Epiphanies with David Goldstein

David Goldstein smiling.Fireside Guest: David Goldstein

We welcome David as our first fireside guest from our more local UW Bothell community! David will share some of his journey through various grading strategies in his classes here at Bothell. Many of you know David from campus, but some of you might not know he was the Director of the Teaching & Learning Center. He has also been a dedicated participant in COIL courses and in 2007, David won the Distinguished Teaching award.



Seeing grading from the “either-or” stance has been common in my experience; however, seeing the “both-and” approach is truly unique and fascinating. Our learning community was in for this treat this past Friday! David Goldstein visited our learning community and shared how he has created an amalgam of mastery, specifications, and ungrading strategies in ways that create an alternate grading scheme that chips away at the “business as usual” schema, while offering students choice and agency over the work they do and the grades they earn in his classes. I had the amazing opportunity to work alongside David in the ‘Specifications Grading’ learning community for two years but have not seen him this past year. What struck me especially was how David has continued to evolve in his thinking of grading and to see him apply these varied grading strategies simultaneously was an aha moment for me. I also realized that there is so much value in reflective thinking about grading practices and to weave newer grading practices carefully to my own evolving alternate grading schema (as David demonstrated in his evolving grading scheme) is essential too. I too have been grappling with and consciously been trying to move away from traditional grading practices. In the past those attempts were piecemeal (for individual assignments), but this year I applied an alternate grading scheme to an entire course. Listening to David further clarified and reinforced the need to reimagine my own courses with alternate grading schemes that serve students. I have added David’s recommendation ‘Grading for Equity’ by Joe Feldman to my summer reading list!  


“Grading is stupid” because it doesn’t actually measure learning and is not a teaching tool. It doesn’t build student confidence or increase their motivation. It has historically been used to rank students against each other. For David, Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity: What it is, why it matters and how it can transform schools and classrooms (2018) made him feel like he was damaging the most vulnerable students. It pushed him to implement a version of Mastery Grading in three courses he taught that fall.

The basic premise behind mastery grading is that students must attain mastery towards each course learning goal in order to master the class. David uses a score of 3.0 on the 4.0 scale to signify mastery. Assignment rubrics clarify the expectations. There are no points, no averaging. All work must be completed, there is no penalty for late work. If you exceed mastery, you earn a 4.0. [This appealed to me because I often have students who exceed expectations. I sometimes award them an extra point (on a 10 pt assignment) to acknowledge this, but assigning a 4.0 seems more in line with the whole concept of a 4.0 scale).

One key feature is to make the grading system transparent to students. David’s system integrates elements of 3 forms of grading: mastery, specifications and ungrading.

  • Mastery grading (detailed above), requires explicit statement of how course grade is determined.  David uses this scale: Mastery (3.0) of 4 learning goals earns a 3.0 course grade; mastery of 3 learning goals earns a 2.6 course grade; etc.
  • Specifications grading can be used for  particular assignments. What is “good enough”? Assessment rubrics must describe grading criteria, grades are “satisfactory” or “not satisfactory”, all criteria must be satisfactory to earn credit.
  • Ungrading: David has found that ungrading can be stressful to students because it doesn’t provide them with grades to visualize their progress. He has them complete an optional questionnaire at the end of the quarter in which they can argue for a better grade.

We discussed some of the complications of the different forms of alternative grading. For example, most first-year students are used to “standards-based grading”–and so are their parents–so alternative grading methods may be challenging for them to understand or feel comfortable with. But that doesn’t prevent introducing some of these methods, which might help them learn to think about grades and what they mean. For neurodiverse students, one example being ADHD students, the ability to turn in late work might result in missed deadlines until the very end of class. For instructors, the issue of how much time grading takes is an important one. 

Zoom meeting with several participants and th etitle slide being shown with the text, "Alternative Grading Mastery Grading, Specifications Grading, and Ungrading" by David Goldstein


I’ve had the pleasure of thinking about ungrading with David in another faculty learning community that developed this site with examples from folks at UWB. Today, David talked about how he deepened his work in upgrading after reading Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. Feldman reifies that grades were created to be inequitable: to rank students, rather than to provide them feedback that fosters their growth. 

We are required to submit grades for our students. If we’re forced to work within this system? How do reenvision grading as a form nurturing learning? For David, part of it is about setting up expectations. He expects every student to complete every assignment, and while he suggests a due date, students can actually turn in assignments late with no penalty. This approach also has the advantage of removing late policies. He also expects students to master the course learning goals–here, as in my courses–mastery means scoring at least 80% to complete an assignment. David has developed a very cool rubric that allows him to calculate students progress toward each learning goal through time. His approach allows him to focus on the learning goals for the course. My approach is a bit different, because I focus on mastery within categories of assignments (e.g., mastery in participation, in homework, in the paper, etc…, with the assumption mastery within each category transfers to mastery of the learning goals). I think the way I organize things is easier to calculate and communicate with students (what they should do), while David’s approach has the advantage of focusing and making transparent what students should learn. Both are forms of specifications grading that rely on backwards design. The instructor has to begin designing the course by identifying the content and skills that students will have achieved by the end of the term.

David has also applied a principle of upgrading that I have yet to play with: that’s that students can negotiate with him to change their grade. He gives students a questionnaire that lets them evaluate their grade and argue for another.


As a librarian who only gives students feedback when needed as opposed to grades, I bring a different perspective into this conversation. I realize that it may be mostly “out of my lane” but I do see connections with how librarians interact with student submitted work. In Canvas, we often assign “graded surveys” that students receive points for submitting regardless of the work itself. It’s the qualitative feedback that I can give to students who ask for it/need it that I find most interesting. During our meeting with David, Becca said she’s heard UWB faculty member Janelle Silva tells students that work must be submitted by a particular date *if they want feedback.* That struck me as such an excellent framing for the “assignments” that I create as a librarian. I love reviewing student work and giving feedback, but if a student hasn’t turned in the work by the time I view it (often the day after the due date), I can’t keep checking the assignment daily to see when work is submitted. I will now remind students of this: I can and will give feedback/answer questions for those who submit their work by [this date], but encourage completion of the activity at any point as it connects to your research assignment.


It was amazing to learn from Dr. David Goldstein about grading strategies! He discussed the three main strategies: (1) master grading, (2) specification grading, and (3) upgrading. As a relatively new faculty, I’ve been struggling with grading, especially the balance between academic integrity and grace. I’m fairly certain that we need to set up due dates for assignments, but I often extend kindness for late submissions. Those strategies that Dr. Goldstein introduced us and the discussion among members have definitely inspired me to re-think about grading, and I’d like to continue learning and exploring grading strategies for a better learning experience for our students!


How wonderful to hear David share his journey through several ways to provide feedback, and grades, to his students. It is hard work to move away from automatically scored multiple choice questions and lean more into narrative feedback, small group or one-on-one conversations. To intentionally do more in the way of feedback and less in the way of numerical grades. It is not just the time, but it is a blurry space. There are no 8/10ths in a narrative and that lack of numeric exactness can make sharing feedback have a more emotional space. Of course, most of us grade with both numbers and sentences. 

As an undergraduate, I experienced “contract grading” first hand. Our courses began with an overview of the topic and proposed areas to cover. Once that was agreed upon, we each wrote our own “objectives.” They needed to address the content in the course description and we could add our own interests as specific, and measurable, objectives we wished to pursue. We used portfolios for all classes. Often the faculty took our portfolios for an evening or two and wrote feedback in them as our work progressed. I still have several of them. Pretty amazing. At the end of the class each student reflected on the course objectives they created and how they had met them. That was part of the transcript for the course. The faculty then shared their own reflection on the work we did and the merits of it. We either passed or we did not. There were no grades. Here is a chart and some examples of the variations David shared and some examples. 

My work as a high school teacher and at the community college ended up similar to that. I did have to assign grades, but I almost always went with what the students determined, and explained, to be the grade they believed they earned. In many courses we were able to make the work students completed visible to classmates.

When all the work is shared and visible and it is constantly referred to and an ongoing part of conversations, students see the work they do as a part of the course, it IS the course. By simply observing the work they do in relation to the work of others they can see both what is possible and where they may need to improve. That observation is feedback, it is in effect the “grade” they discover themselves. Perhaps that is enough.

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