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Taking a Plunge into Specifications Grading

Mary Houston
February 01, 2023

I’m an assistant professor and teach design and technology courses at the School for Theatre Arts and Dance. I tried Specifications Grading for the first time for a class this past Fall. It was a new class for me, so it was a good candidate. I wanted to garner more rigorous student work results, reduce my grading time, and have a more equitable learning-based system.  The class was Thea 215: Beginning Scenic Design.

There are quite a few alternatives to standard points-based grading out there. What I like about Specs Grading is the clarity. A central tenant is to spell out precisely what you want your students to do and decide on the lowest bar for learning in the class, and you build up from there. You make all the decisions in advance, creating all the assignments and assessments around meeting these goals. It was not that I had not made these choices in other class planning. But this required a more advanced level of specificity and clarity.

I admit it was quite a bit of work to arrive at the point of launching the course on Canvas and starting classes. It is not something to tackle on the fly. For a class focused on skills and design, which can be subjective, it was a challenge to find a balance that would give the students the knowledge they should possess at the conclusion. I had a panicked moment very close to the start of classes when I met with Lyda and Molly in CETL to review my plans. I was having doubts and wondering if it was the right path.

With encouragement and determination, I stuck with it. It paid off. The students were open to the structure. Most responded very well to having everything planned out, so they knew what to do and why they were doing it. The work they produced was exactly what I was hoping for and, in many cases, beyond my expectations. A small portion seemed to need help grasping it entirely. And this is where I can improve.

One of the choices you make in your planning is resubmissions. With Specs Grading, there’s no negotiation with points. The student either completed the assignment as specified or didn’t and needs to resubmit. As a professor, I can struggle with pushing students but keeping students accountable to clearly defined specifications is essential.

Specs Grading cut down on the time I spent grading. It provided more time for me to focus on the students’ rigor in the classwork and projects they created. And when the semester became busy and somewhat overwhelming, I could refer to the plan I had already spelled out in detail and not falter. I will keep specs grading for this class and implement it for my other classes over time. 


CETL Webinar: An Introduction to Specifications Grading, Dr. Molly Jameson (fall 2022)

Book: Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, Linda B. Nilson, 2014