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?

Starting with the positives: the students are really into this system. As I explained it, the non-verbal cues were very reassuring—lots of head nods, smiles, and excitement. I even caught a few ‘awesomes!’ from a couple of students. At the time, at least, I observed no negative reactions (frowns, closed body language) and so far no one has complained about the system. This might change as we move along, but I was happy that the initial response was so positive. There were two points that got the biggest positive responses from my students. The first time was when I discussed the ability to choose their own grade and that getting it simply required completing all the bundles for that grade, thus putting the power of their grades into their hands. They liked the idea that they could choose to aim for an A, B, or C in the class with clear intention and without reprisal. The second point of excitement came when I introduced the token system, which they pretty much universally loved.  Students start the course with two tokens (with the opportunity to earn more throughout the semester) that they can turn in to get an extension, forgive an absence, or for a second attempt on an assignment. There’s a certain dignity in being able to just say ‘my assignment will be late, here’s a token’ as opposed to having to tell t heir instructor why the assignment was late and beg for clemency.

Speaking of tokens, so far I too am loving this system. Quite a few have used tokens already on their initial assignments. My students really like having this flexibility over their deadlines. They don’t have to provide me with an explanation for why their work is late, or suffer an impact on their grade, and I don’t have to play judge to adjudicate the worthiness of their excuse. They simply say they want to use a token, and I subtract it from their total, no questions asked. It is saving us all a lot of time and bother.

A final positive is the support from our teaching and learning experts at the Faculty Development Center (FDC). They are really interested and engaged in my efforts, and provided essential support in the form of resources on this and other systems, technical expertise in maximizing the features of Canvas to support this style of grading, and even invitations to their Reflective Teaching Community and an upcoming conference on teaching and learning.

Of course, these past couple of weeks have also seen their share of challenges.

First, it took a LONG time to review the syllabus and explain the system during the first week of class. The syllabus review spilled into the second class period, as the twenty minutes I reserve for that (following my introductory discussion and playing Zendo) was not sufficient given all the changes. Students had a lot of questions about the system as well, which I should have anticipated. I will need to allocate more time in the future to review these details.

As for the syllabus itself, I’m pretty happy with it, but feedback from the FDC indicated that my chart—seen in the last post, which summarized all the assignments, duedates, and requirements for each bundle—was actually more confusing than it was clarifying. Another change for the future, then.

As anticipated, writing out the specs for each assignment is taking some time and consideration. I’m mostly going with a point-based system on homeworks, where satisfactory requires 75%+ of the available points on the assignment, and excellent requires 90%+ as well as more work. As an example: typically where I require satisfactory level students to do 3 out of 5 examples, excellent level students have to do all 5, AND score 90%+. Again, once this is done, I shouldn’t have to do this again.

A bigger challenge has been Canvas, our learning management system. Quite simply, Canvas is not well-equipped to handle non-standard grading systems. The default grading methods are letter grades, percentages, points, complete/incomplete, and GPA scale. At first, I set everything to complete/incomplete. This would be fine if I was doing a simple pass/fail system, but since I am using an excellent/satisfactory/unsatisfactory system, this really wouldn’t work. Next I tried creating my own grading scheme using a feature of the system, but it still wanted to translate this to points and percentages. Eventually, on the advice of my colleague in the FDC, I turned everything into 3 point assignments: 3 for excellent, 2 satisfactory, 1 unsatisfactory, and 0 for never attempted. I will still have to make it clear in the syllabus and in class that the canvas grade tracking is not important—students can’t use the percentages or points in the system to figure out their grade in the class, but instead must go by what is listed in the syllabus as required for each grade.

Another challenge has been that many students had technical and other difficulties with the first assignment—at least four or five students required tokens, either because they couldn’t find the assignment in canvas, didn’t know how to turn it in, didn’t understand the deadlines, or because they didn’t understand the material, in part due to my rushing through it thanks to the lost time in week 1 from extended review of the syllabus. I did extend the deadlines, but since a number of students still had issues, this felt insufficient. I decided to forgive all late assignments in weeks 1 and 2, with tokens being required starting week 3. In the future, I’m going to note in the syllabus that the first set of assignments can get a free 24 hour extension, no tokens needed, just to accommodate these technology issues as students adjust to the system.

One final struggle in these early weeks: I haven’t figured out yet how to award new tokens for high-level participation. I don’t want to be too generous or too stingy with tokens but I have not figured out a balance yet. In fact, so far I have yet to award a token for participation, even though there have been some great comments. I’ve had one case where a student gave a token-worthy answer during discussion…but seemed to sleep through a ten-minute period of the class before then. To token, or not to token? I still haven’t decided.

That’s it for now. I’ll report back again in a few weeks as midterms approach to see how things settle down with the class.



One Reply to “Specifications Grading in Practice, Weeks 1 and 2”

  1. This may or may not be relevant for people who use Canvas: I use a point-based grading system. I used to lump assignments into different groups in the Assignments screen, but in the Canvas gradebook this created columns denoted in percentages — as in “scored 86.7% on this set of assignments” — with no notation about the weight of that group on the final grade. Students would fixate on the percentages, which were meaningless, and get completely inaccurate perceptions of their performance, despite my repeated statements that the final grade was determined only by total points earned. So I have abandoned putting assignments into differently labeled groups.

    Second item: in the Canvas gradebook, there is an option for displaying the final grade as a percentage or as points earned. People can hover over the “Total” column on the far right of the gradebook and toward the right side of the column header a small black arrow will appear. Click it and the option for displaying the grade as a percentage or as total points earned will appear. I always have to remember to select the points option.

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