Specification Grading In An Online Course

Today we have another post by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.

This summer for the first time I am teaching an online version of my judicial process course, Law Courts and Politics. I adopted a specifications grading system, something that has been discussed by people like Linda Nilson at Inside Higher Ed and Amanda Rosen on this blog. With specifications grading all assignments are graded on a satisfactory or unsatisfactory basis and course grades are based on assignment bundles.

My course is five weeks long with a distinct theme for each week’s lesson. Each lesson includes an online quiz made up of multiple choice and short essay questions on the textbook (Corley, Ward and Martinek’s American Judicial Process ), various discussion topics on the text, other assigned readings, video and audio, as well as a 600-750 word writing assignment. Each of these elements—quizzes, discussion, and the writing assignment, along with a summative assignment for those wishing earn a B or an A—are tied to course learning objectives. The grade bundles are as follows:

  • D: Students must earn 65% of the quiz points, satisfactorily participate in three of five lesson discussions, and complete one satisfactory writing assignment;
  • C: 75% of the quiz points, satisfactory participation in all five lesson discussions, and earn a grade of satisfactory on three lesson writing assignments;
  • B and A: 80% of the quiz points, satisfactory participation in all five lesson discussions, and earn a grade of satisfactory on all five lesson writing assignments. Students must complete a summative assignment. B students must write a reflection essay. A students must complete an observational research assignment where they visit two courts. In addition to detailing the system  in the syllabus, I created a chart similar to one made by Robert Talbert.

I have given each student four tokens that they can redeem to retake a quiz, make up for one weekly discussion that doesn’t meet the standard, or to revise a paper that did not meet the specified criteria. An additional token can be used to revise the summative assignment.

Much of the work is developing detailed satisfactory/unsatisfactory specifications for assignments. I had a leg up here as I had written detailed assignments, including rubrics, in previous iterations of the course. I have also been using Transparency in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education to help write transparent assignments.

I am one week into the course and so far, so good. I created a forum for students to ask questions about the grading system, and I have only gotten a few so far. Once I set up the rubrics, they were relatively easy to apply. However, I find it difficult to grade on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis. On two essays and one discussion I gave students satisfactory grades but warned them that the same performance would be unsatisfactory in the future. I have promised myself I won’t do that again.

I will report back on my use of specifications grading once the course is complete. I am happy to share the syllabus, assignment specifications, and the grade checklist with anyone who is interested.