I haven’t yet posted a complete rundown of what I call specs grading iteration 4 – the version of specifications grading that I am using in my classes this semester, the fourth semester after first rolling that system out last year. That would be more like an e-book than a post. So I am posting in bits and pieces. In this post I wanted to focus on an aspect of my assignments in my discrete structures course that is connected to the grading system: Namely, how I am handling deadlines for significant, untimed student work.
How I am handling deadlines is that I eliminated them.
Students in the class do three major kinds of work: timed assessments on learning targets, which are done in class; course management items that include guided practice assignments and weekly syllabus quizzes; and what we call miniprojects, which are like homework assignments targeted at applications of basic content to new problems. The miniprojects are what this no-deadline policy targets.
Miniprojects are significant assignments that are challenging in nature, graded using the EMRF rubric. Students are allowed to revise work that isn’t “passing” (E or M grades) as well as to attempt to push “M” work up to “E” level. In fact students should expect to have to revise their work on these since an “M” is not always easy to get. I am planning on writing 10-12 of these for the semester and students have to pass 8 of them, including at least 2 “E” grades, to get an “A” in the course. (The full grading system is here in the syllabus starting on page 5.)
I used to have hard deadlines on these. In fact the first two this semester I assigned had hard deadlines. Students could spend a token to get a 24-hour extension on that deadline (and up to three tokens to get up to 72 hours of extension) but those deadlines were fixed. About two weeks into the semester, however, I decided that deadlines were not in harmony with the spirit of specs grading. More on this below. So I replaced the deadline policy with this:
I’m calling this the quota/single deadline system. Students get the freedom to choose what they submit on a weekly basis; and they cannot put it all off until the end of the semester because they can only submit up to two items a week, and there is a fixed no-exceptions single deadline for the whole semester.
Why did I do away with fixed deadlines and replace them with this?
So far the results have been great. Far from procrastinating, students have been very productive. I’ve been getting about 30-40 submissions a week from 60 students total. Many of them do the math and realize that they need to maintain forward motion on getting things done so as not to wind up in an untenable position at the end. Also, since no single miniproject is required – they just have to pick from among the ones that are posted – the students’ investment and energy level on these has really improved. (They still have to pass a sequence of timed assessments on the core learning targets of the course, so there’s no worry that by not choosing a particular miniproject that they’ll miss out on demonstrating mastery on something.) I also have stopped getting those panicky emails at 11:58pm about SageMath Cloud or Blackboard not working. Everybody’s stress level has dropped.
So the freedom they get to choose their work and their work schedule has made them exactly what deadlines did not make them: happy, productive, and interested in the material. Maybe deadlines are necessary on some level but I would caution against giving them too much credit for students’ development.