Making the Grade: Choosing A Grading Scheme to Enhance Student Success

Making the Grade: Choosing A Grading Scheme to Enhance Student Success

By Christine Hood, Instructional Designer

Secondary Author: Amelia Gentile-Mathew, Instructional Designer

Many practices adopted in response to the pandemic may endure as we embark on post-emergency times. The shift to online learning in a hurry has opened up opportunities for us to reassess many of the ways we deliver and evaluate classroom participation (Gentile-Mathew, 2020), administer finals (OTL, 2020) and exams (Iturbe-LaGrave, 2020), and even explore different assessment practices (Paguyo, 2021).  We wanted to explore a few of these options further, as there are many effective grading schemes beyond the standard, traditional one set as the Canvas default.

Grading schemes, or a set of criteria that measures varying levels of achievement in a course, can help us to evaluate the many different options available for implementing assessment in our course. It is essential that grading schemes are equitable, accurate, bias-resistant, and motivational and that they disproportionately improve learning for historically-underserved students (Feldman, 2019). The following grading schemes are examples of how you can set-up grading in your course.

Chunk-out Large Assignments  

  • Traditionally grade every assignment–with a twist! Traditional grading is on a point, or a percent scale, where every assignment is worth a certain amount and instructors give feedback at the end of the assignment. Rather than only grading a couple of assignments worth a majority of the points for your course, try breaking those assignments down into smaller chunks and offering students feedback at more regular intervals (Darby, 2020).
    • Benefits:
      • Chunking encourages better pacing for both the students and the instructor.
      • Allows instructors to grade the learning process instead of just the final product.
      • Spreads out instructor’s efforts to support students incrementally; plus, students have the opportunity to adjust and improve at every “chunk” which will result in better final products. 

 Co-Construct Grades 

  • Offering ongoing feedback without traditional grades creates space for students to focus on feedback during one-on-one meetings (Supiano, 2019). Rather than students looking for points, percentages, or even a letter grade, they can engage in conversation and reflection. There can be meetings at the middle and the end of the term in which students can discuss their learning, achievements, and places in which they can still grow in the content area. As the instructor, you can invite conversation by asking the students to explain why they should earn a specific grade, citing examples. If you disagree, then you can also cite examples to support the dialogue (Flaherty, 2019).
    • Benefits:
      • Allows students to engage more thoughtfully in the instructor’s feedback instead of only looking at the numerical value of an assignment. 
      • Co-constructing grades encourages growth over the entire course.
      • It also centers the opportunity for individualized goal setting with the instructor.
      • Decreases anxiety throughout the term about grades. 
      • Additionally, co-construction supports student advocacy and agency in their grade.
      • This grading scheme is also compatible with Canvas.

Weight and Group Grades 

  • If using weighted grading, explain why the weights exist through grouping and provide a clear rationale. It helps students better understand your pedagogy. The good news is that instructors can easily weigh grades on Canvas (Ostendorf, 2020).
    • Benefits:
      • Allows you to change the “value” of any assignment without doing additional complicated math.
      • Communicates to students the importance of assignments and/or the learning objectives that the instructor prioritizes.

Submit a Portfolio of Work 

  • In portfolio-based grading, an organized portfolio will be required of the students to show the work they complete throughout the course at the end of the term. Students have a lot of flexibility in this grading scheme. Generally, assignments throughout the course are graded when submitted, with the final portfolio constituting an additional portion of the grade (Nowacki, 2013).
    • Benefits:
      • The instructor can offer students the option to edit, rewrite, or expand assignments between their initial submission and inclusion in the final portfolio (McDonald, 2012).
      • Students can practice additional skills, including reflection, presentation of work, and formatting and presentation requirements. 
      • Student-driven learning options are enhanced, as instructors may give several assignments options, allowing students to choose which assignment they would like to complete. (For example, the final portfolio must contain two short essays, one persuasive infographic, a reflection on one of their essays, and one research paper. Students must submit one assignment each week, but they may complete assignments in any order and/or applied to any weekly topic.)    

Individualized Weighted Grading 

    • Benefits: 
      • The individual nature of this grading scheme allows for student buy-in and agency.
      • It can take pressure off the final exam and emphasize strengths other than test-taking if that is something that an individual student prefers.

Class Participation   5% – 15% 

Homework (lowest grade dropped) 15% – 30%  

Midterm Exam 15% – 30%  

Final Exam 30% – 50%  

*Total Percentage Must Be 100

As you can see, there are many options for grading that differ from the Canvas default. Our Instructional Design (ID) team at the Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL) would be happy to support you in assessing your current grading scheme or even planning a new one! If you are interested in a one-on-one appointment with an ID please click the following link. 


Brockerhoff-Macdonald, B. Morrison, M., and Manitowabi, S. (2018). Flexible weighting in online education courses. International Journal of E-learning and Distance Education.

Carnegie Mellon. The syllabus evaluation and grading policies. Eberly Center.

Feldman, J. (2019). Building more inclusive communities with grading for equity. National Association of Independent Schools. 

Flaherty, C. (2019). When grading less is more: Professors’ reflections on their experiences with ‘ungrading’ spark renewed interest in the student-centered assessment practice. Inside Higher Ed.

Gentile-Mathew, A. (2021). The Office of Teaching and Learning winter engagement series. Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Denver.

Iturbe-LaGrave, V. (2020). Inclusive use of proctoring technology: LockDown Browser & Respondus Monitor. Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Denver.

McDonald, B. (20120). Porfolio assessment: Direct from the classroom. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 37(3). 335-347.

Nowacki, A. S. (2013). Making the grade in a portfolio-based system: Student performance and student perspective. Frontiers in Psychology. 4(155). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00155.

Ostendorf, G. (2020). How to set up weighted grades in Canvas gradebook. Miami Regional E-campus News.

Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Denver (2020). Moving your final exams online. Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Denver.

Supiano, B. (2019). Grades can hinder learning. What should professors use instead? Chronicle of Higher Education.