Book Review: Specifications Grading

I was reading a news article at the Chronicle of Higher Ed a few weeks ago about remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.  There was a throw-away line under a subheading “High-stakes assessments are overrated” about using ungrading or specifications grading.  I had never heard of either of these, so followed the links provided about them.

As soon as I started reading about spec grading, I was entranced.  I read everything I could find about it online.  Then I had to get the book which serves as the foundation for the grading scheme, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time by Linda B. Nilson.  I devoured the book and basically think spec grading is the best thing since sliced bread.  Let’s go chapter by chapter.

1) The Need for a New Grading System

The chapter opens with a history of grading, which was new to me.  It then goes through limitations of grades, the lack of connection between grades and job performance, and the interaction between grading systems and faculty and students.  It includes a 15-point breakdown of why traditional grading is a problem, which is a terrific analysis and I intend to provide several of these points to my students as to why we’re doing spec grading.  

The most meaningful points for me are “reduce student stress”, “minimize conflict between faculty and students”, and “foster higher-order cognitive development and creativity.”  Veterinary students are already highly motivated and high-achieving, but this comes with a lot of stress.  I feel a lot of sympathy for my students and how much they worry about grades.  I would love to help reduce that.  Often students get upset about how I grade things, and I want to get rid of that conflict.  I ask students to start thinking like clinicians, where there are shades of grey in decision-making, rather than a single right answer.  This chapter elaborates the problems with current grading schemes, and I agree with it wholeheartedly.  We need a better way.

2) Learning Outcomes and Course Design

This chapter goes through the principle of aligning learning objectives and assessment.  This concept wasn’t new to me- I had read Understanding by Design several years ago when my wife loaned me her copy- so I skimmed this chapter.  If you don’t know how and why to align learning objectives and assessment, this is a good basic introduction.  However, I would recommend reading Understanding by Design instead of Specifications Grading to properly become informed on the topic.

3) Linking Grades to Outcomes

This chapter provides a deep dive into what the relationship between grades and outcomes SHOULD be.  It gives four contexts for thinking about learning, two of which were new to me: Bloom’s taxonomy, Anderson and Krathwohl’s Revision to Bloom’s, Perry’s Stages of Undergrad Cognitive Development, and Wolcott and Lunch’s Thinking Performance Pattern.  All of these are great ways to think about learning, and I appreciated the new approaches I hadn’t encountered before (much as I love Bloom’s!).  

The chapter then explains you can have “more” hurdles- students learn more content at an entry level- or “higher” hurdles- students learn the same content at higher levels of mastery.  So “more” hurdles may include learning about neuromuscular blocking agents, positive pressure ventilation, and CRIs- topics I don’t consider relevant for more general practitioners.  And “higher” hurdles may be applying drug protocols to complex cases like a GDV, C-section, or colic- cases, topics I don’t expect entry-level veterinarians to be able to handle.  Finally, the chapter provides some examples of designing assessments based on the “more” and/or “higher” principle.

4) Pass/Fail Grading for Rigor, Motivation, and Faculty Peace of Mind

I was particularly excited to read this chapter, because I have always hated how grades “work”.  I tell students that, if they earn a “C” in the class, they have mastered the knowledge necessary for an entry-level veterinarian.  Earning a “C” is not shameful.  In the real world, you don’t get grades.  You either meet expectations or don’t meet expectations.  Some job reviews may have higher and lower levels but, at the end of the day, it’s a pass/fail world.  There is compelling evidence that pass/fail grading in human medicine does not alter learning outcomes and reduces student stress.  Nonetheless, students freak out if they don’t get an “A” or a “B” and pass that stress on to me.  Having a mechanism to do pass/fail assignments was very exciting to read about.

This chapter was short and mostly reinforced what I already know.  It gave a brief history of pass/fail grading and provided some evidence about how effective it is to motivate student learning.  The AAVMC is pushing towards a Competency-Based Veterinary Education framework which is functionally pass/fail- students will need to be “competent” in order to progress.

5) Essentials of Specifications Grading

This begins to set out the nitty-gritty of making spec grading work.  Student work is assessed as pass/fail on assignments and given very explicit directions on how to earn a pass.  Students are also given the opportunity to revise assignments given a ‘fail’ grade through a token system.  Students start the class with a certain number of tokens, and can turn them in to be allowed to revise an assignment.

6) Converting Specs-Graded Student Work into Final Letter Grades

Two solutions are presented: a points-based system and a bundle system.  I worry about using a point-based system because of the close association with traditional grading, so I eschewed that when I created my spec graded course.  Bundling is where it’s at.  Each grade has a bundle of assignments students must pass in order to earn that grade.  For example, in my cardiovascular course, to earn a “C”, a student has to pass 4 multiple-choice exams, 1 written exam, 3 out of 5 quizzes, 70% of IRATs, and write 4 exam questions.  To earn a “B”, students have to do all that and more.  To earn an “A”, students have to do even more than those who earn a “B”.  The rest of the chapter provides a rationale for bundling and addresses concerns, like grade inflation.

7) Examples of Specs-Graded Course Designs

This chapter provides numerous examples for course design and creating bundles.  A deep dive is then done on three bundles from a Management Information Systems course.  I had already read many examples online by the time I got the book, but this chapter was nonetheless helpful to see some alternate ways to approach bundles.  I made some changes on the basis of what I learned in this chapter.

8) The Motivational Power of Specs Grading

Some anecdotal evidence is presented about faculty experiencing better motivation and better quality work from their students after implementing spec grading.  Five theories of motivation are briefly explored and their relevance to spec grading provided.  As many of you know, I am a huge fan of self-determination theory, and of course spec grading appeals to the Competency and Autonomy domains of SDT.  A detailed breakdown of how spec grading fosters autonomy is provided.

9) Developing a Course with Specs Grading

The chapter begins with a rationale for why others have converted their courses to spec grading.  It then provides specific directions on how to design a spec course, including creating bundles.  It also provides an alternative where spec grading is blended with traditional grading, which I personally think is less than ideal and may be confusing and probably wouldn’t alleviate student stress.  A brief discussion of introducing students to spec grading is given, which I will have to read a few times before starting my class- I’m fairly sure that students will freak out, because they don’t like change.  At the end is a table comparing traditional grading with specs grading on 7 elements.

10) An Evaluation of Specs Grading

A detailed breakdown is given, including how spec grading addresses each of the 15 points made in chapter 1 about why current grading models are deficient.  This serves as the concluding chapter and, I believe, puts the last nail in the coffin of traditional grading.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I am SO EXCITED to do spec grading.  I revised my entire cardiovascular course on this model and had several peer expert teachers evaluate and provide feedback.  You can read the syllabus I created through the link below.  If you teach a class or a clinic rotation, I strongly encourage you to look at doing spec grading.  If you want help, I am more than happy to offer whatever help I can.

2 comments on “Book Review: Specifications Grading

  1. -

    I’m glad you found this! I learned about specs grading when we were being asked to convert clinical anesthesia teaching to virtual learning when the quarantine first was instituted. One of my colleagues was versed in teaching and introduced this to me. We did the bundle approach and it worked very well, esp. for the virtual teaching modality.

    • - Post author

      That’s outstanding! I think applying this to clinical rotations could be very successful. Spoil for Thursday’s post, but my experience was that it worked amazingly for the grad students, fine for the undergrad students, and the sophomore vet students… just believe too hard they NEED to earn an “A” and overwork themselves. But I bet, for senior vet students, it would work a treat.

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