Skills-Based Grading

What is skills-based grading (SBG)?

SBG courses center around a list of "skills" that students should master by the end of the term. However, demonstrations of mastery need not occur along a uniform timeline. Every exercise included in graded assessments (quizzes, assignments, tests, etc.) is an opportunity to demonstrate one or more skills. Attempts that are fully correct are graded as "proficient" and positively impact their final grade. Attempts that are not fully correct are graded as “not yet proficient" or “approaching proficiency,” but have no impact, positive or negative, on the student's grade. That is, incorrect attempts are not penalized - students just need to try again. Until the final exam, there is always another chance to demonstrate each skill.

How is SBG more equitable than traditional grading?

SBG offers a more equitable system of evaluation for a diverse student body. There is no penalty for missing or underperforming on assignments due to external setbacks, such as illness, grief, global pandemics, or familial obligations. This leniency is particularly beneficial to students facing structural and institutional disadvantages, such as first generation students, transfer students, students with disabilities, and minority groups, who may be more likely to experience external stressors that lead to temporary setbacks.

In addition, SBG is beneficial for students who enter the class with a weaker background in prerequisite material or study skills. In traditional grading, the grade for a student’s first homework is tantamount to a grade for their background for the course, and performing poorly on that assignment has a lasting negative impact on their grade. In SBG courses, students have until the end of the course to make that ground up.

Below, find slides and a video recording from my invited talk Skills-Based Grading: An alternative approach to evaluation, presented at the Workshop on Inclusive Teaching in Semantics presented by SALTED: Semantics and Linguistic Theory's Equity & Diversity committee. Click here for an LA Times article about similar approaches being used in LA's K-12 schools to grade more equitably.

Click here for citations

SALTED talk:
O’Leary, M. (2021, May). Skills-Based Grading: An alternative approach to evaluation. Invited talk at the Workshop on Inclusive Teaching in Semantics presented by SALTED: the SALT Equity & Diversity committee. At Semantics and Linguistic Theory (SALT), virtually hosted by Brown University.

LA Times article:
Esquivel, P. (2021, November 8). Faced with soaring Ds and Fs, schools are ditching the old way of grading. Los Angeles Times.

What are other benefits of SBG?

Grading systems that focus on positive feedback have the ability to lower student stress and affect how they approach the material.

Lower stress:
In SBG courses, students can only affect their grade positively - no missed assignment or incorrect answer can permanently damage their grade. No specific exercise is ever required, nor will it make or break a student’s final grade. Having multiple opportunities to demonstrate each skill lowers the stress, fear, and time pressure of any given attempt and incentivizes re-attempting skills that were initially missed.

Effective Study:
Due to the regular feedback inherent to SBG, students are more aware of their progress, as well as the objectives they should be pursuing (Buckmiller, et al. 2017). This awareness helps them focus on the skills that they still need to master, instead of repeating skills they have already mastered. Once students are proficient in a skill, there is no need to demonstrate that skill again, encouraging students to direct their efforts away from skills they have already mastered towards those they still need to work on. In addition, SBG incentivizes reattempting skills in which they were not initially proficient. Because a failure does not affect the grade in any lasting way, students can treat unsuccessful attempts as a learning opportunity rather than a failure. Students are therefore more likely to adopt a growth mindset (Dweck 2008), in stark contrast to traditional, subtractive grading, where students are permanently penalized for mistakes.

Works for a wide variety of content:
SBG improves student learning across abstract and concrete topics, as well as critical thinking and writing skills, as shown in Zuraw, Aly, Lin, & Royer 2019 and O'Leary & Stockwell 2021. In fact, identifying and labelling skills across types helps students to become more aware of what they are learning, including the steps necessary for practicing scientific reasoning and presenting academic argumentation. This awareness can be beneficially carried forward to other courses and to students' professional lives.

Below, find the paper Skills-Based Grading: A novel approach to teaching formal semantics (co-authored with Richard Stockwell), in which we evaluate the effectiveness of SBG by collecting quantitative and qualitative data during a university-level formal semantics course, substantiating a number of benefits that have been claimed for SBG and similar systems: functioning across a wide variety of topics, lowering student stress, offering more equitable evaluation, and providing students with a lasting understanding of the material. We provide quantitative grade data and qualitative responses from students who were evaluated using skills-based grading in our semantics course. Additionally available are the video and slides of our LSA (2021) talk, including statistical modeling from Douglas Ezra Morrison, as well as our LSA abstract, which was awarded the LSA's 2021 Student Abstract Award.

Click here for citations

O’Leary, M. & Stockwell, R. (2021). Skills-based grading: a novel approach to teaching formal semantics. Proceedings of the 95th Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America.

O’Leary, M., Stockwell, R., & Morrison, D. E. (2021, January). Skills-based grading: a novel approach to teaching formal semantics. Oral conference presentation at The 95th Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America.

Zuraw et al.:
Zuraw, K., Aly, A. M., Lin, I., & Royer, A. J. (2019). Gotta catch'em all: Skills grading in undergraduate linguistics. Language, 95(4), e406-e427.

How do I implement SBG in my classroom?

The manuscript below (co-authored with Richard Stockwell) discusses how to implement SBG, with an emphasis on linguistics courses. The discussion centers on how to transition to an SBG course from a traditional one, using a case study of transitioning an introductory semantics course. The learning outcomes of a traditional course are repackaged as skills, which are grouped and weighted so as to fulfill those learning outcomes more effectively. A summary of key considerations for creating an SBG course are provided below:

  • Identify skills at appropriate levels of granularity, and group them thematically.

  • Balance the number of skills and required demonstrations with the weight of each skill group (née topic) in the course.

  • Distribute exercises throughout assessments based on (a) when students will first learn the material, (b) when they should review the material, and (c) when the end of the course is approaching.

  • Decide whether to conclude the course with a culminatory final paper or exam and whether it will be traditionally graded or an opportunity to demonstrate skills.

  • Publish grades promptly, and explain SBG clearly and often.

Additionally provided are some of the materials that we used in our semantics course: syllabus, list of skills, and a way for students to track their progress and calculate their final grade.

For an example of SBG implementation in phonology and phonetics, see Gotta catch 'em all: Skills grading in undergraduate linguistics by Kie Zuraw, Ann Aly, Isabelle Lin & Adam Royer.

Click here for citations:

O’Leary, M. & Stockwell, R. (2021). Implementing Skills-Based Grading in a Linguistics. manuscript under review.

Course materials:
O'Leary, M. & Stockwell, R. (2020). {Syllabus, Skill List, Skill Tracker}. LING 120C: Semantics 1. Los Angeles, CA: University of California, Los Angeles.

Zuraw et al.:
Zuraw, K., Aly, A. M., Lin, I., & Royer, A. J. (2019). Gotta catch'em all: Skills grading in undergraduate linguistics. Language, 95(4), e406-e427.

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