It’s been about six months since I first started writing about and using specifications grading in my courses. In that time, this method of grading seems to have piqued a lot of people’s curiosity. This summer as I’ve spoken at conferences and workshops, the topic of my talks has been flipped learning but the topic that everyone seems actually interested in is specs grading, if the number of grab-me-after-the-talk questions I’ve gotten is any indication. That interest is reflected on social media, on other blogs, and through emails I get out of the blue from Casting Out Nines readers. All of these people see, I think, what I saw when I first encountered specs grading: A way of evaluating student work that could really begin to transform how we work with students.

Because I’ve had so many people express interest in specs grading and specifically what I’ve learned from using it now in three different courses, I’m going to be posting in serialized form a technical report that puts all of my experiences together. I’ll be releasing this one chunk at a time here on the blog as I get it done, and then when it’s all over I plan to combine, edit, and ultimately post it somewhere as a free e-book for others to use. This post is the first chunk. So let’s get started.


The purpose of this technical report is to give an overview of specifications grading and my experiences with designing and implementing specs grading since I first encountered it in November 2014. This report will appear in six parts.

What is specifications grading and what problems does it solve?

Before reading any further, please note that the ultimate source so far about specifications grading is Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time by Linda Nilson. Most of what shows up in this section is paraphrased from Linda’s book. Her book goes much more into depth about specs grading and gives lots of use cases from various disciplines. Read it alongside this blog series. If you don’t have the time for Linda’s book, here is a short article that summarizes her main points pretty well.

Specifications grading (or “specs grading”) is a way of evaluating student work in which evaluated is done on the basis of whether, in the instructor’s best professional judgment, the work satisfies – or does not satisfy – criteria or “specifications” that signify acceptable quality. Some key features of specs grading include:

What problems does specs grading solve? Why dismantle traditional grading, when it’s so deeply ingrained in higher education and so familiar to all those involved? Here, I’m going to summarize Chapter 1 of Linda’s book in which she gives a devastating critique of traditional grading systems. These points are given as characteristics of an ideal grading system – which spec grading satisfies, and traditional grading does not.

  1. Specs grading supports high academic standards and academic rigor. I wrote about the connection between specs grading and rigor in this recent blog post. When students have clear expectations for professionally acceptable work, feedback that gives details rather than point totals, and opportunities to improve, then the instructor can hold very high standards without fear of repercussion and without worrying about dooming a student’s performance in the class.
  2. Specs grading explicitly links grades to student learning outcomes. Nilson makes the point that when a student gets a “B+” in a course with traditional grading, or an 87% on a test, it’s virtually impossible to know what the student knows and does not know. The grade carries no information. On the other hand, a “Pass” rating on an assignment in a specs grading class tells you exactly what threshhold has been attained – the description is in the specifications.
  3. Specs grading improves student motivation to learn. Because the concept of the “point” has been eliminated, in specs grading there is no extrinsic motivation to earn points which leads to point-grubbing. Instead the focus is on producing professionally acceptable work.
  4. Specs grading motivates student to excel. As we’ll see in my implementations, in specs grading students first choose the grade they want to earn and then work toward it, rather than work on everything and hope to get a decent grade. At all points, students can choose to step up and work toward a higher grade.
  5. Specs grading discourages cheating. As Nilson points out, this is for two reasons. First, without points in the picture, cheating to earn more points doesn’t even make sense; it’s more about the quality of work now than it is the amount of points earned. Second, specs grading by nature tends to focus on higher-order cognitive tasks that are inherently more resistant to cheating. (IMO this is the one point where I might disagree with Linda. I am not so sure that specs grading discourages cheating so much as it changes its form into something that’s easier to catch.)
  6. Specs grading lowers student stress. Since students have multiple opportunities to submit work, feedback from the instructor oriented toward helping them produce acceptable work, and plenty of choice, the pressure to earn a high enough grade on a test and so on is gone or at least significantly lowered.
  7. Specs grading helps students take more responsibility for their grades. Again, in traditional grading, students tend to feel that their grades are out of their control – they “hope” to get an A. In specs grading, the grade students earn is entirely up to them.
  8. Specs grading lessens conflict between students and instructors. Because there are no points, there is no arguing over points. Instructors are no longer the gatekeepers to an inexhaustible supply of points, that are denied to students. Instead the narrative between instructor and student changes – we talk about what constitutes professionally acceptable work instead of what constitutes a grade of 77 out of 100, which is an artificially constructed grade system anyway.
  9. Specs grading saves faculty time. In this post I estimated that for a typical assignment in a class of 30 students, an instructor could cut 90 minutes off the time spent grading by simply using a pass/fail rubric based on well-thought-out specs versus agonizing over how many points out of 12 to give each student. Faculty, by virtue of their experience with evaluating scholarly work in their disciplines, are good at making fair judgments about work relative to professional standards. Specs grading leverages that skill into grading.
  10. Specs grading gives students feedback they will use. Going back to point 2 above, “87/100” doesn’t convey any information about the student’s work, and students typically gloss over our annotations on their work. In specs grading, the feedback is the focal point and there are no points to distract students from it.

Linda lists five other criteria for an ideal grading system that specs grading meets: specs grading makes the standards for work unambiguous; it promotes higher-order skills and creativity; it uses authentic standards for assessment and not artificial point systems; it has higher inter-rated reliability; and it’s simpler than traditional grading.

I would say that all 15 of these points have been borne out with great clarity in my own implementations of specs grading. In the next installment, I’ll take a step back and give the context for my first encounter with specs grading and why I chose to adopt it. This involves my relationship with traditional grading and how I came to realize the validity of many of Linda’s points even before I read her book.