Rethinking your syllabus: specifications grading

Kristin Malek, Assistant Professor, Nutrition & Health Sciences
Kristin Malek, Assistant Professor, Nutrition & Health Sciences

Just over three years ago, I was assigned to teach my first large lecture of 100+ students after teaching small classes for several years. With classes that are heavily project-based and very detail-oriented, I wanted my students to have the same experience despite the class size. To say that my first semester in a large lecture class was a struggle would be an understatement. After that semester, I began to reexamine my class structure. After consulting with instructional designers, I decided to incorporate a “menu-style” syllabus, which is largely structured after specifications grading.

In specifications grading there are no points — just a two-level grading structure that would be categorized as pass/fail, satisfactory/unsatisfactory, or similar. The instructor creates a set of specifications for each assignment that define what satisfactory work looks like and then when work is handed in, the instructor uses the rubric to classify the work. There are no points, no partial credit, and no arguing. The student then takes the feedback and has the ability to revise the work based on the feedback provided.

So how do you define final grades? Specifications grading still uses A, B, C, D, F course grades — but letter grades are earned differently in this structure. Letter grades are earned by bundles of assignments that increase in size and scope as the targeted grade goes higher. Therefore, students who just want a C in the course know what they are signing up for, those wanting a B have to do the same amount of work at either a higher difficulty level and quality plus some extra assignments, and the same for A. This type of bundling could also be structured for non-majors versus majors.

I wasn’t completely sold on the idea three years ago, so I started halfway and have slowly increased my alignment with specifications grading. I switched half my assignments to satisfactory/not-yet-satisfactory and kept my core points. Instead of five different bundles (A/B/C/D/F), I did a “required” bundle which only equaled a C+/B- in the course and a “supplemental” bundle where students could pick and choose what other assignments they wanted to do. Each semester I make adjustments and tweaks as I receive feedback from my classes and my own experiences.

The result? From a student perspective — my students love it! Students have felt like they have more agency, they can “customize” the class to what they want, and they are more engaged in the class and in their learning. From a teacher perspective, since switching my grading and syllabus structure, no one has ever asked for extra credit or complained about failing. In fact, students have apologized to me for their "bad" grade because they know it is on them. By integrating these concepts more in-depth each semester I have been able to learn valuable lessons on how to set up the calendar and rules for the class. The end result — I have more time in addition to higher-quality student work! If you have a teaching assistant, the rubric and grading in this method is significantly easier to pass on some of the workload, as well. I have found as an instructor I do have to spend a little extra time explaining the approach and teaching them how to calculate their grade since this is different.

The concept of specifications grading is not new — it has been around since 2014, if not longer. There is considerable research and books about specifications grading, but not always on the idea of best practices if you want to integrate the concepts piecemeal. I have found Linda Nelson's book "Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time" to be an excellent resource, and I am definitely interested in connecting with anyone who has tried or is considering trying specifications grading!

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