Gauging Grades: 15 Minutes with Catherine Ross

Grading student work is an instructional topic that faculty often have the most questions about, says Catherine Ross, executive director of Wake Forest University’s Teaching and Learning Center. Last spring, Ross had the opportunity to develop a grading method for a new course she was teaching and decided to try something new. In the following interview, Ross talks about her experiment, in which she allowed students to choose how they would be graded in the course, using either traditional points and weighted categories, or using a form of specifications grading.

Before telling us about your new grading method, can you first give us your definition of specifications grading?

I would use a colleague’s nutshell definition, which is that all assignments are evaluated as pass–fail, using detailed lists of criteria, which you can think of as checklists or a single-row rubric. Students then are empowered to use the checklists to attain the grade they want.

Why did you decide to try a new grading method, and how did you implement it in your class?


Catherine Ross

There have always been problems in higher education with grading, from the time it takes, to trying to be fair, to students’ understanding of what it takes to earn a specific grade. These are the most troubling areas that I hear about again and again from faculty.

Our center runs a book discussion group with faculty every semester. One semester we read Linda Nilson‘s book Specifications Grading. We had so many people sign up that we had to do two sections, which tells us grading is of great interest to faculty.

So this past spring, I was asked to design and teach a new course and it hit me that this was a golden opportunity for an experiment with grading.

I decided to experiment by letting students choose how they would be graded. I’ve always been interested in the power dynamics in the classroom, and I thought letting students choose how they wanted to be graded is one significant way to turn some power over to students. I wanted to see how they would react, and the response was nearly unanimous: Almost all students chose to use specifications grading.

For more on effective grading, see ACUE’s module on Developing Fair, Consistent, and Transparent Grading Practices

Do students need to complete a certain number of items on the checklist in order to pass?

Faculty can design the kind of grading system that best suits their context. That’s part of the freedom. Students in Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading system are given what are called tokens. Typically students are given two or three tokens, which they can give back to the teacher in exchange for rewriting an assignment that they didn’t pass, or submitted late.

It’s up to the instructor what the tokens can be used for, so there’s a little wiggle room built in that way. You might do it differently with all freshmen versus all seniors. But the bottom line is this: An assignment is easier to grade when you’re not trying to decide how many points to give something and you can focus on whether it meets the specifications.

See also: The Science of Students’ Brains: 15 Minutes with Terry Doyle

How do students respond to this kind of freedom on their side?

There are students who are not going to prioritize certain courses. Some faculty may disagree with me, but I think that to respect the students it’s fair to say “If you really just want a C in this class, here’s what you need to do to get it.” My hope is that I can inspire them to aim higher, but I feel like I need to respect their decision and their priorities. By telling them what they need for an A or a B or a C, you’re allowing them to prioritize their own lives and make their own choices in a way that traditional grading doesn’t always allow for.

How could an instructor implement Specifications Grading for single assignments?

Homework is often a really good place to start because it’s low stakes. But it does provide a pretty powerful incentive for students to then do the homework because they’re getting some kind of grade. I think trying it out on just a couple of assignments at first is a good way for instructors to take small steps toward this kind of grading, see if they’re comfortable with it, and observe how their students respond to it.

See also: Learning Never Ends: 15 Minutes with Ann Pearson and Jan Tillman

What are the main positive takeaways, and what do you think you’ll change?

The students took it very seriously and took the responsibility on themselves to receive the grade they deserved. That was amazing. It did save me time, which was another positive. It also motivated students to maintain their effort throughout the entire course because of how I had organized the specifications and requirements.

I would probably add more specifications to my assignments. I would rethink the exam grading and see if there’s a way to make that closer to specifications grading than the 100-point scale—although no one complained and it still worked well. Also, I have to rethink how the absence and attendance policies play into the specifications grades because that part I didn’t quite get worked out the right way.

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