Ann M. Aly
Human-Centered Design Expert, Strategist, and Mixed-Methods Researcher

Rethinking grades: A case study of skills-based grading at UCLA

Is testing for skills better than traditional grades?

Discovery: Rethinking the way students experience learning

What if students' grades were based on how they mastered skills instead of percentage points on assignments?

In recent year, skills-based (or standards-based) grading has increased in popularity in K-12 classrooms. Using this grading schema, students are given multiple opportunities to show that they've mastered a skill and they are not penalized for an incorrect attempt. 

For example, a language student may have to master skills such as "narrating in past tense" or "describing a current event" instead of having a quiz on past-tense verb forms or vocabulary words.

This system helps support students who may miss class, have issues with specific skills, and makes them a more active agent in seeking help on concepts (ie "I need help with X skill" instead of "Why did I get a C on the quiz?"). 

We decided to give this system a try in two undergraduate linguistics classes at UCLA: Phonology 1 and Introduction to Phonetics

Developing the courses

Transitioning to skills-based grading

As we developed these courses, we had several goals motivating our work:

  • Clearly translate learning outcomes and concepts into concrete skills for each class
  • Provide multiple attempts for students to practice mastery of each skill
  • Decrease student stress about grades and increase their awareness of their abilities
  • Reduce grading volume and work volume for both students and instructors

Partial skills list in Phonetics I syllabus

Partial skills list in Phonetics I syllabus

Defining and demonstrating skills

Our syllabus defined each skill with a number, name, description and where students could demonstrate proficiency (see example from Phonetics on the left).

We also collected analytics on how many times it took students on average to show mastery of each skill, so that later iterations of the course could provide sufficient opportunities for more difficulty to master skills (for example, transcribing whole words in Skill 2.5 in the Phonetics course).

Grading breakdown for skills-based Phonetics and Phonology courses

Grading breakdown for skills-based Phonetics and Phonology courses

How skills fit into final grades

Per university policy, we were still required to submit a letter grade (A-F) for each student at the end of the term. So, we combined skill acquisition along with any projects for each course to comprise the total grade breakdown.

The figure to the left shows our grading schema for each course. In Phonology, skills comprised 75% of the total grade and for Phonetics, skills comprised 60% of the total grade.

For the skills portion, the letter grade was based on how many skills were successfully mastered by the end of the term. For example, in Phonology, a student had to demonstrate basic proficiency in all skills for a B; or demonstrate proficiency in all skills with 15+ of them being advanced proficiency for an A.

Evaluation: How can we measure student experience?

Student experience survey

One of our goals was to increase student awareness and confidence in their learning while also decreasing student stress and anxiety related to grading. We administered a survey to students about their experiences, including both Likert (scalar) and open-ended questions. 

Some open-ended questions included:

  • Looking back over the course, what are some of aspects of the grading system that worked well for you?

  • What are some aspects of the grading system that worked badly for you?
  • If the system is used in the future, what changes would you recommend?
  • What advice would you have to a fellow student wondering whether they should take a class that uses skills grading?

Some Likert questions included:

  • I clearly understood what was needed to demonstrate each skill

  • Knowing what skills I still needed helped me know what to ask about during office hours

  • I felt that I had enough attempts at demonstrating proficiency for every skill

  • Seeing what skills I still needed helped me know where to focus my studying

Results: Student Experience

Student experiences summarized: Open-ended

We summarized the answers we received from students and identified the following themes for the open-ended questions:

  • Reduced stress related to class material

Students liked that they had multiple attempts for each skill, so it was okay to not master it right away. Students also commented that as class went on, they could focus their efforts only on the skills they had yet to master. Multiple students commented that they felt more in "control" of their grade.

  • Increased understanding and retention of class material 

Students reported greater understanding of concepts, especially on skills that required multiple attempts. Students also commented that since it was not possible to "cram" with this system, the learning was more gradual and they retained more. 

  • The number of skills could be overwhelming

Some students commented that they spent the latter half of the class trying to acquire as many skills as possible, which was overwhelming. Several comments mentioned difficulty in tracking their progress and wished for additional opportunities to master harder skills.

  • Students would like clearer criteria for what it means to master a skill

In the Phonology course, students could master a skill as either "proficient" or "advanced". Some students commented that the criteria dividing these two felt subjective and they did not understand what the target was. 

Rethinking grades: A case study of skills-based grading at UCLA

Student experiences summarized: Likert questions

The responses to the Likert questions revealed several insights about the students' experiences in the skills-based courses. Several of these findings corroborate the qualitative data provided in the open-ended questions, such as:

-The majority of students felt less stressed about assessments

-The difference between "proficient" and "advanced" was not clear to the majority of students

-The majority of students felt they could focus their efforts only on the skills they needed to acquire

Some insights NOT provided by the qualitative data include:

-Students did not necessarily feel that this class format encouraged group work or collaboration

-Identifying the skills (in the margins) of homework helped the majority of students understand the material

-The majority of students felt that there were sufficient opportunities to master each skill

Iteration and Implementation:
Lessons learned and advice to future instructors

Lessons learned and plans for the future

1. Identifying skills for a course can facilitate departmental or institutional requirements for a course's learning objectives

2. In a skills-based system, work for the instructor is very front-loaded: prepping the skills, when they'll be introduced, creating the grade spreadsheet all happen before the term. The actual grading of the assignments is much quicker than traditional grading, however.

3. The two biggest institutional obstacles were getting students on board with a new system and using a grade book that did not fit into our existing learning management system. For future versions of the course, an integrated grade book would be ideal as would more established materials to introduce students to the new system.

4. Clarity is key. One struggle we encountered was the perceived subjectivity of advanced proficiency. We'd like to make this category clearer and more accessible for students in future courses.

5. Quantitative data comparing multiple iterations of the same (skills-based) course across terms as well as the outcomes of the same course on traditional and skills-based systems would be helpful in identifying differences in students performance and perception of the course.

Want to read more about our study, including tips for instructors interested in trying a skills-based course? Take a look at our full article!

(Zuraw, Kie, Ann Aly, Adam Royer, & Isabelle Lin (2019). Gotta catch ‘em all: Skills Grading in Undergraduate Linguistics. Teaching Linguistics.)

Excel spreadsheet cells