate students without prejudice. I feel that this is impossible due to implicit and explicit biases. In the food science world, we do something called third party audits where we have a potentially less bias party assist in the evaluation. I wonder if we could somehow blind the system and do a similar thing for grading

Ibukun D. Alegbeleye

Thanks for your comment, Minh! I agree with you; blind review is definitely a good place to start, but even blind reviewers may be biased in their grading due to whether or not they agree with the argument (or maybe method in food science) being presented.

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