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The Vermont State Educator – March 2024

March 2024 | Issue 8 | Volume 1 | Previous Issues


By Jen Garrett-Ostermiller

This month, we’re focusing on grading for growth, a phrase borrowed from Clark & Talbert, whose book we also share in this issue.

I’m going to share my own journey with alternative assessment as both an illustration and an invitation. As an illustration, you will see the ways that I’ve used changes in assessment practices to deepen connection with students and engage in more equitable grading. And my invitation is that, as my journey shows, while there is no single way to assess in less traditional ways, you may find this is a pathway to creatively solve teaching challenges. As always, we are here to support you!!

I began experimenting with alternative approaches to grading in my own teaching in 2010. I had been teaching for a few years, but this was my first time teaching a 1-time-per-week, 3-hour class. In anticipation of needing to incentivize attendance, I had built “participation” into the grading schema for the first time (10% of the overall grade). After the first class I realized I had no criteria for actually awarding these points. I knew I intended the points to be earned by more than attendance (hence my word “participation”), but I hadn’t thought more deeply about how I would assess students’ participation. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach; I had designed a structure that was inauthentic and with the potential to be unfair to my students. The first few weeks, I tried to capture who was contributing to class in productive ways, who seemed prepared, and who seemed disengaged. It was really difficult to track on these details (much less record them) while also teaching – my attention was divided between tasks and I was not confident that my records were accurate. A month or so into the semester, after a lot of reflection, I decided to talk with my students about my predicament. I explained my intentions of the participation grade and also my concerns with my ability to accurately assess their engagement. I proposed that, three times in the semester, I would have them write a participation reflection summarizing their contributions to class (including not only verbal contributions, but learning from peers, listening, wrestling with new ideas, etc.). I was encouraged by what I received – it was far more insightful than what I could observe. I also had greater insights into my students’ experiences, which helped me give them feedback on their assignments as well as know what was working (and not working) during our in-class time together to adapt my own teaching to their needs. It was challenging to receive these reflections one time per month, as I found that students were less able to reference specific moments in class and wrote more generally about their experience. The next semester, instead of a participation component of the grade, I included an “engagement” component and increased the weight to 20% of the overall grade, emphasizing the importance of the learning that should occur each class session. Students wrote a self-assessment at the end of each class (an assignment that was open on the LMS for 24 hours after class ended) where they completed a self-assessment rubric and also responded to open-ended questions. They awarded their own points, justified them through narrative, and I told them I would only adjust the points if I disagreed strongly. I continued to use this practice for several semesters. Students took it seriously and their behaviors in class were in line with what I hoped from students. I also appreciated the power-sharing (and responsibility-sharing) that came with the model.

While the self-assessment of engagement was working well, I was unsatisfied with some of the assignment submissions I was receiving. Consistently, each semester, I found that a fair number of students were missing the mark when I knew they could do better. I had learned about Specifications Grading listening to a podcast and thought this system might work well for me, but was a little daunted by the course redesign it would require. Finally, in 2019, with the support of a colleague, I invested the time to redesign the course, which required designing a contract and specifications for every assignment. By the end of the semester, all but one student responded really well to the model, appreciating the transparency of the specifications, the agency and choice they’d been entrusted with, and the opportunity to make (a limited number of) revisions to build on their first best attempt. The quality of student work was significantly higher, my primary goal for adopting specifications grading. At the same time, I missed the dynamic of student self-assessment that I had used for almost 10 years prior to switching to specifications grading.

As a result, my next step in alternative assessment was to design the course as entirely “ungraded.” There are some misconceptions about ungrading, particularly around rigor and expectations. A well-designed ungraded class has due dates, criteria for success, and high standards. The dynamic that shifts is around student agency. Students have greater responsibility for learning – assessing their starting point, setting goals related to the course outcomes, and making progress. Rather than receiving a grade from the instructor, students receive feedback. In 2021, I shifted to a fully ungraded class. I was surprised that I didn’t have to redesign very much. Rather, I had to invest early efforts in helping students, not just understand, but own the learning outcomes of the course. When writing this, I went back to my reflections from teaching that semester and was struck by my own comments after the first week of the course: “The feedback I’ve written this week is SO MUCH more like the feedback I’ve been trying to write for 10 years. It’s more holistic and global (although with specificity to be helpful, I hope).” I was no longer judging and evaluating students to justify a grade. I was a partner and coach in their learning process. Over the semester, the effort and quality of student work was similar to what I’d seen with specifications grading, but students were willing to take more intellectual risks and make the content more relevant to them. Students were also much more willing to ask for help because they trusted that I genuinely wanted to help them learn. Students reflected on feeling empowered and a bit in awe of their growth in skills and confidence over one semester. I became more confident that ungrading allows me to practice the equity and justice values that are important to me as a faculty member. I broke down some of the traditional power dynamics in a college classroom; students were able to bring their whole, authentic selves to assignments (culturally-sustaining); and there was more flexibility in the system, as I worked with students individually on their own learning goals that were relevant to the course outcomes.

I’ve worked with faculty across the disciplines on shifts away from traditional grading and assessment. Because there’s no single approach (several are explored further in this newsletter), there’s a lot of freedom to make changes that address needs particular to your course. If you are feeling curious or inspired, please book a consultation with us; we are eager to support you!

Faculty Spotlight

In this issue of the Vermont State Educator, we are highlighting the background, experiences, and perspectives of Castleton-based professor, Livia Vastag. We are pleased to share her preferred classroom assessment techniques and other recommendations for promoting student learning, engagement, and growth.

Please tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to VTSU.

I was a first generation college student from Hungary when I came to the U.S. My degrees are in chemistry, specifically chemical virology. I completed my undergraduate degree at Middlebury College, in Vermont, and it was my goal to return to this beautiful area of the U.S. after getting my doctorate. My love of Vermont combined with the sense of community I experienced at the Castleton Campus brought me to VTSU. I have been here for 12 years now. During these years I have served as the program coordinator for the chemistry, pre-medical, and nutrition programs. 

What are your favorite things about teaching at VTSU?

I love working with the student population here: in my experience, they are friendly, engaged, and interested in learning. The group of faculty in my department are also excellent colleagues. We generally have a very good working relationship. I also love that I get to teach a general education course on the science of food. Food and cooking are my favorite hobbies, and it is delightful to explore scientific principles via this focus. I especially enjoy the labs of this course, where we get to make (and eat) food.

As this month’s newsletter theme relates to assessing student academic progress, what are some examples of classroom assessment techniques (CATs) you’ve found to be effective and would recommend to your peers?

I find that CATs provide a critical means for staying in touch with students in the classroom. In a typical classroom it is my goal to keep students engaged, aware, and focused on their learning. I regularly check in with students to elicit their feedback on what they found most confusing in a section of material using the “muddiest point” CAT. Aside from triggering a moment of reflection from students, this exercise also allows me to generate and share more examples on the topics students found challenging. The real-time feedback helps direct the focus of the classroom. It is also a great way to encourage students to share a concern and stay engaged with the material.

Similarly, the 3-2-1 technique elicits student reflection on the most recent material. The students identify three items they learned, share their personal connection with the material by listing two things they found most interesting, and finally ask a question that remains. This exercise informs my teaching, while enabling students to reflect on their learning, and share a question that they may not voluntarily share otherwise. I primarily use these exercises to stay connected with the student experience in my classroom, and to improve my teaching and tailor it to the given group of students real-time. But they do have the benefit of keeping students engaged with the material and more aware of their learning experience as well!

As an experienced F2F+ instructor, how do you go about assessing student learning and providing feedback that leads to growth for both your remote and face-to-face students?

I will share two of my favorite approaches here, that students have also given very positive feedback on: I regularly ask students to record themselves solving problems, explaining material related to the subject matter, or deriving equations. Students narrate as they write out the answer. They upload these recordings on Canvas, so I can view them and comment on them. Not only does this exercise in and of itself encourage students to really understand the portion of the material: it also allows me to identify critical spots in their reasoning and provide immediate feedback. Even if they come up with the correct conclusion or solution, and even if most of their reasoning is correct, this assessment method allows me to identify the slightest uncertainty or flaw in their approach to the material. Immediate feedback on these helps students correct their thinking and progress building on a more solid foundation.

Secondly, in a F2F+ classroom I still employ my Socratic teaching approach: the lecture is a conversation between me and the students. I incorporate questions into the lecture at regular intervals, and ask all students to submit an answer on a pre-generated Canvas assignment. This keeps all students engaged with the material (and the instructor) throughout the entire class. I also call on students to share their answers out loud. Students have shared that this approach prevents them from getting distracted during lectures, as all of these assignments count as low-risk, participation assignments. The questions frequently elicit students to recall an earlier topic, so they can build on previous material already understood by them. Other questions are meant to assess if the current topic is generally understood by the students. If students must miss a class, they can view the recorded lecture, and submit their answers later. The questions are not easy to find by just scanning the material, so this also encourages students to engage with the recorded lecture.

What are some examples of formative assessments that help your students in their preparation for a summative assessment, such as a final exam?

I share ample practice problems with recorded solutions (instead of just written ones) upon student request. Then similar problems are provided as homework assignments to help prepare for the summative. I provide feedback on their solutions, whether they happen to be recordings or written assignments. The recordings really help me pinpoint to the student the specific error in their thinking if they make a mistake. Additionally, I frequently ask students to explain material in detail or teach it to me or their classmates. When students have to provide an explanation instead of simply an answer, they can usually pinpoint topics they do not understand even without my direct input. I then encourage them to turn that into a question and submit it to me for clarification. For literature readings, students are sorted into groups and provided with a list of questions. They have to discuss and agree upon the answers, and teach each other the explanations. Students know that I can call on any member of the group to decide the group’s grade on the assignment. This never fails to elicit enthusiastic discussion between peers, and better preparation for these assignments. Students are sorted into different groups each week, so they do not get used to a dynamic and assume the same role each week in a discussion group.

Paid Professional Development Opportunity to Design F2F+ Classes

Are you creating or converting a class to teach in the Face-to-Face Plus (F2F+) modality next year? (Re)Designing a course for a new modality is a significant investment of time. This is especially true for F2F+ classes, where intentional planning is essential for ensuring that remote and in-person students are engaged in active learning and have equitable experiences. This paid professional development opportunity exists to support you to successfully design and teach courses in this modality.

F2F+ Structural ConsiderationsF2F+ Pedagogical Hallmarks
Instructor-student contact is fulfilled through synchronous class sessions.Backward design is utilized to ensure alignment between learning objectives, assessments, instructional materials, and teaching/learning activities.
Students join from multiple access points (in the classroom, from home, from another campus).Instructors facilitate active learning.
While students register for their primary access point (remote or in-person), there is flexibility if students need to adjust their access point temporarily or permanently.Scaffolding provides support for all students to engage in meaningful learning.
Requires use of educational technology.Accessibility and equity of experience are prioritized and mediated by technology.

The CTLI applied for a new round of funding for 2024 for a project titled “Prioritizing Access Through ‘Face-to-Face Plus’ Expansion + OER Adoption,” and VTSU was awarded $216,261, the bulk of which is allocated for faculty stipends. The grant was received from the Davis Educational Foundation established by Stanton and Elisabeth Davis after Mr. Davis’s retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets, Inc.

Limited Funding Availability – Apply as an Individual (due Feb 21)
Attend a full-day kick-off retreat on May 22.

Compensation: $300
Complete a 4-week ‘Intro to F2F+ Teaching’ course in June

•4-6 hours per week of attendance and homework (synchronous, offered in the F2F+ modality)
•Complete a F2F+ course redevelopment map
•Complete at least 2 F2F+ class lesson plans (practice 1)
•Work with a Mentor to plan, revise, and develop F2F+ teaching

Compensation: $1250
Summer & Fall Continuation Work

•Complete 4 additional F2F+ lesson plans that address active learning & multimodal engagement in July
•Practice with classroom technology
•Work with a Mentor to plan, revise, and develop F2F+ teaching
•Contribute to ”lessons learned” through focus group participation, surveys, or semi-structured interviews

Compensation: $500

Please apply as an individual to convert a course to the F2F+ modality. Selected individuals will take a 4-week synchronous course in June 2024, during which they’ll map out the outcomes, assessments, and learning activities for a F2F+ course then design lesson plans for teaching in the F2F+ modality. Additional support will be provided for effective integration of technology. Faculty who have participated in this program in the past are eligible to apply, as long as you are converting a new class that you haven’t previously converted.

There are still spots for ~20 faculty to take advantage of this opportunity. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.

If you have questions about any of them, please reach out to the CTLI at

News About Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Education Week

March 4-8 is Open Education Week! This global event celebrates open education, including Open Educational Resources (OER), which are free, adaptable materials for teaching and learning. We’re proud of our many faculty who have already adopted OER in their courses. As the VSCS Libraries collaborate with systemwide partners to support and expand OER initiatives, the staff want to hear from you, whether you’ve used OER or not. Email to share your thoughts or request more information. Thank you for joining the open education movement!

Additionally, the library staff are inviting students to participate in Open Education Week by sharing how they would like to spend the money they currently spend on textbooks. The rise of textbook costs has outpaced inflation for many years, and students feel the burden acutely. There will be displays up at each campus library where students can share their answers, as well as a Padlet for online responses.

Image of keynote speaker, Robin DeRosa

Register & Mark Your Calendar! Keynote Speaker Robin DeRosa

The CTLI is pleased to announce that on Friday, April 26 from 12:30-2:00pm, Robin DeRosa, will be delivering a keynote address for VTSU staff and faculty titled “Teaching Toward an Open Future.” This session will be on Zoom and recorded for anyone who cannot make it.

Session Description: Higher Education is in flux. Sometimes it feels like change is the only constant in our work lives as faculty and staff. There can be pressure to innovate, as well as anxiety about what might be lost if we radically transform our practices. We might even wonder if the values that motivate us as scholars, teachers, or support staff are reflected in our institutions, given how constrained they are by the ebb and flow of politics and markets. In this presentation, Robin will propose that we use Open Education as a bridge to help us cross from higher education’s current challenges into a more hopeful future where our colleges and universities are vehicles for the public good, powered by the people who work and learn within them. By aligning our values with our pedagogies and linking the university to the communities that surround and sustain it, we can imagine a way forward and design our daily work to bring us one step at a time toward the higher education that our students deserve. 

While this session ties to our F2F+ OER efforts, it should also be inspiring, uplifting, and empowering for any educator at VTSU.

Please register for this keynote to receive the Zoom link and calendar invitation.

F2F+ OER Project

Good news! 11 faculty have been selected to convert their F2F+ course materials to open educational resources through a project funded by the Davis Educational Foundation. They will work closely with CTLI staff and VSCS librarians to identify relevant resources to adopt or adapt, while perhaps also creating some instructional materials as well.

Faculty participating in this project will share their resources created, describe their own lessons learned to build institutional skills and knowledge with OER, and help collect data from students on the impact of OER course materials.

Teaching Strategies – Alternative Approaches to Grading

Assessment of student learning is the cornerstone of quality teaching. Effective assessment includes both formative and summative activities, ensuring feedback loops between students and their instructor. Assessing and grading are related but distinct concepts in teaching. Some assessment activities are also graded; some graded elements do not measure learning.

GradingAssessment of Learning
Goal: Evaluate individual students’ learning.Goal: Improve students’ learning.
May include criteria that are not direct measures of learning (participation, attendance, and effort).Will include ungraded elements.
Example: A student consistently earns a grade of B on their math homework.Example: That same student consistently makes errors with the rules for negative numbers but is generally successful with other algebra skills.

Alternative forms of grading have become more common in higher education for a variety of reasons, including an emphasis on equity, a desire to increase student motivation, and a move toward authentic feedback. Faculty who shift to alternative methods of grading are often dissatisfied by some aspect traditional grading.

Whether in number or letter form, grades seem like an automatic, inevitable part of education, a deceptively neutral and objective way of assessing student learning. In reality and under greater scrutiny, grades often codify our own biases of what makes a paper a C instead of a B. When we try to increase transparency with detailed rubrics with attached point values, it never seems quite right, and students focus so much on the grade that they are no longer interested in the actual learning. Students are frustrated at trying to crack the code, and instructors are frustrated that students only seem to care about the points.

Many faculty have reconsidered grading practices to minimize the dread between themselves and their students and center the learning itself. Below are some main strategies faculty are using to make assessment more authentic and learning-focused.


Ungrading is the general practice of removing grades to the greatest extent possible, which may start by having fewer graded items and simpler grades (complete/not completed or a B rather than an 81). This is not to say that students do not receive feedback and direction from faculty and peers, but assessment focuses on the work itself rather than a numerical value. 

While there is some debate on what counts as “ungrading,” most people involved in this discussion would consider the other forms of alternative grading described here as part of the ungrading umbrella. That being said, those leading ungrading work find it important to have students evaluate themselves with the guidance of the instructor, from individual assignments to the total course grade. This helps the instructor to better understand the process and product of student work and gives students agency in the course. Instructors most often say students grade themselves the same or harder than they would have, so it is important to guide self-grading practices accordingly.

The term “ungrading” has been most popularized by Jesse Stommel and his two blog posts “Why I Don’t Grade” and “How to Ungrade.” See his blog for more on ungrading, such as an ungrading introduction and an ungrading FAQ.  

Susan Blum, another ungrading leader, edited the collection Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (2020), which shows a variety of approaches, grade levels, and disciplines. One approach represented is labor-based gradining.

Labor-Based (Contract) Grading

Ungrading requires students to trust that their instructors will, in turn, trust students’ reflection and assessment of their work, which can feel uncertain and threatening to students. (Stommel writes about this in Grades are Dehumanizing; Ungrading is No Simple Solution). For this reason, many instructors opt for a labor-based grading approach.

Labor-based grading, which has been called contract grading, is the process of clearly defining what type of work or labor constitutes each grade. Unlike typical ungrading, this approach represents a collective agreement among students and instructor and simplifies the assessment process. It provides students more clarity on how to reach their grade goal, which practitioners argue benefit students with less experience or acceptance in educational systems such as first generation students and students of color. Furthermore, a labor-based grading contract emphasizes focusing on effort and growth. 

While labor-based grading has been around for decades, one notable leader is Asao Inoue, professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Arizona State University whose work centers antiracist teaching. See Inoue’s blog which offers resources on labor-based grading contracts. Inoue provides many templates and resources as a starting point, but the nature of the “contract” can take multiple forms.

Specifications (Specs) Grading

Specifications grading could be described as a more itemized version of contract grading. It is often described with the term “mastery grading.” The book Specifications Grading explains the process as “restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time” (Nilson, 2015). The approach has gained traction with many STEM faculty such as Grand Valley State University math professor Robert Talbert (2017) and Cal State system chemistry instructor Renée Link (Howitz, McKnelly, & Link, 2020; Winter, 2020). Link’s visual of her system identifies aspects of mastery learning, competency-based grading, and contract grading (Winter 2020).

Starting Small

It can be overwhelming to think about revamping a structure as foundational as grades, and our disciplines and departments may not allow complete ungrading. Nevertheless, even faculty in contingent positions or with other restrictions find they have some freedom to reframe the role of grades and how they are determined. 

  1. Start small by ungrading one project or assignment. 
  2. Simplify grades. Rather than determining whether a paper is an 82 or 86 you instead communicate that the work is solid but could have a few improvements. 
  3. Allow revision, which emphasizes a growth and mastery model. 

These small steps might help guide where ungrading can go next. While ungrading is not challenge-free, faculty find they can finally enjoy reviewing student work and students get more creative and take more risks.

Citation and References

Citation: Alternatives to Traditional Grading. Christina Moore, Virtual Faculty Developer, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Oakland University. Retrieved June 19, 2023 from


This resource, which has been modified from its original form, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Blum, S., Ed (2020). Ungrading: Why rating students undermines learning (and what to do instead). West Virginia Press.

Butler, R., & Nisan, M. (1986). Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performanceJournal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 210–216.

Clark, D. & Talbert, R. (2021). Grading for Growth newsletter

Davidson, C. (2011, January 3). Contract grading + peer review: Here’s how it works. HASTAC: Changing the Way We Teach + Learn [blog].

Howitz, W. J., McKnelly, K. J., & Link, R. D. (2020). Developing and implementing a specifications grading system in an organic chemistry laboratory courseJournal of Chemical Education, 98(2), 385-394.

Inoue, A. (n.d.). Labor-Based Grading Contract Resources. Asao B. Inoue’s Infrequent Words [blog]. 

Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Stommel, J. (n.d.). Jesse Stommel Blog. (includes multiple posts on ungrading). Foundational pieces include Why I Don’t Grade and How to Ungrade.

Talbert, R. (2017). Specifications grading: We may have a winner. On Robert Talbert, Ph.D Blog.

Talbert, R. (2021, August 30). Finding common ground with grading systems. Grading for Growth.

Winter, J. (2020, August 3). Specifications Grading at UC Irvine with Renée Link. [blog post and podcast]. Alchemie: Ideas That Matter.

Recommended Literature

Is your interest in alternative approaches to grading piqued? Would you like to read real-world case studies of higher education faculty who’ve implemented alternative grading practices? If so, look no further than the new book Grading for Growth by David Clark and Robert Talbert. These mathematics professors have each been experimenting for 10 years with changes to traditional grading practices that deepen learning and decided to write a book that suggests greater definition of approaches, creates a framework for faculty, shares examples from 17 faculty, and provides a guide for alt grading adoption.

In the text, they propose four pillars alternative grading, all encompassed by the phrase “in feedback loops we trust”:

  • Clearly defined standards.
  • Helpful feedback.
  • Marks indicate progress.
  • Reassessment without penalty.

They address frequent questions about alternative approaches to grading, including about efficacy, equity, and rigor, with a review of literature contextualized by explanations by faculty experienced with these practices. The heart of the book explores how faculty across a range of disciplines, class sizes, institutions, types of courses (e.g., labs), and course levels have implemented alt grading. Readers may be encouraged and even excited to learn that there is a wide opportunity to customize alt grading to various scales (start with one assignment) and to address various needs.

Clark & Talbert end the book with a robust 9-step Workbook to guide faculty through decisions to develop an alt grading strategy, including a step for simplification, which demonstrates the wisdom of these experienced practitioner-authors.

If any VTSU faculty are interested in dipping a toe (or jumping all in) on alt grading, we in the CTLI are very interested in working with you – in fact – we would be thrilled to run a Faculty Learning Community of a group of instructors. Please let us know via email at if this appeals to you.

Update from the Office of DEISJ: Harambee Program

By Oyibo H. Afoaku, Ph.D.


Harambee is a Swahili word which means, “All Pull Together”. As used in this proposal, Harambee is an informal gathering of interested students, staff, and faculty of the university community for the purpose of fostering an inclusive campus climate.


Members of Harambee meet once a month to engage in a variety of activities which include but are not limited to the following: sharing food (through potlock and other sources), conversations about a variety of issues of interest, including campus climate, making friends, sharing information, mutual support, etc.   

The VTSU Student Government Association (SGA), Castleton, liked the idea. SGA planned and implemented the First Harambee Forum on February 19th, 2024 in the Alumni Room, Huden Dining Hall. About fifteen students and two staff members attended. It was a big success. The participants decided that Harambee Dialogue should be held on Every Second Tuesday of the Month between Noon and 2pm in Room 1787 or another available room.

The DEISJ Office is still working with the other four campuses at Randolph, Johnson, Lyndon and Williston to get the monthly dialogue going either in person or by zoom. Harambee is a collaborative effort that foster an inclusive campus community.    

If you have question or comments, please, send me an email:

Thank you.

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