A Good Time To Try “Additive Grading” (guest post by Ian Schnee)


In this guest post*, Ian Schnee, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Washington, shares an interestingly flexible approach to grading that might be especially well-suited for a time in which we might expect a higher likelihood of disruption to our students’ lives. 

[cup by Laura Hewitt]

A Good Time To Try Additive Grading
by Ian Schnee

Inspired by Wes Siscoe’s post on pandemic grading, I wanted to share a method I’ve developed that I call additive grading. It is based on ideas in specifications (spec) grading, labor-based grading, and anti-racist writing pedagogies. (For example, see the work of Linda Nilson and Asao Inoue.

Here are the key ideas:

  • You grade directly on the 4.0 scale in 0.1 units. All assignments accrue those units, which are simply summed to determine a student’s final grade.
  • You offer a large number of possible assignments which allow students to earn units. For example, I offer about 20 assignments worth 0.4 each. In a sense, all assignments are optional. Students set their own goals and have much flexibility in how they meet them. If they want a 4.0, they must do at least 10 assignments in my class, but instructors can modify the specifics in myriad ways.
  • You use simple, clear rubrics that account for every unit, so grading is very clear and fast, and you can spend your grading time engaging with students’ ideas rather than marking typos or justifying a grade.
  • If your school has thresholds, like 4.0, 3.7, 3.3, then a student must meet that threshold in order to achieve that final grade. There is no rounding. At the University of Washington we have a fine-grained system, where a student can earn a 3.8 (e.g.), but there are no grades below 0.7 (other than 0). I know some other schools have a very coarse-grained system, where students can only earn 4.0 or 3.0 or 2.0, etc.

I used this system in a 100-level philosophy course in Spring 2020 (large lecture course with 200 students and TA help), and I’ll be using it again in Fall 2020 (300 students). It received a very positive response from students and TAs. Some advantages for students:

  • They have a lot of flexibility in when they do assignments.
  • They have a lot of agency and self-direction, choosing assignments they are most interested in.
  • No assignment can hurt a student’s grade, so students do not feel stress or jeopardy doing any assignment.
  • The system is very transparent, and students can understand how their work directly contributes to their final grade.

A couple of objections and replies:

Objection 1: Students won’t do the reading/work unless there is an assignment directly tied to it.

Reply: This did not turn out to be true in my class. E.g., student rates of viewing online lectures were good, especially given the circumstances this spring.

Objection 2: Students won’t learn writing skills unless they get detailed feedback on their writing.

Reply: I am actually highly skeptical of the value of the traditional approach to grading writing in philosophy, which is lots of comments and exhausting work for instructors. Many students look at the grade and don’t read the comments. Many cannot transfer those lessons to a different paper on a different topic weeks later. Etc.

To see what additive grading looks like in a specific application, here (as PDF) and below (as images) is an excerpt from my syllabus for PHIL 149 at UW, which also includes two rubrics. (For teaching, treat this as an OER—open educational resource—and copy, paste and modify without attribution; for SoTL please cite.)

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