Follow-Up on Slack and Specification Grading

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.

Earlier this summer I wrote about two changes that I made to my five-week online summer course, Law, Courts and Politics: using Slack for class communication and specifications grading. Both experiments were a success.


Slack was a great addition. I found it easy to set up and to use. Students liked it. Thanks to the resources I noted in my earlier post, I created a simple structure: channel for each week was the home of announcements, files, links, and discussion — the center of the course. The introduction channel gave students the ability to practice and the questions forum got some use, especially early in the term.

Because Slack has excellent apps for all mobile and computer platforms, I hoped that it would encourage regular communication, which it did. Total posts in the weekly channels ranged from 62 in week 2 to 90 in week 4. I posted reminders and introduced topics, but most posts were from the students. Nine or ten students active each week; one student never posted in the weekly discussion forums. I was pleased that a group of students began posting mid-week and continued through the end of the week. Students picked up quickly on hashtags for topics and connecting to their fellow students via the @ symbol, which facilitated interaction. Posts were fairly long too, especially when you consider they were writing on their phones. I had expected phone use to result in short responses to comments, but that didn’t happen.

Students also wrote about 75 direct messages to me. Some were responses to my evaluations of their discussion performance, but there were also questions on grading, writing assignments, and deadlines. These were easy for me to answer regardless of whether I was in the office or not.

A brief survey, completed by nine of the course’s eleven students, found that:

  • Eight of the students either strongly agreed (6) or agreed (2) with the statement “I liked using Slack for class communication, including discussion.”
  • Eight students would encourage a professor to use it in the future.
  • Eight students primarily used their phone.

One student summed things up nicely: “Really easy to use, i took another summer course that used blackboards tool for communication, and that doesn’t work anywhere near as well as slack.”

I highly recommend Slack for courses with significant out-of-class communication needs.

Specification Grading

With specifications grading, I wanted a simple grading system in terms of structure and work load, and it succeeded on both counts. It helped me to produce good work and saved me time. Students quickly understood and adapted to it . Grades were higher than in past iterations of the course, of the eleven students, four earned As and four earned Bs, but the work was very good. I believe that the clarity of specifications grading to students contributed to students’ performance.

Of the eight students to respond to this portion of the survey:

  • Six of them either strongly agreed (2) or agreed (4) that they understood the system.
  • Six either strongly agreed (4) or agreed (2) that the system was fair.
  • Six either strongly agreed (4) or agreed (2) that specifications grading helped them “meet my goals for learning in this class.”
  • Half of the respondents believed that the workload of the course was too high; one student told me in the survey that “It’s a summer class, chill.”

I expected two elements of specification grading to be difficult: explaining to students in detail what was needed to earn a satisfactory grade, and being willing to define work as unsatisfactory and not deserving of any credit. Unsurprisingly, more clarity in expectations made deciding whether work was satisfactory or not, and communicating about unsatisfactory work, easier. And with tokens, a second chance system existed. Students could resubmit work. With one exception early in the semester, students did not complain about unsatisfactory grades. Students used the tokens: nine of the students used at least one, and two students used all four tokens. I did change the requirement that students were required to have satisfactory discussion in all five weeks of the course. In week two I switched the requirement to four.

By the third week grading became routine. I managed to grade essays and discussion quickly using the rubric in Blackboard and sent brief comments to students in Slack.

I felt good enough about the results that I am implementing specification grading in my introductory U.S. Government course this fall. It is a much larger course of mostly first-year students, so I expect implementing specifications grading to be more of a challenge. More on this later.