Can Specifications Grading Cure What Ails My Syllabus?

An alternative grading system. Image: Sage Ross, via Flickr.

An alternative grading system. Image: Sage Ross, via Flickr, h/t Robert Talbert.

I love teaching, and I hate grading. I know I’m not the only one. This semester, my math history course posed new grading challenges to me. Grading writing assignments is much more subjective than grading traditional math homework and tests, and the wide range of prior experience (some students’ most advanced math class was calculus 1, and some have taken abstract algebra or topology) proved a challenge for the math-heavy assignments. I have never been completely satisfied with my grading systems, but this semester convinced me that I really need to rethink my approach.

As Robert Talbert wrote in a recent post about grading, “Traditional grading systems work against my goals as a teacher.” Because this was a writing course, editing and revision were important parts of the process. I felt good about the way my feedback helped students improve their work, but I felt like assigning points was petty and antithetical to the collaborative atmosphere I wanted to create.

Enter specifications grading. Last month, specifications grading started popping up in my blog feed. Specifications grading is based on a recent book by Linda Nilson, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Talbert interviewed Nilson on his blog, Casting Out Nines. The basic idea of specifications grading is that the syllabus for a class will outline exactly what students need to do to get a desired grade, be it a D or an A, and all assignments are graded pass/fail. Students who want to get a higher grade will have to do more and possibly better work, but all students will have to do acceptable work on some assignments in order to pass the class. Nilson also advocates giving students “tokens” at the beginning of the semester that can be exchanged for an extension or a second chance on an assignment.

Talbert and T.J. Hitchman had a Google hangout on the subject of specifications grading that is now available on YouTube. One thing Talbert said that stood out to me was, “You have students basically opting in to the grade and the work load that they want to take on.” That opting in is what appeals most to me about specifications grading. Some students just want to pass a class, and some want to get an A. In practice, at least for classes I’ve taught using traditional grading schemes, this means that the students who just want to pass do a mediocre job on all the assignments. Wouldn’t it be better if students had to do acceptable or even good work on the assignments they chose to do but could choose which assignments to do? Then I wouldn’t waste my time pushing and prodding students who aren’t interested in putting forth the effort necessary to get a high grade.

I have been thinking about using standards-based grading for a while, but the endless cycles of reassessment that Hitchman mentions in the hangout have been deterring me. I’m sure this is about my struggles to think creatively about standards-based grading, but specifications grading just feels more straightforward to implement. Bret Benesh wrote an interesting post comparing specifications grading as he understands it to the system he currently uses, which he calls accumulation grading, and I think his experience will help guide me as I start to think about reassessing my assessment method. I’ve checked Nilson’s book out of the library, and I hope to incorporate specifications grading into my courses next semester. I know that it will not be a magic bullet, but I think the ideas will help me create a syllabus that better serves both me and my students.

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