What is Specification Grading?

Specification grading integrates aspects of mastery grading (meeting proficiency before continuing to the next topic), competency-based grading (expands on mastery but allows students to determine the level of competency met by selecting specific assessments to complete), and contract grading (students negotiate a contract with the instructor to complete specific amount or type of assessments) to ensure students meet the learning objectives for a course (Nilson 2015, Bonner 2016, Towsley and Schmid 2020, Howitz et al. 2021).

The four main principles for specifications grading are the following:

  1. explicitly stated learning objectives that are aligned to course assessments,
  2. well-designed assessments that use pass/fail specifications to ensure mastery of content,
  3. tiered or bundled assessments to earn different grades,
  4. and options for resubmitting work that does not initially meet learning objectives (Nilson 2015, Towsley and Schmid 2020, Howitz et al. 2021).

Thus, the main distinctions between specification grading and other types of alternative grading frameworks are the use of pass/fail criteria (specifications) for assignments and assessments (Towsley and Schmid 2020, Howitz et al. 2021).

Benefits of Specification Grading

Instructors and students can benefit when specification grading is implemented in a course. The use of specification grading refocuses student mindsets from earning points and grades to demonstrating learning by meeting learning objectives. Students show more ownership for their learning, are less likely to cheat, and are more motivated to learn when specification grading is used compared to traditional grading systems (Nilson 2015). Surveys on student perceptions of specification grading indicate that most students liked the transparency for how their grade was determined in the course, the ability to select the assignments to complete to earn the grade they wanted in the course, and the descriptive feedback provided prior to being able to resubmit assignments (Towsley and Schmid 2020). Instructors reported using specification grading was less subjective and reduced grading workload and that students came to office hours to discuss course materials instead of complaining about and negotiating for better grades (Howitz et al. 2021). Additionally, due to the specification being explicitly stated, instructors found it easy to align the course to accreditation requirements or outcomes (Towsley and Schmid 2020).

Possible Challenges with Specification Grading

Specification grading does pose some challenges due primarily to the time required to design the course using this method and gaining student buy-in for using this grading method. Because specification grading uses bundles of assignments for each grade within a unit or for the overall course, it is important to spend time developing this structure and ensuring that all assignments and assessments are ready for students to work on from the beginning of the semester (or at least at the start of each unit within the course). Therefore, specification grading requires an extensive time investment prior to starting the course to ensure that all aspects (assignments, assessments, resubmission requirements, alternative exams, etc.) are well aligned to the learning objectives and that bundles (or tiers) used for grades are correctly formed to accurately assess student learning (Towsley and Schmid 2020). It is recommended that instructors planning to implement specification grading for the first time use a well-established course to reduce the workload and ensure that common issues and misconceptions students will have related to the learning objectives are well understood and anticipated (Towsley and Schmid 2020). It is much easier to align learning objectives to assessments, determine the level of competency (what is needed for student to earn different grades for each learning objective), and create bundles or tiers for specification grading in a course that has already been taught (Towsley and Schmid 2020).

The second challenge with specification grading, as well as most types of standards-based grading systems, is gaining student buy-in for the use of this grading system. For most students, specification grading will be new and different from the types of grading they have experienced for most of their education. Students may be confused, frustrated, anxious, or otherwise resistant to this system of grading if instructors do not explain the grading process often and with detail (Howitz et al. 2021). Instructors need to explain why specification grading is being used in the class, how students can earn specific grades, how specification rubrics are used for individual assignments, and how retakes and resubmissions work in the course. These details on how grading will work need to be repeated often to remind students that certain expectations need to be met to be successful in the course (Howitz et al. 2021). Overall, the more information and the more often the information is provided will help students understand how they are being graded, increasing student buy-in, and reducing student frustration and stress (Howitz et al. 2021).

How to Implement Specification Grading

Specification grading requires a few additional steps to implement compared to other types of standards-based grading frameworks. Similar to other types of alternative grading systems, specification grading begins by creating student learning objectives and then developing assignments and assessments that allow students to show their understanding of these learning objectives (Nilson 2015, Bonner 2016). Assessments are then placed into bundles or tiers for one or more learning objectives (similar to competency-based grading) with different bundles or tiers representing different grades for the learning objective, unit of study, or course (Table 1; Nilson 2015, Bonner 2016, Howitz et al. 2021). Students are then given autonomy on how many and to what level of competency they complete assignments or assessments with higher grades earned by completing bundled items that included higher performance (higher percentage accurate on assignments), more assignments, or additional components (Nilson 2015, Howitz et al. 2021). Thus, students determine the grade they want for the unit or course by completing the assessments in the bundle for a specific grade (Table 1).

Table 1. Example of Specification Grading using Bundles for determining Student Grades. Students must earn all parts of a bundle to earn the grade associated with that grade bundle.
Grade Weekly Quizzes Midterm Project Unit Exams Additional Requirements
Bundle 1 Requirements to earn a C in the course Earn at least a 70% on 10 of the 15 quizzes Met 12 of the 20 specifications on the project rubric Earn at least a 70% on each learning objective in the unit exams No additional requirements
Bundle 2 Requirements to earn a B in the course Earn at least an 80% on 12 of the 15 quizzes Met 15 of the 20 specifications on the project rubric Earn at least an 80% on each learning objective in the unit exams Students complete one additional assignment for each unit with at least a 70% for each learning objective in the assignment
Bundle 3 Requirements to earn an A in the course Earn at least an 80% on all 15 quizzes Met 18 of the 20 specifications on the project rubric Earn at least a 90% on each learning objective in the unit exams Students complete three additional assignments for each unit with at least an 80% for each learning objective in the assignment

One major difference in specification grading is that each assessment has many specific criteria (specifications) that are designed as pass/fail items usually presented to students in a table similar to a rubric (Table 2; Nilson 2015, Howitz et al. 2021). These specification rubrics differ from traditional rubrics in that only two levels are used (satisfactory/unsatisfactory) with the requirements for satisfactory work being well-defined. Thus, traditional rubrics already used for an assessment will need to be rewritten to have each specification cover a single, well-defined aspect of the project. For example, a traditional rubric for a research paper may give four points for writing conventions (grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.). In the specification grading rubric, each aspect of writing conventions would become its own specification (Table 2). By using specification rubrics, students receive detailed feedback on which aspects of the assignment are missing or below standard and can revise their work for resubmission (Nilson 2015). To meet standard for the assessment and have it count toward completing the bundle, students must then meet a specific number of specifications (70% or 80% is typically used but can be adjusted depending on the assessment or course) or revise and resubmit the assessment until it meets the requirements (Nilson 2015).

Table 2. Comparison of a traditional rubric and a specification rubric for writing conventions in a written assessment.
Traditional Rubric Criteria Excellent (4 points) Good (2 points) Poor (0 points)
Writing Conventions The paper is well written, has few misspelled words, uses proper grammar and punctuation, and follows MLA formatting. The paper has many errors including misspelled words, improper use of grammar and punctuation and does not follow many aspects of MLA formatting The paper is difficult to read because of many misspelled words, major issues with grammar and punctuation and does not follow any aspects of MLA formatting.
Specification Rubric Criteria Satisfactory Unsatisfactory
Writing Conventions Specifications   
Fewer than 5 words are misspelled in the paper.   
Only one or two sentences contain grammatical errors.   
All punctuation is correctly applied in the paper.   
MLA formatting is used correctly in 90% of the paper.   

Resubmission and retakes of assessments are also incorporated into specification grading. Instructors can use any method for students to resubmit assignments, but most specification grading systems use a token approach that allows students a specific number of resubmission or retakes on assessments during a semester (Nilson 2015, Cilli-Turner et al. 2020). For example, an instructor may determine that students can resubmit only five assignments. Thus, students need to determine which assignment or assessment is essential for resubmission and use a token when turning in the revised work. In some token systems, instructors provide opportunities for students to earn tokens instead of giving a predetermined number of tokens (Nilson 2015, Cilli-Turner et al. 2020, Howitz et al. 2021).

Although these instructions will help with developing a course using specification grading, the following resources may also be helpful when first designing and implementing specification grading.

Bonner, M. W. (2016). Grading rigor in counselor education: A specifications grading framework. Educational Research Quarterly 39.4: 21-42.

Cilli-Turner, E., J. Dunmyre, T. Mahoney, and C. Wiley (2020). Mastery grading: Build-a-syllabus workshop. PRIMUS 30: 952-978.

Howitz, W. J., K. J. McKnelly, and R. D. Link (2021). Developing and Implementing a Specifications grading system in an Organic Chemistry laboratory course. Journal of Chemical Education 98: 385-394.

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

Townsley, M. and D. Schmid (2020). Alternative grading practices: An entry point for faculty in competency-based education. Competency-based Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/cbe2.1219.

"What is Specifications Grading" was written by Michelle Larson. Published to the website January 30, 2023.

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