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Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Take a SIP of this: Specifications grading as a tool for student self-direction.

March 15, 2018

MSU Denver class

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

It is 9 p.m. on a Sunday night. You spent much of yesterday and most of today grading and you still aren't done. You try to provide such thoughtful feedback to your students, but can't be sure that they read it. You picture the student who will ambush you after class, send a barrage of emails, and plead injustice during office hours, insisting that they "are an A student."

In thinking about your lost weekend, you wonder aloud, "Is there a better way?"

Try this: Specifications Grading

Specifications grading could be that "better way." The practice is much the same as more traditional approaches as students engage with course content and complete assignments as they are designed by the instructor.

Specifications grading is different from traditional grading in that students choose their final grade, complete a "bundle" of assignments and assessments that correspond with that grade, and individual assignments are evaluated on a pass/fail basis with feedback as appropriate with no opportunity for partial credit.

Using specifications grading, faculty:

  1. Create assignments and assessments that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills based on the course outcomes.
  2. Establish criteria for successful completion of an assignment and/or criteria for passing an assessment.
  3. "Bundle" assignments and assessments into groups that represent levels of learning consistent with final grades of 'A', 'B', 'C', and 'D'. Bundles increase in size, scope, and sophistication as the final grade get higher. The graphic below represents one conceptualization of this idea.
  4. Evaluate student work using pass/fail criteria. Individual assignments may include comments and feedback.

Visualization of specification grading system from Rebecca Dean's blog,

Using specifications grading, students:

  1. Identify the grade they would like to earn for the course.
  2. Complete the bundle of assignments and assessments that corresponds to their selected course grade.
  3. Ensure that their work meets the criteria for completion and quality, knowing that poor or partially completed work will not earn credit.
  4. Have a predetermined number of assignments they can revise and resubmit for credit.

Based on reports of those who have tried it, proponents of specifications grading state that it encourages students to be self-directed in their learning and achievement, it reduces opportunities for negotiating grades, it allows for increased freedom in providing more choices to students and it reduces the stress associated with grading schemes that require the instructor to assign specific point values.

Detractors of specifications grading point out that it requires a comprehensive plan for the course before the semester begins, lack of familiarity can cause confusion or frustration and there are fewer opportunities for making adjustments to the course after the semester begins.

Regardless, most reports on specifications grading indicate that it is a good opportunity to reexamine course goals and how students are meeting them. Adult learners typically respond positively to having more control over their grades and how they are earned. Pass/fail grading can decrease the emphasis on individual grades and refocus on course learning. Look at some of the resources below to decide whether specifications grading could be beneficial to both you and your students.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Specifications Grading

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher education classroom!

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