Specifications Grading #5: End of Term Report and Reflections

Well, my first experience with specifications grading is almost over, and with the semester drawing to a close, it’s time to reflect on the experiment. Find my first entry on specs grading here, and previous entries on this experiment can be found here, here, here, ad here. But now, here are my top 5 take-aways and lessons learned from specifications grading:


#5: Specifications Grading is more work up front, but much less at the end and moving forward

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Conferences done right: POD 2016

Hi ALPS land!  I recently attended the 2016 POD Network conference in Louisville, KY, and while my recollections may be due to bourbon-fueled fantasy, I’m pretty sure that they schooled us American political scientists in how to run a conference.  Now, granted, they had only about 950 people whereas our national conferences draw thousands, but I still think that we have a lot to learn about how to make a weekend very productive.

My continual problem with conferences is that there is rarely a reason to attend traditional panels.  Usually they consist of four or five presentations of papers made available on a website,, discussant comments aimed at the papers rather than engendering conversations, panelist responses to those comments that, again, focus on what they tried to do in the paper, and, if the chair has managed to keep everyone to their time limits, perhaps 5 minutes of Q&A.

This is a waste of our time.  There, I said it.

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Specs Grading Update #4: On poor syllabus design, late work, and the woes of grading

It’s time for another specifications grading update! These posts are my attempt to be highly transparent about the benefits and challenges of using this method in my research methods class this semester, with all the trials and tribulations and the reflection and changes they prompt here on display.  Check out Posts 1, 2, and 3 if you haven’t already, or for a deep dive into the ins-and-outs of specifications grading as a system, take a look at our extensive discussions on the subject over the last year.

Today’s topics: requiring so much that I set up my students to fail; dealing with late work; and how all that grading is going. In other words, let’s talk about how even extensive reflection and consideration can result in basic syllabus mistakes that pose unacceptable challenges to students.

Let’s start with this basic question: Why in the world did I require 21 assignments? Yes, pedagogically speaking, this made sense: these assignments, collectively, added up the basic knowledge required of an introductory methods course. They covered topics such as writing research questions and hypotheses to measurement, ethics, sampling, correlation v. causation, and everything else. Back in the summer, I spent a lot of time considering whether to require everything, or allow students to complete some smaller number or percentage of the total.

This student just failed my class due to poor syllabus-making on my part.
This student just failed my class due to poor syllabus-making on my part.

Here’s the problem: if a student completes twenty assignments with a satisfactory or higher score, but misses assignment #21 because they forgot or overslept or had a family emergency, then according to my syllabus they fail the course outright. Sure, the tokens help with this, letting students get a 24 hour extension per token, up to 72 hours—but what if they don’t have enough tokens in the bank, or they completely forget for a week or more? These students FAIL THE COURSE.

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A great loss to our community

Dr. Danielle Langfield
Dr. Danielle Langfield

This week the ALPS team is mourning the loss of Dr. Danielle Langfield, who passed away of natural causes on September 26, 2016.  Dr. Langfield was a celebrated teacher and scholar at Marist College, where she was an assistant professor of comparative politics, as well as a former VAP at College of Wooster, and an occasional guest contributor to ALPS.  Her work on the use of real-world cases in simulations was published recently in Journal of Political Science Education. She was a passionate teacher and many of her students since her death have called her an inspiration and cited the incredible impact she had on them.  It is a great loss to the entire political science profession and the scholarship of teaching and learning community.

Audio Assignments, Oral Communication, and Accessibility

I’m taking a break from specs grading this week–not because I don’t have anything to write about, but actually because I’m too busy writing specs and grading homework modules to write up everything that’s going on.  Plus we are in the midst of a search, and I’m buried in applications.  I’ll be back on topic next week with my thoughts about grading, and some micro adjustments I had to make to the course as a result of my reflections.

When I’m not talking about specs grading, I try to share some quick and easy ideas for teaching that can make a big difference. These often fall into the vein of James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching, both his book and his series over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (definitely worth checking out!).

Today’s idea is about using audio and oral assignments in the classroom.

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Specs Grading Update #3: On Partial Credit, Following Directions, and the Awesomeness of Tokens.

I really thought I’d have little to write about on this subject until the midterm, but it turns out this specs grading experiment is requiring all kinds of reflection and micro-adjustments on my part, and thus I have plenty to share this week.

See my previous posts on converting my research methods course to specs grading, and insights from the first two weeks. Up this week are three reflections following the first few weeks of class and the grading of the first few assignments.

For those new to specs grading, see more general posts here, here, here, and here.

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Specifications Grading in Practice, Weeks 1 and 2

Week 1 of my newly-transformed specs grading course, research methods, is in the history bin, and I have much to report. As you may recall, I decided to overhaul my research methods course with this new system over the summer, and am teaching it for the first time this semester. Here on ALPS I will be chronicling my experience with the course, sharing with you the ups and downs over the course of the semester.

Check out my initial post on Day 0 here, and previous posts on specs grading here here, here, and here.

So how did my first two weeks go?

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