Assessment Case Study - Specifications Grading in Science

Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

June 26, 2017


“This grading scheme removed a ton of anxiety and stress about all the little things that I don’t want students stressing about.” – Dr. Kyla Flanagan



Kyla Flanagan teaches SCIE 511/CMCL 507: Peer Mentoring, at the University of Calgary. It is a service-learning course, where highly engaged undergraduate students in the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Arts have the opportunity to learn about the theory of mentorship and facilitation. Students participate in a practicum, where they apply their knowledge by being a Peer Mentor in a class they have previously taken.

The students in Dr. Flanagan’s course are incredibly driven but can also be very grade-focused. Due to the service-learning nature of the course, many of the assessments in the class are written reflections, where the intention is for students to integrate theory with their own mentoring experience. In the past, the purpose and learning opportunities of these assessments were diminished because students focused on writing what they thought would get them a good grade, instead of putting the focus on genuine critical reflection.

Dr. Flanagan felt her students were not getting as much value from their assessments as they could. When she heard about Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading method, she felt that it was an excellent fit for her course.


To implement Specifications Grading, Dr. Flanagan re-designed the course from the ground up. She thought a lot about the purpose and goals of the course and had to decide what the essential outcomes of the course were. In addition, due to the different approaches to grading used, the course outline and description of the grading method had to be very clear so that students fully understood how the course worked.

From this re-design, the course had 4 learning outcomes:

  • Practicum – Apply theories of learning and tools for teaching during the mentorship of peers in your host class
  • Foundational Concepts – explain and describe different theories of learning, tools for teaching and approaches to mentorship
  • Reflection – Write critical reflections on experiences linking foundational concepts of learning/mentoring and the practice of teaching/mentorship
  • Facilitation – Apply theories of group management, engagement, team building, and conflict resolution during facilitation within SCIE 511/CMCL 507

Each outcome was associated with an assessment Learning Bundle. The number of these bundles that the student chose to complete determined their grade in the course. For example, students who aimed to earn an A, had to complete all 4 of the Learning Bundles, students who choose to earn a B, had to complete Learning Bundles 1-3. Each Learning Bundle had specific requirements and thresholds that the student had to meet for successful completion. For example, the most fundamental bundle was successfully completing the Practicum. This was the requirement to pass the course. The next bundle was Foundational Knowledge, where students were required to complete Reading Summaries of the required course readings. If they successfully met this outcome, they would get a C in the course. Students who wanted a B had to complete the Reflection bundle where they wrote critical reflections about how they used the theory from readings in their practicum. To achieve an A, students had to form a group and teach one of the course lectures. In this grading system, meeting an outcome does not mean just completing the assignment. It required students to achieve a specified (high) level of mastery. The majority of students completed all of the learning bundles, but some opted to do fewer.

Each individual assignment within the Learning Bundles was assessed with a two-level rubric, where students either Met the specifications or Did Not Meet the specifications. Students had to meet all the specifications for an individual assignment to receive credit for that assignment. Dr. Flanagan gave each student three “free passes”, which were chances to redo assignments that did not meet requirements. Students would receive feedback on what needed to be improved and could resubmit an assignment by submitting a free pass. In this course, students were able to take the feedback and meet the specifications on their second try.


Many students found the specifications grading freeing because they felt they had more control over their grades and learning. The rubrics used were simplified and allowed for more individual thought in assignments. If the specifications were met, students could be as creative with their written work as they wanted. The expectations were clear and students did not worry about trivial details as they had in the past. Learning and reflecting became the focus. Dr. Flanagan saw an increase in the quality of the work, particularly the reading summaries. Students also liked having the free passes and chances to redo work that did not meet expectations. It helped them learn that failure is a part of learning and not something to fear. It also removed some pressure from the students, as they had opportunities to learn from mistakes, rather than being penalized for them.

The major challenge that Dr. Flanagan had with Specifications Grading was figuring out how to organize and display grades since d2L is not designed for this method of assessment. Using spreadsheets was the solution she used.  Despite the difficulties in displaying the grades, the process of grading student work became much simpler. Grading time was reduced due to the clear expectations and the simplified rubrics. Flanagan notes that when she used traditional rubrics with different levels of competence, she often found herself deliberating about which level a student’s work fits into. With specifications grading, it was much clearer whether a student met an outcome or not.

Specifications grading has a lot of benefits, as Dr. Flanagan saw in her course. It can also be practiced in smaller ways, such as having a course with a normal grading scheme, but marking a single assignment with the specifications (met/did not meet) method. Flanagan admits that she is still hesitant to try this strategy in her larger classes, because of the work and organization it would require to implement. She does believe that it is an effective method and hopes to apply it more in the future.

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