Taking the “Grrrr” Out of Grading: Designing and Implementing a Specifications Grading System

Concurrent Session 5
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Does grading frustrate you? Do your students grade grub? This session will introduce specifications grading, an approach that promotes rigor and clarity, simplifying the grading process for both instructors and students. Examples will be provided from both undergraduate and graduate level courses, along with guidance for designing your own specifications.


Dr. Vanessa Dennen is a Professor of Instructional Systems & Learning Technologies in the Department of Educational Psychology & Learning Systems. She joined the faculty at FSU in 2003. Vanessa's research investigates the cognitive, motivational, and social elements of computer-mediated communication. Specifically, she concentrates on three major issues: (1) learner engagement in online discussion activities; (2) identity development, knowledge management, and knowledge brokering within online networks and communities of practice; and (3) ethical issues related to computer-mediated learning. Her research is situated in both formal and informal learning environments and focuses on communication technologies ranging from discussion forums to social media to mobile technologies. She has authored more than 50 journal articles and book chapters, which have appeared in publications such as Instructional Science; Distance Education; Computers in Human Behavior; Educational Research Technology & Development, The Handbook of Distance Education; and The Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology among others. Additionally, in 2013 she co-edited (with Jennifer B. Myers) a book, Virtual Professional Development and Informal Learning in Online Environments. Vanessa currently serves as co-Editor in Chief of The Internet and Higher Education. Additionally, she is a an Associate Editor for Educational Researcher and has edited special issues for Distance Education and Technology, Instruction, Cognition & Learning. She is serving a 3-year term (2016-2019) on the board for the American Educational Research Association's Instructional Technology special interest group.

Extended Abstract

Taking the “grrrr” out of grading: Designing and implementing a specifications grading system

Introduction and Background

In this session, we share how specifications grading (Nilson, 2015)can be used to improve the teaching and learning experience in the online classroom. Specifications grading is a form of grading that firmly anchors the assessment process in student learning outcomes (Nilson, 2015). The concept is simple: Students are provided with clearly written, measurable specifications that their assignments must meet, and then their work is graded on a pass/fail basis. A threshold or benchmark can be established to determine what percentage or combination of the specifications must be successfully met by the student in order to pass. Students can be provided with “tokens” that they can turn in for the opportunity to revise an assignment that did not meet specifications, submit late work, or drop low grades.

The specifications part of specifications grading may feel like a familiar approach for anyone who already engages in a backwards design (Wiggins, Wiggins, & McTighe, 2005)or traditional instructional systems design (e.g., Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2005)approach. Similarly, the pass/fail part will be familiar to people who have engaged in mastery learning experiences. 

Specifications grading offers benefits to both students and instructors. A specifications grading system, when thoughtfully designed, provides students with clearly identifiable opportunities to succeed in a course and, potentially, increased control over their course grades. For instructors, specifications grading can help streamline the grading process. It also adds rigor to any course, by setting clear expectations from the start.

Focus of Presentation

The presenters will share how specifications grading was designed and was introduced in three university classes. 

One class was an undergraduate educational technology class. In this class, many assignments were designed with three levels (no pass, pass, high pass) based on the number and types of skills displayed in the assignment. Pass level assignments, which carried the point equivalent of a C grade, required students to demonstrate mastery of baseline skills and knowledge, whereas high pass assignments (equivalent to an A grade) needed to demonstrate mastery of both baseline and advanced skills and knowledge and to complete larger scale projects. 

The second class was a masters level class with a heavy practical component. In this class, students had a menu of assignments to choose from, and two versions of some assignments. On multi-version assignments, the lesser version (grade equivalent: B) ensured baseline course outcomes were met, but these assignments required less effort and engagement than the higher level (grade equivalent: A) assignments. Students were required to complete satisfactorily in order to pass the class, and the levels at which they completed the assignments determined their final grade. 

The third class was a doctoral research seminar. In this class all assignments and participation were graded with a single level of pass. The premise as presented to these students was that they were being prepared for a system that functions on a pass / fail basis with occasional opportunities for revision (e.g., comprehensive exams, dissertations, publishing, and tenure). In this sense, specifications grading is more authentic for these students than a traditional A-F system.

All three classes offered students tokens which could be submitted for permission to submit an assignment late or to revise an assignment that was submitted on time and did not meet specifications. 

Advantages of Specifications Grading

Students shared that with specifications grading the assignment expectations were much clearer than they experienced in other classes, which increased their confidence in their ability to perform. The undergraduates attended more to the feedback they received than they had in the past, and were able to identify any shortcomings before revising assignments. 

In all classes, the instructors noted that students submitted strong work no matter which version of the assignment they completed. In past terms, the instructors had struggled to assign grades to students who had clearly tried to complete an assignment the night before or who did assignments haphazardly. In the masters level class, many of these assignments asked students to observe a phenomenon or collect data across multiple days or weeks. With the specifications version of the course, students who did not want to engage at that level could do the other version of the assignment. These students were confident that they would receive a B for their efforts, and the instructor found that these assignments were well done. In other words, the B represented strong work and mastery of core course concepts. Students could be proud of their B work, and did not submit sub-standard work and worry about whether or not the instructor would grade it generously. Similarly, in the undergraduate class students knew what to focus on if they lacked the time or interest to work for an A. 

All of the instructors reported that they saved time on grading, and shifted their time from determining grades (e.g., how much should be deducted?) to providing meaningful feedback to students. This shift made grading a more pleasing endeavor, and instructors reported being less likely to procrastinate on grading tasks. Additionally, specifications grading reduced the number of emails with questions about assignments because students knew what to expect. Finally, instructors felt that the grading process was more rigorous and less prone to making exceptions or inconsistencies across students.

Disadvantages of Specifications Grading

Some undergraduate students struggled to adjust to specifications grading on a conceptual level.  These students were eager to know the point values associated with each element of their coursework. There were, of course, point values associated with the different assignments, but the concept of meeting specifications and earning full points ran counter to their expectations that they could request partial points or extra credit. In other words, students who might be inclined to engage in “grade grubbing” found the specifications system frustrating because it prohibited that practice. Although the students had the opportunity to submit a token and revise their work, they still tried to negotiate for higher grades without making revisions. However, the course policy was clear, as was how to improve one’s grade, and the instructors did not need to engage in these conversations. 

Session Outline

We will begin this session by providing an overview of specifications grading and its benefits for course instructors. Next, we will share how a specifications grading system was designed into each of our three example classes. For each class, we will show the overall grading structure, and share examples of assignment specifications. We will demonstrate how the system was set up in the Canvas Learning Management System, including the tokens. Additionally, we will discuss how the students reacted to the shift to a specifications grading approach, along with the benefits that the instructors experienced. Finally, we will engage the audience in a discussion of how specifications grading might be implemented in different types of online classes. During this part of the session, we will use worksheets to help audience members visualize how to use specifications grading in their classes.

Audience Engagement and Handouts

The audience will be engaged in multiple ways. We will use audience feedback software to poll for ideas at multiple points during the session (e.g., “What is your biggest grading challenge?” or “Which specifications approach would you most like to try?”). 

We will make our examples of specifications grading course designs available to everyone for download.

We will provide worksheets as handouts to help our audience sketch out what a specifications system might look like in one of their classes. 

Toward the end of the session, we will hold a group discussion. Ideally, we would like to have an audience member or two share information about their class so the whole room could help brainstorm approaches to designing a specifications system.


Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. O. (2005). The systematic design of instruction(6th ed.). New York, NY: Allyn & Bacon.

Nilson, L. B. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time: Stylus Publishing.

Wiggins, G., Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005).Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.