I have always found grading students uncomfortable, so I adjust or change the assessment in courses whenever I can. I inherited a course once that had a paper, but writing a paper wasn’t a relevant skill for the course so I took it out and replaced it with a video which related to the presentation skills the students were learning in the class. I enjoyed marking it and from what they said the students enjoyed doing it.
This semester I have taken part of the weight of the unit exams and turned it into a take home question where the students identify an application of course content and describe how it connects and identify some of the real world considerations like friction that we ignore in our level of physics.
But my favourite change to grading is in my sustainability course. If I could, I would change every course onto this approach to grading. It’s called specifications grading and it was developed by Nilson (2014). Instead of assigning grades and percentages to each assignment, everything gets marked as complete or incomplete. I have set completion at a B level for a junior level course. This means that every assignment gets completed to a particular standard which improves the rigour in the course. If a student doesn’t reach the standard, they can revise the assignment until they do. Nilson describes a system of tokens that you can use for these revisions. I am not a big stickler for the tokens but I find that I typically know which assignment(s) are going to cause issues and they are fundamental to the learning outcomes for the course so I’d rather give extra revisions than have students not succeed.
You might be asking how I get to the final letter grades. In specifications grading, assessments are bundled into packages. To get higher grades you do more work or harder work. For example, only the students aiming for an A have to complete a group project.
Specifications grading has completely changed grading for me. No longer am I trying to justify to my distinction between an 80 and a 75%. I look at whether it meets the standard or not, which is much easier to determine and to justify. Part of this is having a well developed marking guide that clearly outlines the requirements or specifications for each assignment for both me and for my students. Students have told me that they like it because it is more transparent. They know how to get the mark they want and if something happens in their life and they need to change their plans they can complete less work, rather than doing all the work poorly.
I actually quite enjoy sitting down to mark now. I’m not depressed by poor quality work and students passing because they scrape up enough points. We can all focus on mastery rather than grades and this shows in the work the students produce. I also have confidence that any student who passes will be capable of moving onto the next level of course.
There are all sorts of alternate grading movements out there at the moment, but specifications grading is my top choice so far. I find that it meets my goals. It supports mastery and rigour. It improves transparency and focus. It allows me and the students to focus on the learning outcomes. And that makes it a win to me.
I have combined this approach with the assessment menu that I wrote about in an earlier post to increase student choice and the options for autonomy further.
Here is a short post by Nilson on specifications grading.