Specifications grading benefits both students and instructors (opinion)


To say that the last two years have been tough on everyone would be an understatement. Many of us, myself included, have had to rearrange our priorities. In my case, a decreased bandwidth in my day-to-day also produced a desire to examine my teaching practice in search of inefficiencies. Regardless of your career stage, I propose you might seriously consider adopting a specifications grading method in your classroom.

I first encountered the term “specifications grading” at a teaching and learning conference. The speaker was providing listeners with an overview of Linda B. Nilson’s book Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students and Saving Faculty Time. Many of Nilson’s promises initially struck me as ambitious. Although I bought the book, it sat on my shelf for several years as I procrastinated the daunting project of reading and incorporating Nilson’s entire grading method.

When the pandemic hit, there was an understandable but significant shift in student motivation in the (mostly virtual) classroom. I felt a psychological tug-of-war between two competing mind-sets: “We could all use a break right now” and “The content of these courses is important and my students deserve their university education.” I picked up Nilson’s book to see if alterations in course design could draw on natural student motivation at a time when it was challenging to focus on academics. In her preface, she writes that specifications grading “gives faculty strategies for developing and grading assignments that reduce time and stress, shift responsibility to students to earn grades rather than ‘receive’ them, reduce antagonism between the evaluator and the evaluated, and increase student receptivity to meaningful feedback, thus facilitating the learning process.” Wow! I was intrigued.

In specifications grading, instructors present students with possible course grades and a clear list of assignments attached to each grade. Ideally, the higher the grade the student chooses, the more they will need to engage thinking skills at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. Then, to earn that grade, the students need to meet a set of specifications for each assignment. There are no points. There are no percentages. The students either did or did not meet the specifications of the assignments for a given grade. Students who wish to earn an A may complete a higher volume of assignments, or they may complete more rigorous assignments than their classmates who only desire a C. Regardless of which set of assignments the student chooses, they are expected to reach a higher standard of achievement on the work that they do elect. (Note: Nilson includes a section in her book on second chances for students who are struggling.)

Choice is the crucial factor that underpins student motivation in specifications grading. In one section, Nilson outlines thoughtful incorporation of choice in June Pilcher’s Advanced Physiological Psychology final assignment. Pilcher tasked students with explaining to an audience “why and how the human brain operates the way it does to impact a specific behavior.” In order to maximize the element of choice, she allowed students to complete the assignment as they saw fit; it could be accomplished in groups or individually and formatted in whichever modality they might choose. (She provided examples of successful assignments, like half hour mock documentaries and informational brochures, to help the creative process.) The students’ latitude in creating—and achieving—their own vision draws out their inherent motivation to do so to the best of their ability.

Determined to bring specifications grading to my classroom by the spring of 2021 in order to combat pandemic fatigue, I wrote a syllabus that would maximize student agency by giving them the ability to tailor their coursework to the learning outcomes—and grade—they desired. The students could earn an A by turning in a digital deliverable in which they synthesized everything they had learned over the term. Unlike Pilcher’s final assignment, mine consisted of both individual and group elements. While students could work independently to produce a single piece of the deliverable—and indicate to me which piece that was—they would also have to work in teams to assemble the individual contributions as a collective project or on a collective platform that included the accomplishments of the whole class.

My specifications for earning a “complete” on the final assignment were rigorous, and several students opted out of working to earn the A when they saw what it would take. I discovered Nilson was correct: giving students a clear path to a grade other than an A allowed them to strategically choose which assignments to work on and, over all, meant that the quality of student work increased. In the end, my students put together an impressive webpage that housed videos, blog posts and film reviews covering various learning outcomes from my course. (My department even featured it on our site.)

Admittedly, setting the students up to be successful required me to be much more mindful in my design than if I had been using a different grading method. I invested more time developing the architecture of the assignments, in particular, before the semester commenced, and it’s hard to imagine successful implementation that wouldn’t require a similar investment.

However, in my experience, the significant initial investment would prove to save me a tremendous amount of time on the back end. Those savings came in the form of fewer clarification emails, far less time grading during the semester and decreased time spent justifying grades once they had been assigned. In fact, having witnessed the increase in student motivation and time I saved throughout the term, I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to a points or percentage grading method.

Much of the future of classroom experiences in a (nearly) post-COVID national moment remains unclear. When faced with that lack of clarity, specifications grading is one possible method for, as Nilson says, “restoring rigor” by relying on inherent student motivation. I contend that, in turn, specifications grading will also increase our instructor motivation when we are faced with a decreased bandwidth and expanding demands.


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