The traditional assessment and feedback cycle was failing her students. It’s what prompted Jody Langdon, Professor of Exercise Science and Coaching at Georgia Southern University, to search for more flexible and transparent grading alternatives. Perhaps more importantly, she was determined to help students achieve subject mastery through clearly communicated feedback. It was this need that led her to adopt the specifications grading framework in her course.

What is specifications grading?

You may have guessed it: compared to traditional grading, specifications grading offers greater, well, specificity. This grading system uses clearly defined learning outcomes to guide students to achieve a high level of mastery by the end of each unit. There are pass-fail grading requirements where multiple “checkpoints” measure learning throughout each unit. As Langdon can attest, this grading approach takes the emphasis off letter grades and focuses on measuring skills through thoughtful reflection. Above all, where traditional grading may penalize students for not fully grasping material, specifications grading allows for frequent revision and flexible deadlines to help learners get closer to meeting learning objectives.

Specifications grading is a win-win for both educators and students. Here are just a few of the benefits.

Faculty benefitsStudents benefits
Discourages cheating through clearly defined criteria for each assignmentLinks assignments to learning outcomes, making learning feel applicable
Saves time gradingReduces stress by removing the pressure to perform
Enables a feedback cycle that students can use to their advantage—time spent giving feedback isn’t ‘wasted’Helps students feel more responsible and accountable for their grades

Traditional grading often rewards students for their ability to memorize and regurgitate information on a test. But with specifications grading, students are rewarded for developing critical thinking, research and written skills. Plus, they’re given an opportunity to make use of the feedback they receive to cement their learning over the duration of the course as opposed to recalling facts during a moment in time. The only time students are assigned a letter grade is at the end of the course.

How specifications grading is used

Langdon is among a growing number of educators who have swapped traditional grading models for this novel approach. In the section that follows, we spotlight how she brings this grading framework to life and offer a sample rubric to guide you in your own efforts.

Token policy

Langdon uses a token system that allows for additional flexibility and autonomy during the learning process. She offers students four tokens at the start of her course. When spent, these tokens let students retry assignments, turn in assignments after the due date or complete make-up work due to absenteeism. This grading method ensures that students’ circumstances are adequately accounted for and taken into consideration from the get-go.

Course attendance

Adopting specifications grading doesn’t mean abandoning academic rigor. Langdon had historically found that traditional attendance policies ignored circumstances beyond students’ control that would prevent them from attending class. The result? Fielding constant emails about make-up assignments. Her token policy creates additional flexibility by letting students spend one of their tickets and subsequently miss class without being penalized.

Practically speaking, here are sample specifications that could constitute an A, B and C grade.1

  • A grade: Thoroughly prepare for and actively participate in all course meetings, with up to 3 absences
  • B grade: Prepare for and actively participate in all course meetings, with up to 4 absences
  • C grade: Prepare for and participate in all course meetings, with up to 5 absences

Course assignments

Before adopting specifications grading, Langdon had charted several flaws with traditional grading. Feedback often wasn’t provided with an application lens, meaning students struggled to make use of the comments they received to correct their own study efforts. Even more pressing was the fact that students weren’t able to build upon their critical thinking skills by referring to standardized rubrics. Not only did feedback come too late, students would fixate on their letter grade instead of reflecting on how to achieve a higher level of mastery.

Research has shown that this form of assignment grading increases student motivation and produces higher-quality work than traditional systems do.2 Langdon couldn’t agree more. After adapting her assignment structure, she’s found that she’s now better able to gauge outcome achievement through granular feedback. For example, Langdon uses the following specifications for a research study assignment in her course. 

  • Complete sentences that fully answer all questions along with evidence from the research article that supports their answer
  • A fully and correctly formatted APA reference sheet
  • Language that is clear and free from grammatical errors

She also rewards students for both correctness and participation, making sure students are given more flexibility in how they’re graded. Going one step further, Langdon makes sure her grading technique is in line with the prescribed learning outcomes. For instance, she uses various grade weights in her assignments—i.e. grading APA references more lightly compared to the literature review.

Sample specifications grading table

When used correctly, specifications grading allows for greater critical thinking, self-regulation and ultimately boosts student morale. The emphasis on application and mastery helps students become acutely aware of their learning experience and makes it clear that ‘A’ isn’t the end goal, but rather, mastering key skills that will see students through their professional lives. 

Remember, letter grades are only assigned at the end of a course. Here’s how you might structure your own grading tiers accordingly.1

To earn a:Achieve the following:
A– Thoroughly prepare for and actively participate in all course meetings, with up to 3 absences, per the attendance policy
– Complete an About Me post and comment on at least 7 of your classmates’ About Me posts
– Complete all 6 required posts to a Satisfactory level, with at least 4 responding to all assigned questions 
– Complete all 7 required comments on your classmates’ posts, demonstrating excellent comprehension of course material
B– Prepare for and actively participate in all course meetings, with up to 4 absences, per the attendance policy
– Complete an About Me post and comment on at least 5 of your classmates’ About Me posts
– Complete all 6 required posts to a Satisfactory level, with at least one responding to all assigned questions
– Complete at least 5 of the 7 required comments on your classmates’ posts, demonstrating good comprehension of course material
C– Prepare for and participate in all course meetings, with up to 5 absences, per the attendance policy
– Complete an About Me post and comment on at least 3 of your classmates’ About Me posts
– Complete at least 5 of the 6 required analytical posts to a Satisfactory level
– Complete at least 4 of the 7 required comments on your classmates’ posts, demonstrating satisfactory comprehension  

References

  1. Media & Community. What is Specification grading? (n.d.). https://courses.suzannechurchill.com/community-s17/specification-grading/
  2. Nilson, L. (2016, January 19). Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/01/19/new-ways-grade-more-effectively-essay

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