Ted Forringer is Assistant Department Head of Physics.

The Challenges with the Standard Grading System:

Ted Forringer

As faculty, we are all familiar with what I would call the “standard grading system,” in which we give partial credit for multiple assignments and the final grade is determined by the weighted average of the individual assignment grades. I want to suggest that this grading system has several challenges that can be addressed by switching to mastery grading.

  • Rigor: It is possible for students to earn 70% or less on critical assessments (tests, major papers, etc.), thereby demonstrating a poor understanding of the material, and yet earn a good grade in the course if they do well on other graded tasks (attendance, homework etc.).
  • Learning: In courses where the material builds on itself, students who struggle to learn foundational material at the beginning of the course are incentivized to “move on” and try to learn the new material without going back to review the foundational material.
  • Motivation: Fair or not (and if we use quality rubrics, it is not fair), students can feel that the partial credit they earn is arbitrary. They may feel that their grade is determined by the instructor, not by their own efforts. This “external locus of control” is a primary factor in learned helplessness and lack of motivation.
  • Faculty Time: In my experience, recognizing A-level (or F-level) work is relatively easy and does not require much time in grading. However, discriminating between B, C, and D-level work requires careful analysis and justification.
  • Lack of Authenticity: Outside of school, there are few situations where outcomes are anything other than success or failure. As a quick example, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and drivers all have to pass a test to earn their license. These tests are graded pass/fail and if someone is not fortunate enough to pass on the first try, they go back, study some more, and try again. Only those who meet the standard move forward.

Mastery Grading:

From my syllabus: “Rather than assigning partial credit and averaging your quiz grades, each quiz will be graded ‘mastered’ or ‘not mastered.’  To master a quiz, you have to show A-level work. If you fail to master your quiz on the first try, you can earn extra attempts. Your final grade is determined by the number of quizzes that you master. Mastering a quiz on your 2nd or 3rd try counts like mastering on your first try” (emphasis in original).

The key points in mastery grading are:

  1. Each graded assignment is designed to assess important course outcomes. No credit is earned for attendance, participation, practice, etc.
  2. Students must demonstrate high achievement in order to earn credit on an assignment. The instructor can determine if B-level work is sufficient, or if A-level work is required.
  3. Students who do not master an assessment on their first try should receive feedback from the instructor, spend more time preparing, and be allowed to retake the assessment. The number of retakes allowed and the “hoops” a student must jump through to be allowed to retake an assessment are course- and instructor-dependent.
  4. Final grades are based on the number of assessments that have been mastered. A student who earns an A has mastered all or most of the course goals. A student who earns a B has mastered many (but not all) of the course goals. A student who earns a C has mastered some of the course goals. This is preferable to students earning a C after demonstrating that they have mastered none of the course goals.

Benefits of Mastery Grading: 

  • Flexibility: Mastery grading is not tied to one instructional method. It can be used in conjunction with best practices in your field. In STEM courses, mastery grading can be use with studio courses, flipped classrooms, or traditional lectures.
  • Rigor, Learning: By requiring high-level achievement to earn credit AND allowing students to retake failed assessments, we get the benefit of a rigorous course, where students are incentivized to go back a learn topics that they missed the first time through.
  • Motivated Students: Students who know, “I just have to pass 11 out of 14 quizzes to earn a B” and “If I mess up the first time, I can try again” feel that they are in control of their own grade. This motivates them to try harder, learn more, and get better grades.
  • No quibbling over points: I used to commonly deal with students arguing that they should have gotten 8/10 instead of 6/10 on a given partial-credit assignment. In contrast, I rarely have students argue that they mastered an assignment when they get the grade of “try again.”
  • Happy Students: This (COVID) semester, I had multiple students tell me that they had been dreading taking physics and that there was no way they could have passed the course without retakes. Here is a grading system that demands more of the students but feels to them like a blessing.

Further reading:


Nilson, Linda B.  Specification Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time.  Stylus Publishing, LLC, Sterling, VA.  2015.

Tsoi, Mai Yin; Anzovino, Mary E.; Erickson, Amy H. Lin; Forringer, Edward R.; Henary, Emily; Lively, Angela; Morton, Michael S.; Perell-Gerson, Karen; Perrine, Stan; Villanueva, Omar; Whitney, MaryGeorge; and Woodbridge, Cynthia M. (2019) “Variations in Implementation of Specifications Grading in STEM Courses,” Georgia Journal of Science, Vol. 77, No. 2, Article 10.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.gaacademy.org/gjs/vol77/iss2/10