Critical Pedagogy: Thoughts on alternative grading approaches

During this week’s class on critical pedagogy, we discussed several different grading approaches, and briefly touched on the pros and cons of them. Some of the approaches are ones that I was unfamiliar with, so I did some follow-up research to learn more.  For my blog post, I’d like to briefly summarize what I learned about these different approaches, share links to resources I found helpful, and offer my thoughts on how we as teachers can use them to improve our grading systems.

Traditional grading: Weighted percentages/points

In a traditional grading approach, the teacher will specify a series of assignments, tests, and quizzes, and assign weights to each of them in the form of percentages (i.e. tests are 50% of your final grade, quizzes are 25%, final grades are based on a weighted average) or points (i.e. each test is worth 200 points, each quiz is worth  25 points out of the total 1000 points possible for the semester). This is the approach that many students are most familiar with. It’s clear from the beginning what is expected, and students can keep track of how they’re doing using simple math.

Additive grading 

In an additive grading approach, students start the semester with a clean slate (in other words, zero points), and work to accumulate points towards their desired grade by completing tasks from a list of options. Different assignments may be worth more points based on the difficulty and effort involved. Teachers may specify criteria for selection (ex. at least one assignment from each category) or leave it entirely up to the students. One benefit of this approach is that it is based on rewards, so fear of failure is less of a barrier to student success. It’s also more flexible than a traditional approach, where all students are required to complete the same assignments. However, this approach may backfire by shifting student motivation away from learning and towards simply earning enough points to be done or reach their target grade.  This article offers a great summary of an additive grading approach and describes its similarity to video game rewards systems:

Subtractive grading

This approach is also described in the article linked above, and is pretty much the opposite of additive grading. Rather than a clean slate, students start with full points, then keep or lose those points based on their performance on assignments and tests. While the motivation to keep their A may be a positive motivation for some students, fear of losing their A can hinder performance for others. It seems to me like it could also lead to greater student dissatisfaction, since students who get lower grades may feel like something was taken from them unfairly. As a student, I have had teachers try this, and it stressed me out a lot. I felt like I had to aim for perfection to avoid ruining my grade.

Contract grading

In a contact grading approach, students are presented with the criteria to earn a certain grade, and assured that if they meet these criteria, they will get that grade. I found this topic a bit confusing, but found some great resources that helped clarify things. This article describes both contract grading and portfolio grading (our next topic), and grading in general from the viewpoint of a PhD student preparing to teach their first class:

I also found this great example of a grading contract created by Jennifer Hurley:

Contract grading seems like a great way to foster a sense of student agency and mutual respect while clearly laying out expectations, but I have some concerns. First, it seems like it could be really stressful not knowing until the very end of the class what grade you’re on track for. This could be mitigated by regular status updates for students throughout the semester. Second, depending on the criteria to earn higher letter grades, this approach could make it super difficult for students to earn an A. I don’t think that As should be the end goal of education, but for students who want/need to keep a high GPA, this could create a lot of stress.

For example, as an undergraduate, I was on an academic scholarship that required at least a 3.5 cumulative GPA. This effectively translated to at least an A- or B+ in all courses, or a combination of one or two lower grades and the rest As to balance out to at least a 3.5. After a semester of difficult classes, my GPA dropped below the 3.5. requirement, and I was told that if I didn’t bring it back up the next semester, I would lose the scholarship. For me, that meant losing my housing (the scholarship was tied to living in an Honors dorm) and financial ability to stay at the university. I managed to get back above a 3.5 and keep the scholarship, but that next semester was incredibly stressful, knowing that anything less than an A was too low. If I was in a class that used contract grading, I would have been even more stressed out, especially if the contract reserved As for exceptional performance only.

Portfolio grading

Portfolio grading encourages continuing student improvement by basing grades on final products, rather than intermediate products, although feedback is provided throughout the course. It may also allow students to select what they feel are their best works from a course to submit for grading. This approach seems more common in the humanities. This web page includes more information and links to articles discussing pros and cons:

Curve/Rank-based grading

In this approach, students are all compared based on their performance and assigned grades relative to each other, for example the top 10% of students get an A, the middle 50% get a C, the bottom 10% get an F, etc. I think that this is by far the worst approach. By pitting students against each other for the best grades, it fosters a hypercompetitive learning environment rather than a collaborative one. It can also be incredibly discouraging to students to know that no matter how hard they work and how well they do, their grade is heavily dependent on factors outside of their control.


While there are many different ways to grade, I think that no matter what approach is used, a good grading system is one that:

  1. Clearly specifies expectations
  2. Allows for flexibility and individual variation
  3. Encourages student learning and growth (rather than grade-grubbing)

I personally think that additive grading and contact grading are great ideas, and would like to include these in future courses. What  are your all’s thoughts?


5 Replies to “Critical Pedagogy: Thoughts on alternative grading approaches”

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I was also confused about ‘Contract Grading’ and the links you provided helped me to understand better. I am still not sure what king of grading technique I could use for my class in the future.

  2. Thank you for looking into all these. Class was the first time I’d heard of contract grading and, until I read this, I hadn’t really heard about portfolio or additive grading either. I like the idea of doing something like additive or contract grading, but they are still pretty foreign to me since I am used to the more traditional or curved grading. I have had professors basically use traditional grading but frame it as subtractive, but really I don’t see how those are different except for the glass half full/half empty argument.

    I am also exited to play around with contract or additive grading, but I do think it is a little harder in those to make sure that your grading is consistent across students to get the same grades. I think it’s totally possible, but may take a little more intentionality as an instructor when the systems are being set up.

  3. The grading approach is the most crucial part of the syllabus. Thank you for looking into this and sharing information with us. In our class, we noticed grade weight has changed several times. However, I noticed changing grade weight is a strategy that was being used by the instructor for increasing students’ participation.

  4. THANK YOU for taking the time to condense all of the different grading styles into one source! I was definitely still confused on what contract grading was even after we talked about it in class, but those resources helped a lot. My issue with different types of grading (especially in my discipline) is that students FREAK out if it’s not something they are used to, because they have to maintain grades to get into healthcare professional schools (like med school). I’m not sure alternative methods would go over well with my students. Still interesting to learn about!

  5. Hi Kat,
    Thanks for this great post! I also did not know about some of these grading approaches before. After our class I was also curious to learn more about the contract grading option, even though I think it can be a little bit confusing and, like you said, quite stressful. I definitely dislike the curve/rank-based grading approach because it seems like a make-up kind of grading for me, so this is the one approach I want to avoid in the future.

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