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Grading Methods

A grading system allows learners to monitor learning progress while providing feedback on achievement (Walvoord & Anderson, 2010). A grading system includes two levels of grades: task-level (structure and scores of all graded tasks in a class) and course-level (aggregated final course grade). Below are sample approaches to grading. No matter what methods you choose, it is critical to be transparent about your grading system and policies to learners (Walvoord & Anderson, 2010). 

Criterion-referenced grading methods 

The criterion-referenced methods below evaluate learners with pre-defined learning objectives and standards (Sadler, 2005) with no curve or "norm-referencing:" 

Point-based grading is the most straightforward method. Higher point value equates to a higher weight in the total. Earning more points demonstrates more effective performance. Here is a sample point-based scale: 

Midterm Exam200 points
Final Exam 
250 points
Research Paper150 points
Course Project150 points
Labs (4 at 25 points each lab session) 
100 points
Discussion Board: (7 at 10-25 points each forum) 
150 points 
TOTAL POSSIBLE1,000 points

Percentage-weighted grading offers more flexibility in calculating course grades. Adding a few questions to exams or removing a piece of assignments will not affect course grades as it would in a point-based system. It's critical to help learners understand the weighted calculation to avoid confusion; for example, a point in the Assignment category is not equal to a point in the Exam category. Here is a sample percentage-based scale: 

CategoryGraduate % Weights Undergraduate % Weights
Professional Portfolio
(100 points; Graduate Learners Only!!) 
Course Project Paper & Presentation (100 points) 
Assignments (4 at 10 points each) 10%25%
- Live Sessions or Alternative: 4 at 5 points each session 
- Discussion Board: 4 at 5 points each forum 
Exams (2 at 100 points each exam) 

Letter/Text grading assigns a letter grade based on the quality of a learner's work and the mastery of concepts or skills. One could use the traditional A-E grades or mastery levels (Pass/Fail, Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, Exceeds Mastery/Mastery/Partial Mastery/Insufficient Evidence, etc.). 
Clear scoring rubrics are often important at the task or course level in providing clarity to learners with these grading approaches. Here are two sample letter or text grading scales: 

Final Semester Course Letter Grade
Final Semester Course Percentage
EBelow 60%


The work is high quality throughout and shows clear evidence of mastery of the course concepts and skills with in-depth synthesis, articulation, and critical thinking. References & citations are included The work needs improvements. Relevant information is included, but lack of depth & clarity and shows ambiguity. Little evidence supports mastery of the course concepts and skills. 

Specifications or “specs” grading is a newer system of evaluation that is based on the amount of work learners choose to do and the quality of the learners’ work (Cunningham, 2016).  Individual assignments are graded on a Pass/Fail or Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory basis. “In sum, complete, satisfactory work receives full credit (full value), and incomplete, unsatisfactory receives no credit/value. For learners, it’s all or nothing” (Nilson, 2016). Learners choose “bundles” of assignments; bundles that require more effort and rigor, the higher the grade. Letter/text grading scales are often a component of task evaluation in this system. Sample syllabi using specs grading: 

  1. Math/Computer Science 
  2. Media/Society
  3. Math/Calculus I
  4. TV & Culture (not a syllabus per se, but great bundle descriptions) 

Norm-referenced grading methods 

In contrast to the criterion-referenced methods above, norm-referenced grading methods compare a learner's achievement with peer achievement, exploring relative standing in a class (e.g., ranking, grading on a curve, etc.). See the example below. These methods could increase learner motivation, though they also tend to create competition, decrease collaboration, and skew actual learning performance in a class (Schinske & Tanner, 2014). Thus, we recommend you use these methods with caution (Robst & Van Gilder, 2016).

CMU policies and resources 

Additional resources 


    Walvoord, B &, Anderson, V. (2010). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

    Cunningham, K. (2016). Using specifications grading in college classrooms. Central Michigan University. Retrieved from

    Nilson, L.B. (2016, Jan). Yes, Virginia, there is a better way to grade. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

    Robst, J., & Van Gilder, J. (2016). The relationship between faculty characteristics and the use of norm- and criteria-based grading. Cogent Economics & Finance, 4(1), 1-10.

    Sadler, D. R. (2005). Interpretations of criteria-based assessment and grading in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education,30(2). pp. 175–194.

    Schinske, J. & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or Differently). CBE Life Science Education, 13(2). Pp. 159–166.