Tip: Specs Grading

Grading is time-consuming and anxiety-producing. Specs grading allows instructors to focus on quality feedback while making assignment expectations clearer - and less stressful - for students.

I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that grading might be the most frustrating part of being a college instructor. Ideally, assigning grades should reflect student learning outcomes, motivate and encourage students to feel ownership of their learning, and provide useful feedback to students. In the real world? Grading takes up an enormous amount of time and is a source of anxiety for students and faculty. Specifications grading offers some strategies to help instructors focus on the parts of grading that really help students to achieve, while addressing some of the challenges faculty face.

What is specifications grading?

Specifications (“specs”) grading - related to competency, proficiency, standards-based, mastery, or contract grading - is a method that moves instructors away from assigning points or letter grades to individual assignments, from trying to determine what makes a paper an “A” versus a “B” paper, into a framework of meets expectations or does not meet expectations.

Linda Nilson, who literally wrote the book on specs grading, explains:

In the current grading system, we are not expected to lay out the [grading] template in such detail, so we don’t. And our students do not always pay careful attention to the sketchy (to them) instructions they get. Besides, they can bank on partial credit for just making a weak attempt. No wonder the quality of the work they submit varies radically. We are willing to accept, “settle for,” and give partial credit to work that falls short of what we define as good. In fact, we spend hours judging how much partial credit to give and writing explanations of each student’s errors and omissions to justify our subtracting points.

Linda Nilson, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time

To address these concerns, she builds upon traditions of competency-based education and mastery learning to propose a new way to approach grading:

Imagine another grading system, one where you grade all assignments and tests satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail. Students earn all of the points associated with the work, or none of them, depending on whether their work meets the particular specifications you laid out for it.

Linda Nilson, Yes, Virginia, There's a Better Way to Grade

For most instructors who have adopted specs grading, there are three components: clear assignment specifications, bundles of assignments, and tokens.

Clear assignment specifications tied to learning outcomes

In specs grading, the instructor outlines what is required to meet expectations - and that is it. No more complex rubrics describing multiple levels of mastery. No negotiating over whether a work product earned a B or B-. Students have either met the assignment expectations or they have not.

Complete, satisfactory work receives full credit (full value), and incomplete, unsatisfactory receives no credit/value. For students, it’s all or nothing. No skipping the directions and no sliding by on partial credit for sloppy, last-minute work.

Linda Nilson, Yes, Virginia, There's a Better Way to Grade

This approach means that instructors must spend time upfront outlining in very clear language exactly what the assignment expectations are. These clear expectations are necessary for instructors to be able to quickly evaluate the student’s work; the added benefit, of course, is that these clear expectations are incredibly helpful for the students as well. Once the expectations are clearly outlined, the instructor can quickly assess the assignment, and has more time to spend on feedback that will help the student to improve, rather than feedback justifying a score.

Bundles of assignments tied to grades

What if I don’t teach a pass/fail class? You can still use specs grading to assign a final course letter grade, by using what Nilson calls “bundles” of assignments. Decide what work would need to be complete to a meets expectations level of mastery to earn a minimum passing grade for your course - in the example below, a grade of “C” - and then work up from there to describe the extra assignments (either different assignments or simply more of the assignments described at the “C” level) that need to meet expectations for a grade of B and A.

It’s much easier to understand this “bundle” method with examples - below are 3 different ways to think about bundling assignments, in order of increasing complexity.

First, a science course: The instructor here lists all the course assignments, and then the # completed satisfactorily to earn an A, B, or C grade (click the picture to link to the syllabus ).

Image from Dr. Rebecca Kelly, Johns Hopkins Univ.

This instructor also specifically connects the assignments mastered to the learning objectives achieved. To earn a “B” grade, a student would have to meet all the expectations in the “B” column. (This does mean that a student who misses just one of the expectations would not be able to earn a B grade - which is where tokens, explained later, come in.)

Next, a math course - for the most part, students are all doing the same work (the “proof portfolio” is the exception), and a higher grade is earned by doing more at the required level of mastery. I like this version for a course where there are many of the same category of assignments; rather than worrying about tracking which homework assignment is done, the instructor simply needs to see that X number of assignments have met the standard.

Image from Dr. Robert Talbert, Grand Valley State Univ.

Finally, a humanities course - this instructor includes attendance expectations, group work, and individual work. They also outline how earning a higher grade includes both more of the assignments required at a lower grade level, and also additional assignments that a student aiming for a C grade would not be expected to do.

Image from Dr. Caroline T. Schroeder, Univ. of Oklahoma

Tokens tied to second chances

Tokens in specs grading are second chances. Instructors give students a certain number at the start of the semester, and each time a student wants to re-do an assignment, it costs a token. If a student wants to submit an assignment late, it costs a token. Most instructors give 1-5 tokens, depending on the overall number of assignments; many specify these tokens can be used for some but not all assignments - students can re-submit smaller assignments but not re-take an exam, for example. Some instructors allow students to earn extra tokens - for exceptional participation in class one day, for example, or for attending an outside event - basically anything for which a student might previously have earned extra credit.

At first, I was hesitant about the complexity of trying to track a system of tokens - but I do provide extra credit for students to attend campus events, which has always been a bit controversial (students love extra credit; students who can’t attend campus events are upset that they don’t have other ways to earn extra credit). Tracking a system of tokens is not more work than tracking extra credit, and is (arguably) a more fair way of allowing second chances.

[Tokens] eliminate the need for extra credit. All the kinds of things that previously earned extra credit—attending events, winning games, coordinating group work—now earns tokens. Tokens also eliminate participation grades…I give tokens when students say smart things, or succeed at something they’ve struggled with, or when a shy student speaks up, or when a group works well together and stays on task. Rather than directly affecting grades, tokens give students flexibility in terms of the benefits they confer. They can use them to redo assignments, or earn extensions on assignments, or forgive absences. Another benefit is that it almost entirely eliminates the need for students to ask me for extensions or excuses. Most of us have the experience of students begging us for clemency regarding a missed class or assignment, or requesting an extension due to extenuating circumstances. Tokens reduce this drastically. I’m no longer in a position where I have to judge whether an excuse is legitimate or good enough to warrant extra time (something I’ve never thought was my job), nor do I have concerns about fairness. Students simply email me they are using a token for a 24 hour extension or to excuse an absence, with no questions asked.

Amanda Rosen, Specifications Grading #5: End of Term Report and Reflections

How I am implementing specs grading

Over the past several semesters I have adopted some of the components of specs grading. I have revised my assignment expectations documents to be more detailed, and revised my essay rubrics to be single point rubrics (essentially, specs rubrics). In my courses this summer, I have experimented with making lower-stakes assignment scored as complete/incomplete - discussion boards, weekly written responses. It has meant that some students earned “incomplete” on their first try - they were allowed to revise, and a couple needed more than one revision, but everyone was willing to put in the work. I have also set up more student choice - for example, I offered a set of 8 short readings with corresponding activities; students have to choose 5 out of the 8 sets of assignments to complete.

While my courses are all graded on a pass/retake model, individual assignments (up to now) have always been assigned a numerical score. This summer I have been able to avoid the frustration of trying assign numerical scores to qualitatively assessed work, which has freed me up to focus on providing feedback. Also, because my feedback is solely aimed at helping the student to improve rather than justify a score, I’m able to be more creative in how I provide feedback: I highlight sections of writing assignments and then provide audio recordings talking through my feedback. I have tried this in the past and have always had very positive student reactions, but it’s always been a challenge to both provide audio feedback (or, conduct personal conferences on writing) and detailed rubric comments justifying scores.

I have a list of extra resources at the end that you might find interesting, if you want to read more. I would love to hear any specs grading success stories - or, questions and concerns you have. Thanks for reading!

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Image from Dr. Matt Salomone, Bridgewater State University