One Year of Specs Grading: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Spring semester 2023 is in the books. It actually has been in the books for a few days, though I have spent the time since working on wrapping up its ragged ends.

In truth, this was a second consecutive brutally difficult semester, making the 2022/23 school year one of the most difficult of my career. In addition to a series of crises external to what happened in the classroom, I was also teaching three new classes: upper level surveys on Ancient Rome and Persia, and a first year seminar. The demographics of that first year seminar were particularly challenging such that I had to functionally re-write the syllabus midway through the semester and I had one student so difficult that I came to dread walking into that classroom.

I wrestled the semester into submission eventually. My Persia class might be my favorite class I have ever taught, in large part because of the mix of students, and my revised first year seminar syllabus along with a slightly different approach to discussion allowed my students to pick up on the themes and skills that are most important for the course. In each of these three classes I was also able to build trust with the students that we were able to largely weather the techpocalypse ransomware attack that took down the network two weeks before the end of the semester. The outpouring of comments from students in the last few weeks was enormously moving, but I also want to recognize how hard I had to work to get there.

However, by way of semester retrospective, I want to focus on one academic year using Specifications Grading. I adopted this system because it promised to make my life easier, and my spring changes like an UnGrading system to assess participation and taking attendance every day worked, but, one year in, I am left wondering whether a specs model is the right fit for most of my classes.

The Good

My favorite part of specs grading is not assigning grades to assignments. The obsession with grades is deeply rooted in students, but grades themselves are often a poor match for learning. Specifications, by contrast, clearly establishes my expectations and, at least in theory, gives the students guidance on how they can earn credit for an assignment. This is still a form of grading, but the expectations provide a framework within which the students can learn and my feedback can focus on whether the student has met the expectation for that assignment. Moreover, the grades are earned across categories, meaning that the students have to engage with each part of the course and the clear expectations for each grade tier can allow students to prioritize their efforts if, for instance, they have met the requirements for their target grade in my class and need to focus instead on passing a different one.

Moreover, by modifying the expectations up or down for either the overall grades or for individual assignments I can adjust what my expectations are for the students. Thus, when our tech issues struck, I could easily fulfill every learning objectives and still lower the expectations for several graded categories in my classes, much to the relief of my students.

I particularly found specifications grading effective for relatively small, repeated assignments like journals where partial credit is particularly arbitrary and missing the rubric on one or two assignments both teaches an important lesson about following the assignment guide and has a relatively minimal overall effect on the final grade. Whether or not I continue with Specifications Grading as an overarching grading scheme, I will definitely carry these aspects forward into what comes next.

The Bad

More of my students this semester than in the fall term seemed to embrace the spirit of the specs grading and understood how the grade tiers worked, but this still left me with some students who struggled to see the connection between the work that they were completing the grade tiers in the syllabus. A couple of these were unique cases with a confluence of circumstances, but others were more persistent and connected to another issue that frustrated me last semester.

One of the keys to Specifications Grading is transparency. Every assignment guide came with a detailed rubric that spelled out exactly how to earn credit for that assignment. These rubrics were prescriptive in that they articulated the formal characteristics that I was grading on, but they were deliberately open-ended so that the students could work within the guardrails to express themselves. For instance, the journal assignment specified a length, a mandate to include a date, title, and word count, and a set of prompts like “what was the most interesting thing you learned from class this week” or “how would something you learned this week change a paper you wrote earlier in the semester.” For responses to a class movie, the rubric might be that you need to answer each question with at least 2 complete sentences appropriate for the movie.

However, I often got the sense that the students weren’t checking their work against the rubric before submitting it. In the small repeated assignments one or two times being told that an assignment wasn’t accepted put the students back on the right track, but then in some of these cases the students would trip up in exactly the same way on the next assignment.

Even more worrying was that this also happened on bigger assignments like papers where students turned in sometimes two or more drafts that seemed to rely on little more than hope that it fulfilled the rubric, even after having the students use this exact rubric for the purposes of peer review. I allow students to revise their papers both as a matter of praxis for teaching writing and because not doing so would be too draconian a policy for a specs system (see below), but nevertheless getting rounds of papers that simply ignored the guidelines, and, in at least one case, introduced new ways that the paper missed the rubric on revision, made me ask in frustration why I provide the rubrics in the first place.

But for all of these frustrations, these are not the reasons I’m considering whether to keep a specifications model or adopt some sort of hybrid system.

The Ugly

Two semesters into using Specifications Grading, my biggest question is whether it is a good match for writing-enhanced classes.

I really like the rubric I designed for grading essays in this system. Unlike most specs rubrics that use a proficient/not-proficient binary, my rubric has two “pass” tiers, one for basic proficiency and another for advanced. The advanced tier I calibrated at roughly a low-A. Earning a C in this course required revising one of three papers to the advanced tier and just the first tier for the other two, a B required revising two, and the A required all three.

Despite the promises of specs grading, I have not found that this system saves me any time at all, especially when grading papers on the learning management system, which I do as a matter of equity (e.g. costs of printing), scheduling (e.g. not having things due at class time), and convenience (e.g. I can toggle between versions). Simply put, I found that a lot of students would not be able to write well enough to fulfill the advanced tier of the rubric on one paper, let alone three. Even when they looked at the scored rubric, which was not always the case, I felt like I had to give lots of direct and actionable feedback in the paper itself, in the rubric comments, and in the summary comments on the paper. Otherwise, I feared, the students might not be able to make the connections between whatever they wrote and the rubric scores.

Let me be clear here: the system works. As I told my students, my goal at this point in their college career is to help build good writing skills and habits so so that every student knows that they can revise a (relatively short) paper to a high quality before they get to the two research-centric classes that they take in their junior and senior year. I am also comfortable with the rubric calibration because each semester I had a few students who fulfilled the rubric with no or minimal revisions to their paper, and nearly every student improved dramatically from the start of the semester to the end.

But there were also some days when I felt like I was dragging two classes worth of students (46, at final count) toward writing proficiency, on top of being responsible for the course content, two sections of tag-along non-WE sections of these courses (6 students), and the first year seminar. It was a lot. Having two sections of this process of course magnified all of the issues, but it also left me wondering whether continuing down this path toward completely spec-ified writing-enhanced courses is sustainable. I don’t relish the prospect of going back to traditional points-based grading either, which makes me wonder if I can imagine some sort of hybrid grading scheme that does what I want it to do.