A Foray into Spec Grading

Over the years, I’ve refined rubrics with the intent that students can evaluate their own mastery of an assignment. In some courses, students generate their own rubrics. During class sessions, students practice applying the rubrics, which gives them insight into how to create assignments that meet the goals. I still make comments in addition to scoring the rubric, trying to help students aim for a perfect score when they revise. But sometimes, students use the rubric to make decisions about what part of an assignment to skip. This is a smart strategy.

It also means the students and I have different goals. I want them to master the content I’m teaching; they want to get through the course while managing complex lives that include college, work, family obligations, etc.

This framing is a false dichotomy. Students are in college because they want to learn. It’s stress that changes their excitement about a new term and new classes to weariness by midterm. I firmly believe that I can help them maintain their excitement by offering crystal-clear explanations for why the content and skills they’re learning are necessary and crystal-clear expectations of what assignments will help them complete that material.

So what about feedback? How does feedback affect that clarity?

Red garnet inclusion in a diamondSome years ago, I listened to a Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with Linda Nilson that introduced me to specifications grading (aka, specs grading, mastery grading, competency-based grading, and other names). Nilson talked about how so many faculty members spend so much time grading without making a difference in student learning. I internalized this as wasting time. Her solution is to grade every assignment as pass/fail, and that mastery for each assignment is described through a rubric. Her recommendation is that students can resubmit 1-2 assignments in the term. Moreover, students can subscribe to different tiers of grade. They can pass tier 3 work for a C; they can pass tier 2 for a B; and they can pass tier 1 work for an A. That helps the instructor organize the work into different bundles of grades, one bundle for each tier. For examples a bundle of tasks might be necessary to contribute to society (tier 1), to achieve foundational experience for careers in this area (tier 2), or to highly qualify for an internship or undergraduate research experience in a lab (tier 3).

That podcast episode was released in 2015.

I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to try this, really wanting to learn from others who have practical experience with this approach. My colleagues David Goldstein and Charity Lovitt offered that opportunity when they began a Faculty Learning Community on spec grading in fall 2020. Learning from their models, I moved from “wow, that sounds cool, but I have no idea how to implement this” to “I have tried this out, and, while I have a long way to go to improve it, I’ve begun to recommend this strategy to others because it’s a powerful way to refocus from grades to learning.”

Talking to David about how he uses spec grading in film and literature courses, and to Charity about how she uses it in chemistry courses, inspired gave me the confidence to use this method when I taught BIS 499 Portfolio Capstone in winter 2021. In this course, students reflect on their progress toward the School’s learning objectives, drawing from experiences from their whole lives, but especially college courses. They use these reflections to curate a portfolio of their college experiences, as well as to prepare resumes and cover letters. The experiences and passions that students share in this course always move me. This particular quarter saw the beginning of the Biden-Harris administration and the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting. Students were dealing with so many stresses related to the pandemic and online learning. And yet, students thrived in the course.

I created two grading bundles: if students completed all of the assignments in the first bundle, they received a 3.5; a few students completed this bundle. They had the option of completing two more assignments to earn a 4.0, and most students aimed for this bundle. Given the stresses characterizing the time, I decided that students could resubmit assignments as many times they as they wanted, which encouraged most of them to complete most assignments. Students who received lower than a 3.5 missed some of the assignments. Those who score between a 3.5 and 4.0 completed only one of the extra assignments.

As the quarter progressed, I found my expectations creeping up, especially when students worked on their resumes and cover letters. I wanted those documents to be the best that they could, so I started providing more feedback than the rubric, and demanding more revisions. The students, helpfully, pointed out this creep, and I reigned myself back in to focus on accepting B-level work, rather than seeking perfection.

All-in-all, using spec grading was a good experience. I’ve improved my rubrics, and I’ll be less finicky and more focused on the big picture of meeting the rubric. But most importantly, students’ portfolios were among the best I’ve seen. Once a student committed to completing an assignment, they did truly excellent work. That commitment comes from their own interest alongside a crystal-clear understanding of why they’re doing each assignment and what they gain from it.

One Comment:

  1. I appreciate the clarity in finding an alignment between instructor and student goals here, Becca. You’ve explained specs grading very clearly here and how you’ve thoughtfully integrated it in your Capstone class. I intend applying Specs Grading this coming academic year and find your post to be instructive and inspiring.

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