What the Heck is Specs Grading?

By Stephen Carter
πŸ“… June 6, 2022
πŸ•‘ Read time: 3 minute(s)
What the Heck is Specs Grading?

Specifications grading (also known as specs grading) is not necessarily a new grading scheme, but it was a new concept to me when I was first introduced to it recently. I am currently working with Dr. Cynda Crawford from the College of Veterinary Medicine to revise one of her courses to utilize specs grading. While we have not made any changes within her course just yet, I have conducted research on this system of grading and thought this would be an excellent time to briefly outline what I have learned. 

What the heck is Specs Grading?

In specs grading, students can essentially choose the grade they wish to earn by completing a set of pass/fail assessments that have been grouped by the instructor as essential or general. More details are below, but specs grading is often used to allow students more flexibility and control in their educational journey.  

Students Receive Pass/Fail Grades

One of the key components to this grading scheme is that it works on a pass/fail system; there is no partial credit at all. Like any strong course, learning objectives are clearly defined and align to course materials and assessments. For each objective, students participate in several tasks (assignments, projects, discussions, quizzes, etc.) and are allowed multiple – but not unlimited – opportunities to demonstrate mastery of each. How students demonstrate this mastery is up to the instructor. One commonly used measure is a quiz in which students must correctly answer at least 80% of the questions. Remember, everything is pass/fail. 

Specs Grading Focuses on Mastering Essential Objectives

Objectives are broken down into two categories: essential and general. To obtain a baseline passing grade, students must demonstrate mastery of each essential objective. Each additional general objective that students master will raise their grade. As the instructor, you deem what is essential versus what is general, but it is imperative that the most important objectives are in the essential category. 

How does it work?

For the example below, we have 30 objectives. In VetMed, the baseline passing grade is a C, so I have based this example on that model.

  • 12 essential objectives
    • Needed for at least a C
  • 18 general objectives (optional that will raise grade)
    • 1-3: C+
    • 4-6: B-
    • 7-10: B+
    • 11-14: A-
    • 15-18: A

In this example, students need to demonstrate mastery of all 12 essential objectives to receive a passing grade in the course. If students want a higher grade – for instance: a B+ – they must master all 12 essential objectives and an additional 7-10 general objectives.

As I indicated earlier, this is not a new way of grading. However, there’s a good chance that it will be a new or relatively new experience for your students. Regardless of the grading scheme you utilize, one of the first things you should do at the beginning of each semester is ensure your students have a clear understanding of how they will be graded. If specs grading is something you are thinking of incorporating, confirm that your students know the difference between essential and general objectives. I still have more to learn about this grading scheme; specifically, how to best set it up in Canvas. Stay tuned for a future bulletin on that very topic!

Image credit (Pixabay)

TagsAssessment, Curriculum, Engagement, Grading, Instructional Design, Online Teaching, Student SuccessPedagogy