Implementing Specifications Grading: What, Why, How?

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

In this interactive session, participants will learn about specifications grading, what it is, why it is beneficial, and how it was implemented in an online undergraduate research course. The presenter will share student perceptions of the change. Participants will leave with tools to apply specifications grading to their online courses.



Beverly Dabney is an Associate Professor of Nursing at the University of Michigan-Flint. Her academic degrees include an MSN from the University of Michigan in Nursing/Nursing Administration in 2008 and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2013. Her primary teaching focus is in the online Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) program. Dr. Dabney uses creative and evidence-based high quality and high impact practices to educate her students. She consistently works to improve her courses and is highly responsive to the needs of students. Her student education research is used to inform changes in instruction and course design.

Extended Abstract

Is there a better way of assessing students? Does a grade actually indicate a level of competency or the attainment of specific skills? What is the difference between 87% and 91% on an assignment? How do we get students to focus on learning and not the number of points they receive? In this session, we will explore specifications grading as an effective method of addressing questions such as these.

For many students, grades are the most stressful part of a course and for many instructors, grades are the least favorite part of teaching. There is growing discussion of the need for reforms in grading practices related to students focusing on points instead of learning, grade curving forcing competition and pushing out students from marginalized groups, and students’ perceptions that a grade is bestowed upon them by the instructor instead of the student earning the grade (Nilson, 2015; Schinske & Tanner, 2014 ).

In this session, we will explore specifications grading. We will review what it is and why making this change in student assessment can be beneficial to both students and faculty. The presenter will share how specifications grading was designed and implemented in an online undergraduate research course as well as how students reacted to the assessment change. 

This session will provide participants with knowledge and practical ideas for using specifications grading including:

  1. How to clearly educate students on specifications grading and obtain student buy-in

  2. The process of developing “specifications” aligned to student learning outcomes

  3. How to create new assignments or tweak current assignments to work with specifications grading.

  4. Strategies for LMS course design when using specifications grading  

  5. Language to include in the syllabus

  6. Final course grading approaches



Overview of specifications grading

Reflection on issues with grading

Overview of the development and implementation of specifications grading

Workshop an assignment using specifications grading

Conclusion and wrap-up

Come to the session with a course in mind that you might consider transitioning to specifications grading. Bring an assignment of your own that you would like to explore transitioning to specifications grading or an idea of an assignment you would like to create.  Participants will be provided with resources and templates shared during the session and can expect to leave this interactive presentation with a broad understanding of specifications grading and practical strategies for implementing in their own online courses.


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

Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching more by grading less (or differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159-166.