Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

How do we determine the grade a student receives in a course?

In traditional grading systems, instructors evaluate each assignment; assign it a score representing some amount of partial credit; and average these scores, with or without weights, to create an overall course letter grade. Although this approach is common, it is not the only way to grade. Many instructors, including faculty at CMU, have modified their grading systems to better motivate students, make expectations clearer, and to assess learning outcomes in a more targeted manner.

Alternative grading is a broad term encompassing many grading reforms. The grading system an instructor chooses should align with their teaching values and goals for student learning. Here we will focus on two families of alternative grading approaches:

Specifications “specs” Grading

Specifications grading is designed to increase instructor transparency, allow for student autonomy, and provide opportunities for practice and improvement. Unlike traditional grading systems where each individual assignment is graded for partial credit out of a total possible number of points, in specifications (or “specs”) grading all assignments are simply graded as either meeting a specified set of criteria or not. Key to this approach is that the instructor creates comprehensive rubrics defining the competency threshold for each assignment and shares them with students ahead of the assignment. Often, specs grading systems set the threshold for satisfactory work at approximately 80% or B-level, with the goal of encouraging a higher level of effort and quality. 

Where possible, it is recommended that students be given opportunities to revise and resubmit an assignment if they did not meet the specifications on the first attempt. This encourages a formative approach to learning. A set number of revision opportunities may be allocated at the start of the semester for eligible assignments, or students may earn these opportunities by completing additional tasks throughout the course.

Final course grades are earned by satisfactory completion of a pre-established group of assignments defined on the course syllabus. This means that expectations are concrete and transparent, allowing students to choose which assignments they need to complete to earn the grade they want to target.

Examples of Spec Grading:

(Business, Society and Ethics 70-332 — Spring 2022, Dr. Patrick Walsh). 

Specifications for Final Grades



Characteristic Assessments


☑ Satisfactorily complete at least 16 out of 20 Journals, including the last one

☑ Complete 19 out of 25 Reading Assignments

Reflective assignments that ask you to infuse your views into the course. Graded on effort. No Redos.

Reading Assignments
Online reading questions graded on effort. No Redos.


☑ Satisfy D requirements

☑ Satisfactorily complete 3 Quizzes

Tests of comprehension based on readings
and class time. Passing is 80%. You get
unlimited redos.


☑ Satisfy D and C requirements

☑ Complete the two Surveys

☑ Satisfactorily complete 1 Presentation or Dialogue

15 minute group presentation of an original
business case that highlights the ethical
and social issues. Redos available.

20 minute 1-on-1 discussion with professor
about an original business case that highlights the ethical and social issues. Redos available.


☑ Satisfy D, C, and B requirements

☑ Satisfactorily complete 2 Case

Reflections per unit OR 1 Case Study per unit (you can mix and match Reflections and Studies)

Case Reflection
This is an assignment where you engage
with a real-life case and hold substantial
discussion on it and then reflect on it.

Case Study
This is an assignment where you analyze a
case in detail, describing the stakeholders,
their relative power, and the social and
moral issues of the case.


Specs grading scheme from Dr. Therese Tardio in the Department of Modern Languages. Again, the table outlines the requirements for each letter grade. The number in the cell is the number of “Satisfactory” submissions needed for that type of assignment.


Attendance (out of a possible 26)


(out of 3)


(out of 5)

Presentations (out of 3)

Reflection Posts (out of 4)


(out of 3)






























Keep in mind that these are just a few examples of how instructors might implement specs grading. For more specifications grading procedures, tips, and examples see Linda Nilson’s book Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (2014).

With careful course design, specs grading can support the following common instructor values and/or needs:

Making expectations clear

  • Highly detailed expectations are laid out transparently, both in the specifications of what satisfactory work is for each assignment and in the requirements for course grades.

Upholding high academic standards

  • A high bar for satisfactory work holds students to high standards. 
  • The instructor can encourage students to strive for higher levels than they might initially choose (particularly true for at-risk students who may target lower levels due to preconceived beliefs about their abilities).

Increasing equity    

  • Clear rubrics reduce opportunities for implicit bias, so that all students are held to the same standards on each assignment.
  • Opportunities for revision make it possible to have a rigorous course while still allowing students with varying amounts of prior knowledge to succeed.  

Giving students feedback they can use    

  • Clear indications where work does not yet meet the specifications can guide revisions, and the ease of giving rubric-based feedback allows this to be done quickly.

Reflecting student learning outcomes

  • When criteria for final letter grades are built around learning objectives rather than the accumulation of a certain number of points, the differences between letter grades can represent which objectives have been mastered.

Motivating students to learn  

  • Specs grading provides a structured reward mechanism.
  • Rubrics make it clear what students have learned and where they need more work, and resubmissions allow them to improve. 

Discouraging cheating

  • Having opportunities to iterate lowers the stakes and reduces the pressure for students to achieve perfection, which often drives students to cheat.

Making students feel responsible for their grades 

  • Students can choose the sets of assignments and/or difficulty level to attempt.
  • Ideally, there is a clear connection between effort, amount of work, and grade results.

Minimizing conflict between instructors and students

  • Clear criteria means there is less room to argue over grades.
  • Having only satisfactory/not yet satisfactory levels on assignments reduces the importance of small numbers of points in determining grades.

Patrick Walsh HeadshotPatrick Walsh
Former Assistant Teaching Professor at CMU-Q.

Course context:
Business Ethics, a lecture & discussion course for 30 junior Business Administration majors

“My final grades measure whether students have achieved the learning objectives. To get an A, they have to show that they have achieved all of the learning objectives at a satisfactory level. To get a D, they have to show they have satisfactorily achieved at least one of the learning objectives. By giving students many opportunities to redo assignments, they have a genuine opportunity to grow and succeed in my course. Each final grade requires passing a predetermined set of assignments, which empowers students to control their own outcomes.”

What takeaway message or tips do you have for other instructors?
“Specs grading is really a family of systems, not a single fixed plan. Your context is unique for lots of reasons, so use these systems to the extent and however works best for you. If you start with a reason for using an alternative grading system, then you’ll be able to cherry pick the parts of specs that make most sense. It’s also fine to just start with small adjustments. You don’t have to do a giant flip over to a new system; there are gradients that can be more practical to implement.”

Ryan SullivanRyan Sullivan Headshot
Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Chemistry, Civil & Environmental Engineering (courtesy)

Course context:
Environmental Systems on a Changing Planet (with STEM Addendum), lecture and discussion with ~40 students from all six undergraduate colleges at CMU. 

Pre-class assignments based on items read or watched before class that students are graded for completeness and effort, not correctness. The opportunity to revise incorrect answers to quizzes and major assignments (problem sets) and earn a portion of missed points but not up to 100%.

What takeaway message or tips do you have for other instructors?
“I have seen a lot of benefits in terms of student learning and reducing stress levels by adopting pre-class assignments and practice problems graded for completeness/effort. I am now using these in an upper-level chemistry course and it really helps the students learn by giving them practice in a formative manner before a summative assessment.

A tricky aspect of the revisions strategy is determining how much feedback to give the students on incorrect answers. We don’t post the full solutions (though students are encouraged to ask about them, but rarely do) and we don’t want to just provide the correct answer. We want the students to think about why their answer was wrong and learn by correcting it. Designing the revision process carefully can help support this learning from your mistakes.”

Although individual instructors have had success with specifications grading, there has not yet been a substantial amount of research testing its impacts. There are still a lot of unanswered questions! If you are interested in discussing whether specifications grading may be a good fit for your course and potentially assessing the results, please contact to set up a consultation.


Ungrading places priority on individual student growth, often centered around providing multiple avenues for personalized feedback, improvement, and reflection. No letter grades or marks are awarded on individual assignments and formative feedback is the primary assessment mechanism. Although ungrading can take many forms, most rely heavily on student reflection on their learning process, in-depth conversations between students and instructors to discuss feedback on student work, and student autonomy in defining their own learning goals, objectives, and trajectory.

There are many ways to incorporate elements of ungrading without removing all grades from an entire course. Some strategies that support this goal include:

  • offering certain assignments or portions of the course that will be ungraded, but relying on traditional grades for others,
  • using self and/or peer assessment
  • using written or spoken annotation, narration, or description of the learning process, highlighting representative examples of work (process letters),
  • negotiating grading contracts with students at the start of the course,
  • evaluating work holistically through portfolios,
  • and inviting students to create or co-create rubrics.

(How to Ungrade: A FAQ, Jesse Stommel).

Even if course assignments are ungraded, instructors may still need to submit final course grades, per university policy. To reconcile this, many ungrading proponents encourage students to choose and provide justification for their own course grade, although instructors vary on the amount of “veto power,” if any, they choose to wield. Instructors should exercise caution and considerate judgment when exercising their authority to veto grades. Disagreements over final grades may arise. However, most instructors report that this is rare, that students still earn a range of course grades from ‘A’ to ‘F,’ and that students often grade themselves lower than the instructor would. In particular, students who have low self-efficacy and those who suffer from impostor syndrome (disproportionately, those from underrepresented groups in both academia and in their fields of study) may be more inclined to undervalue their contributions. To account for this inequity, some instructors reserve the power to only raise the student’s requested grade but not lower it.

For more specific ungrading procedures, tips and systems see Blum, S. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (2020).

With careful course design, ungrading can support the following common instructor values and/or needs:

Reflecting student learning outcomes.

Sharing power and increasing equity.

  • Ungrading reduces the power imbalance between instructor and student.
  • The instructor should be aware that some groups of students tend to undervalue their own work, and consider mechanisms to address and correct this (for example grade conferences, and veto power).

Making students feel responsible for their grades  

  • Ungrading embraces subjectivity and puts students in charge of their own learning. 
  • Students self-evaluate through reflections, peer review, and choosing their own grades.

Motivating students to learn  

  • Removing the external motivator of grades can foster intrinsic motivation. 

Discouraging cheating  

  • Eliminating numerical or letter grades on assignments alleviates the burden of striving for perfection, which frequently leads students to engage in cheating.
  • Emphasizing authentic, personalized work that receives feedback instead of a grade removes the incentives for academic dishonesty.

Giving students personalized feedback 

  • Extensive feedback and iteration on deliverables is built-in. Feedback may include conferences with the instructor, personal reflections, and/or peer feedback

Fostering higher-order cognitive development and creativity 

  • Removing the emphasis on scores and the pursuit of "perfection" allows students to be more creative.

Reducing conflict between instructors and students

  • The occurrence of "grade-grubbing" incidents may decrease or be eliminated when there is no emphasis on points or grades.
  • Removing grades makes the instructor-student relationship less “transactional.” 

Wendy Arons HeadshotWendy Arons
Professor of Dramatic Literature

Course context:
Special Topics in Drama, a discussion course for ~10 sophomore drama majors.

All assignments are ungraded. Students choose their own final grade at the end of the semester and justify their choice in a grading conference.

Ungrading elements:

  • Discussion on day one to set community agreements, discuss the importance of regular attendance, participation, coming to class prepared, and of doing the assignments on time so that they can be shared in class and get feedback. 
  • Feedback on student work from the instructor and other students is given in every class session, both as commentary and in written comments on their work. 
  • Two self-assessment surveys (midterm and final via Canvas) for students to reflect on their own work after seeing others’ work and receiving feedback.
  • One-on-one final grade conferences (10-15 minutes each) where students rate themselves (Excellent/Very Good/Good/Fair/ Poor) and submit their final grade based on: attendance, participation, effort that went into their work, and quality of the work

What takeaway message or tips do you have for other instructors?
“The hardest thing about ungrading is the ‘edge’ cases of students who don’t show up or don’t do the work. It doesn’t happen a lot, but occasionally you have a student who has poor attendance or doesn’t do one or more assignments and wants to justify a grade that feels unreasonable. I worked with students to set what I called “course expectations” that clarified what we would all consider to be reasonable benchmarks for certain grades. I actually left the room and asked them to determine the benchmarks - I didn’t really care what they were, I just wanted to be able to point to something and say, ‘We all agreed that if you missed more than 3 classes without an excuse, it would not be appropriate to give yourself an A.’” 

To learn more about ungrading, discuss whether it may be a good fit for your course, and receive support with implementation, please contact to set up a consultation.