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Assessment and Grading

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Assessment and Grading

Assessment is crucial to determining whether you and your students are meeting the goals outlined for a course. Grading enables you to fairly capture student achievement and to provide feedback for student growth. This page is designed to connect you to key resources as you consider your assessment and grading approach.

Gradescope: A Grading Tool

Simplify your grading by using Gradescope, an online grading platform available to all instructors at OU and is integrated with Canvas. Gradescope allows for faster grading and more consistent feedback to students, particularly in courses where the work is short answers or handwritten completion of problem sets. Explore why faculty at OU are using Gradescope at Increase Your Grading Productivity: Assessment with Gradescope.

Choosing an Assessment Approach for a Course Outcome

Classroom assessment approaches should correlate to the outcomes you would like to assess (see Bloom’s Taxonomy). For example, a multiple-choice exam that tests content directly taken from a required course reading may test recall of the course material. For a multiple choice exam, or other assessment, to test ability to transfer knowledge, you would need to introduce a function that would allow students to apply that knowledge outside of the examples provided in the course text.For a range of examples of how to assess knowledge, recall, understanding, attitudes, values, and self-awareness, we invite you to explore the Office of Academic Assessment’s Classroom Assessment Techniques

Varying the types of assessments used within one’s course, and, if possible, providing students with choices in how they can demonstrate what they have learned, aligns with Universal Design for Learning practices. Consider, for instance, a course in which all of the assessments are written papers. In a writing course, that is likely appropriate. However, in a course in which students are not taught how to be successful at writing, this type of assessment may create a barrier for students who have not been previously supported in developing their writing skills. Other students may also stop feeling motivated if they are unchallenged by the repetition of this assessment type. Varying assessment types allows students to be appropriately challenged while using their strengths to communicate what they have learned.

Why Low-Risk is Good for Learning

CFE encourages faculty to create low-risk assessments that have a small impact on a student’s grade. This provides students with the opportunity to experiment with their understanding of a focused aspect of the course content and receive feedback without it having a large impact on their final grade. By shifting students’ focus away from the grade, they may focus on the process of learning. Not only does this benefit students in gaining confidence in their command of the course material, but it also provides feedback to faculty on whether the current instruction is helping students to achieve the course goals. Pending how students perform on low-risk, formative assessments, faculty may adjust their approach to instruction to address roadblocks or misconceptions that are preventing students from realizing the course objectives. Additionally, these low-risk assignments may be offered as checkpoints or milestones, culminating in a summative assessment.

Rubrics and Anonymous Grading

Grading with a rubric creates transparency for learners and teachers alike. Faculty may find that grading efficiency increases when they use a rubric to clearly determine a student’s grade on an assessment, as less time is spent trying to calculate the feel of an A versus a B assignment. This also helps to mitigate bias, such as the halo effect – in which a student’s prior performance biases how faculty rate future performances. Using anonymous grading in Canvas or anonymous grading in Gradescope can also help instructors avoid the halo effect.

Directions for assignments also become clearer as faculty must carefully consider what they want students to achieve within an assignment, rather than creating an assignment without articulating their learning goals and outcomes. For students, a rubric provides guidance as to what should be achieved in order to successfully complete an assessment. To explore further, we recommend visiting the Office of Academic Assessment’s page on Developing and Using Rubrics.

Grading Frameworks

In traditional grading, students are provided with a list of assessments (e.g., papers, midterm, final exam, quiz) and how those assessments are weighted towards the end of the semester grade. This may be reflected as a narrative or table.

Table 1: Example of a list of assignments and how they are weighted


Percentage of Final Grade

Hands-On Learning Reflection: Event #1


Hands-On Learning Reflection: Event #2


Hands-On Learning Reflection: Event #3


What’s Out There research and reflection presentation


In the News presentation


Your Role in Change reflection


Midterm reflection




Presentation draft (for feedback)




Facilitation Guide




In-Class Quizzes (twice weekly; your lowest three quiz grades will be dropped, no questions asked)


Ideally, students will also be provided with a rubric that shows how they will be graded for each assignment.

Those who have advocated for alternative grading frameworks also argue that there may be a nebulousness to traditional grading in that it is unclear which outcomes students have achieved from the course given both grade inflation and a lack of clarity as to what is being assessed and how. While there are many types of alternative grading frameworks, below we have focused on Contract Grading as one example for you to consider.

Contract Grading is an agreement between the instructor and students, which empowers students by providing choice in how many, or what type, of assignments they would like to complete in order to achieve the grade the student desires. Contract grading often includes these characteristics (Elbow & Danielwicz, 2018; Hiller, T. B. & Hietapelto, 2001; Lindemann, D. F. & Harbke, 2011):

·      An alternative Grading System: Contract grading does not use the traditional point grading system; it does not use numerical grades. Instead, students receive “Satisfactory” or “Unsatisfactory” grade on their tasks. 

·      Learning/Grade Contract: A course with contract grading is task oriented. Such a course often provides stratified quality and quantity criteria for tasks that match the letter grade A, B, C, D, or F. The contract for grade A, for example, requires substantially more work and superior quality than the contract for grade B. Students choose a grade they would like to pursue in the course and work towards that grade using the learning contract between the instructor and students. Instructors may not change their detailed expectations of what is expected of students for each grade once the contract is agreed upon. Therefore, there is significant work to be done by the instructor on the front-end to clearly and transparently articulate expectations. 

·      Adjustment: Students are expected to sign the contract at the beginning of the semester. However, they are not locked into the letter grade they agree to in the contract they sign at the beginning of the semester. As students reflect on their learning experience and commitment after the first few weeks of the semester or before midterm, they may negotiate with their instructor for a letter grade that is above or below the one they previously agree to; the newly negotiated letter grade must align with the amount of work expected of the new grade. Instructors are well advised to help students make their final decisions on their learning contracts before the midterm. 
While students may decide later to try to earn a higher grade than what they originally chose, it tends to be easier for students to decide to earn a lesser grade, as less work would need to be completed, as trying for a higher grade would require more work. 

·      Assessment: When grading, you would no longer assign students a numerical grade. Instead, students follow the criteria of the task in their contract, receive feedback from the instructor, and earn a “Satisfactory” or “Unsatisfactory” grade based on the work they complete. Feedback from the instructor can be used by the student to improve their work so that they may resubmit for an improved grade. 

Compared with traditional grading, research indicates that students and instructors greatly appreciate the benefits of contract grading for four major reasons (Elbow & Danielwicz, 2018; Inoue, 2019):

·      Individualized Options: Contract grading allows students to choose the letter grade they want to pursue and have ownership of the amount of work they are expected to commit. 

·      Empowerment: Contract grading empowers students to take control of their grades. Students can concentrate on the process of tasks that they have committed to instead of worrying about losing numerical points. 

·      Reduced Anxiety: Students are assessed on the various dimensions of the criteria they choose in their contracts; they are not evaluated on the standard and ideal criteria that often exist for ALL students in traditional grading. 

·      Fairness and Equity: Contract grading affords all students a fair chance to choose to earn a desirable grade through their committed effort, participation, and task completion. Since this grading system does not use the one-size-fits-all assessment criteria, it is critical for instructors to be transparent about expectations of unsatisfactory versus satisfactory criteria to make it successful for students. 

·      Grading Efficiency: Instructors benefit from spending less time analyzing the numerical grade should be given and instead are able to focus on providing feedback to students using a consistent rubric. Moreover, since not every student is going to choose to work on all tasks to get an A in contract grading, instructors are not necessarily grading as much as they were before. 

·       Course Design: The number of tasks and criteria should be clearly laid out and differentiated in the syllabus and in a detailed assignment sheet. 

·       Communication: Most students are used to the traditional point grading system and how to use such a system for keeping track of their grades. Understandably, some students may feel anxious when a different grading system is introduced. Instructors should spend adequate time on helping students understand the mechanics and benefits of contract grading at the beginning as well as throughout the semester. 

·       Feedback: Contract-graded classes are task-focused. For this reason, instructors should provide timely feedback to help students improve their future tasks. 

·       Learning Progress: In addition to asking students what they have known about contract grading in class, instructors are well advised to provide a syllabus quiz to check on students’ understanding of contract grading. A mid-term survey is also helpful to check on students’ learning progress with contract grading.  

Technical Support

Instructors can enable the Pass/Fail grading scheme themselves through the Enable course grading scheme process under course Settings in The Pass/Fail grade scheme in Canvas is the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) option (it will show up as S/U in the Canvas gradebook). If the course is not coded S/U in Banner, then the instructor would need to convert the S/U grades into a Letter Grade, to be accepted into the Faculty Grade Entry page during grade submission.

For technical support of engaging Pass/Fail grading scheme, instructors can reach Canvas Support in various ways:

-        Phone: 405-325-HELP (4357), then choose option 3

-        Through the Help menu in Canvas, they can choose to chat with a Canvas Support agent (Chat with Canvas Support - Faculty)

-        Through the Help menu in Canvas, they can open a support ticket (Report a Problem)

·       Syllabus Sample of Contract Grading (OU Social Work – Dr. Janna Martin)
Dr. Martin’s syllabus provides specific details on how she differentiated the amounts of assignments and criteria for satisfactory vs. unsatisfactory tasks for her students.

·       Contract Grading for First Year Writing
This Appendix explains to students why using contract grading over conventional grading in a first-year writing course, elaborates on expectations of desirable grades, and helps students understand how to improve a contracted grade.

·       Why We Stopped Grading Our Students on Their Writing
This article explains why instructors began to use contract grading from students’ perspectives during the pandemic. Students’ voices and “Their writing has never been better” justified the pedagogical benefits of using contract grading in writing. 

·       Using Contract Grading in an English Course
This document has specific language about logistics of setting up contract grading, student expectations of the instructor, and stratified criteria for various grades. 

·       Contract Grading in Teaching Computer Programming
This article shed light on how contract grading was particularly applicable in computer science courses. Results indicated that students were discouraged from procrastination and were more capable of solving challenging problems. 

·      Investigation of Learning Contracts in Pharmaceutical Education

This article surveyed 61 students in pharmaceutical education on their perspectives of contract grading vs. conventional grading. The survey found that most students were highly inclined towards self-directedness, clearer grading expectations, and reduced anxiety and competition that contract grading brought to the course. 

Elbow P. & Danielewicz, J. (January 2018). A unilateral grading contract to improve learning and teaching. SholarWorks@Umass Amhurst, 3
This article has specific language and details about how to set up contract grading for first-year writing courses. It also discusses how teaching and learning can be improved because of the use of contract grading. 

Hiller, T. B. & Hietapelto, A. (2001).  Contract grading: Encouraging commitment to the learning process through voice in the evaluation process. Journal of Management Education, 25 (6), 660-684.
This research article focuses on student experiences of using contract grading. The authors also discussed applications of setting up contract grading and limitations in the applications. 

Inoue, A. B. (2019). Labor-based grading contracts: Building equity and inclusion in the compassionate writing classroom. Perspectives on Writing. The WAC Clearinghouse/University Press of Colorado. Open access at
This free book focuses on why and how contract grading enables learning fairness, equity, and inclusion in the writing classroom.

Lindemann, D. F. & Harbke, C. R. (2011). Use of contract grading to improve grades among college freshmen in introductory psychology, Sage Open, 1(3), 1-7.
This research study compared whether the use of contract grading could support in the contemporary college classroom. 40 college freshmen were randomly assigned to a traditional point-based grading system and contract grading. Results indicated that students in the contract grading group were three times more likely to earn their A grade compared with their counterparts in the point-based grading group.