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A New Way to Grade

NilsonBookLooking for a grading system that better reflects learning outcomes, motivates students to excel, and cuts down on your grading time? You might try the approach that Linda Nilson promotes in her new book, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, published earlier this year by Stylus. Specifications—or specs—grading is an alternative to traditional grading that is built on a rubrics approach to classroom assessment.

Specs Grading Basics

The distinguishing characteristic of the specs system is grading individual assignments— including papers, exams, and projects—on a pass/fail basis. Assignments that meet the specifications for the assignment pass and earn full credit, while those that don’t meet them fail and earn no credit. For example, a paper might call for students to successfully accomplish five specifications that are detailed in advance by the instructor in the form of a rubric. If the paper meets each of the specifications, it earns full credit. Specifications for passing an exam might be to answer at least 80% of the questions correctly. The pass/fail approach cuts out partial credit, which, Nilson argues, “has a serious flaw in that it rewards poor work, especially when we are trying to eke out as many points as possible for our students” (p. 48). The course itself, however, is not pass/fail. Students’ final grades are calculated either through a points system or through a streamlined alternative Nilson calls “bundling,” or grouping assignments into sets that are linked to different learning outcomes. Both the points and bundling methods translate into traditional letter grades.

Tokens can balance out the unforgiving pass/fail binary by providing flexibility and second chances. Nilson explains that to set up this system, you would “allocate between one and five tokens to each of your students at the beginning of the course, and they are free to exchange one or more of them—it is your currency to control—for an opportunity to revise or drop an unsatisfactory piece of work, to take a makeup exam or retake an exam, or to get a 24-hour extension on an assignment” (p. 65). While an optional add-on, I imagine the token system is helpful for easing student anxiety with this potentially unfamiliar all-or-nothing grading system.

"Calculator" by Anssi Koskinen (CC BY 2.0).

Calculator” by Anssi Koskinen (CC BY 2.0).

Benefits of Specs Grading

I won’t detail each of the fifteen advantages of specs grading that Nilson identifies in her book (see pages 129-131 for a summary), but I do want to point to a couple of the putative benefits that I found most compelling.

Particularly intriguing was the idea that the specs method ties grades to results, meaning that grades reflect the learning outcomes that the student has or has not achieved. Partial-points allocation in traditional grading sometimes means that it’s possible for a student to pass a course with a C without actually reaching competency in any of the course learning outcomes. Initially, I thought this method’s focus on learning outcomes was incompatible with low-stakes assignments, but after reading the book I see that the two can work well together. Nilson describes how it’s possible with both the points and bundling approaches to make low-stakes assignments count for something, but to reserve Cs, Bs, and As for students who have demonstrated that they’ve achieved a certain level of competency in the learning outcomes (pp. 70-71).

Another benefit of specs grading, Nilson asserts, is that by design it motivates students to succeed more than traditional methods do. First, since grades are tied to the achievement of outcomes, students are encouraged to adapt a learning orientation rather than attempt to game the system by getting as much partial credit as possible with the minimal amount of effort. Secondly, the pass/fail system sets high expectations and makes mediocre work unacceptable, so it calls upon students to aim higher and work harder than they normally would. Lastly, specs grading motivates students because it gives them more control. Reassured that their grade rests on clear specifications that are articulated by the instructor in advance, students are free to “choose how much and how deeply they will master the course material” (p.130). As Joe Olivier recently pointed out on this blog, this greater level of autonomy is linked to increased intrinsic motivation.

One of the central selling points in the book for specs grading is the claim that it will save instructors time. In my personal experience, the majority of my grading time goes to developing rubrics and assignment prompts before the course even begins, which makes the task of grading student work during the quarter quick and easy. I also find that having clear rubrics makes for less student-teacher conflict; because the expectations are shared with students up front, they generally feel their grades are fair. If I were to consistently grade low-stakes assignments as either pass/fail, I might save some time deciding how much partial credit to give. In the big picture, though, I don’t think specs grading will save instructors significant amounts of time if they already use a traditional rubrics method.

My Assessment

While book’s intermittent characterization of students as lazy, grade-grubbing millennials who can’t write may appeal to some, it rubbed me the wrong way. Despite this difference of perspective and my doubt that specs grading will save me time, I do think that this approach is worth a try, at least in some teaching contexts. I don’t see a pass/fail approach working for my First-Year Writing course where students’ final portfolios are worth more than half of their overall grade, but I do think I can adapt the token and pass/fail grading on outcomes elements of the system to make assessment more meaningful and to motivate students to do their best work.

How do you think the specs grading system stacks up? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Looking for a step-by-step instructions on how to implement specs grading? Nilson’s book is available for loan through the TLA library and the DePaul library. Want to learn more before diving into the book? Listen to Linda Nilson explain specs grading in her own words on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.


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