Specifications Grading: My Experience

Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash

Early in the summer of 2020, I discovered the concept of specifications (or spec) grading.  I bought the book, which I reviewed earlier this week.  You need to read that book review to understand this post.

I decided to apply spec grading to all three classes I was teaching in the fall: a 1-credit Intro to Clinical Research undergrad class, a 2-credit Cardiovascular Systems vet student course, and a 3-credit Experimental Methods graduate class.  There were tears, there were grateful emails, there was massive time commitment on my part.  Read on to discover how it went!

Introduction to Clinical Research

I had taught this seminar-style course for years at another institution, but this was my first year trying it at my new institution.  Unbeknownst to me, I had been using a type of spec grading for this course previously.  It wasn’t hard to adapt it to the spec grading system provided in the book.  Most students grasped the concept fairly quickly.  Two students clearly had a hard time keeping up with the small weekly assignments and ended up dropping the course.  One student struggled with email communication and also had a hard time with assignments, but managed to eke out a B.  Everyone else got an A.

I like that it reduced any subjectivity on my part.  For example, I didn’t need to judge the quality of the work precisely, just make sure it met a certain standard.  It made grading assignments very easy.  I liked that students used their tokens to push back due dates.  A couple students suggested alternative strategies to spend Tokens which I accepted.  No student completed an assignment to earn extra Tokens.  A handful of students earned a “greatly exceeds expectations” on some assignments.

I think the students liked it because it took the pressure off of performing.  They knew they could submit the assignments and, if they made a good faith effort, would get credit and would be able to earn an A.

Overall, I will definitely use spec grading exactly the same way if I offer this course in the future.  The main thing I will change is making it clear that students MUST stay ‘on top’ of the weekly assignments and the due dates for all assignments.  I may take some time in the intro session talking about building calendar reminders.

Experimental Methods

This was my first time teaching a class anything like this.  I have done study design and biostatistics for many years and finally decided to create a class to help grad students and residents become better researchers and empower them to run their own statistical analyses.  The students did a fantastic job of selecting the appropriate grade bundle for themselves.  A couple realized they could get the information they wanted but didn’t want to put a ton of work in and so aimed for a C.  Several wanted to put a moderate amount of effort in and aimed for a B.  Many put the most effort in and aimed for an A.

The system worked perfectly as expected.  I didn’t need to spend a ton of time grading.  I believe students learned.  On the course evaluation feedback, many of them complimented the system and appreciated that it allowed them choice and enabled their learning.

Overall, this was my most successful application of spec grading.  I would definitely recommend it for any graduate level course.

Cardiovascular System

This was my second semester teaching this course and I am not a cardiologist.  It is team-taught, so I have several other faculty do lectures and whole modules.  But I write all the exam questions, grade all the assignments, and organize the course.  This course is already difficult for the vet students because they are transitioning from “memorize/regurgitate” style learning to “think it through like a clinician.”  The course is already asking them to change their way of thinking.  Asking them to change their way of grading may have been a little too much.  But the vast majority rose to the challenge and did well.

I think the biggest learning issue for me is how our educational system acultures students to associate grades with learning and that, in order to get into vet school, most students had to push themselves hard to get good grades.  Freshmen vet students are still 100% into “I HAVE to get an A!”  Sophomore vet students are starting to realize, “I have to learn how to be a doctor… but I feel like I have to get an A!”  Junior vet students think, “Oh crap, I’m going onto clinics, I’d better learn this stuff, grades be damned!”  Senior vet students think, “I just need to keep my head above water and learn to be a doctor and I have no idea what grade I’m getting.”

So, asking first-semester sophomore students to analyze their actual feelings about grading, why they want to earn the grade they want, and reflect on what they want to learn is a pretty big ask.  I think a lot of vet students have a higher-than-average level of anxiety, and I may not have done as good a job as I wanted to explaining the system and helping them schedule completing assignments.

I liked that it made grading essay exams a breeze.  I didn’t have to account for little points according to a rubric.  I could just read through a question and think, “Does this reflect a B-level understanding of the material?”

I didn’t like the Token system in this course.  There were too many students and it was too complicated.  In the future, my plan will be to say, “If you want to redo this assignment, write a reflection about it.”

I had WAY too many emails with assignments to read through.  I don’t think this was a spec grading problem per se, although I did create more assignments this year than last year to account for the spec grading system.  I need to come up with a system where students do the work but I don’t have to read every single page-long assignment from 130 students.

Overall, I think spec grading did fine.  The student performance, grade-wise, was statistically significantly higher than last year.  I think some students appreciated it and some students were stressed out by it.  If I do a required core course in the future, I will think long and hard about using spec grading or not.  I plan to teach an elective veterinary professional class in the fall and will definitely use spec grading for that.  If I can figure out a way to do spec grading, which requires completion of thoughtful assignments, without having to personally evaluate every assignment, I would give it another go in a core professional student class.

Overall, I think spec grading is terrific.  Mature students, like the grad students, apparently loved it.  For a small seminar course, it worked great.  For a large lecture course, a different mechanism may need to be found for me to feel like I’m doing a good job.  If you haven’t tried spec grading, I would definitely encourage you to think about it, particularly if you like giving essay exams.

Have you ever taken a spec grading course? What was your experience?

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