4+1 Interview with Linda Nilson

4+1 Interview with Linda Nilson

I'm taking this week off from posting new content here, as we're starting classes today and that's where my focus will be. So I'm dipping back into the archives for some posts you might not have seen before. I haven't done one of these "4+1" interviews in a while, and given how much I've written about mastery grading here, I thought you might enjoy this one from 2014 with Linda Nilson, who literally wrote the book on this subject. It's almost impossible to believe that this book is 6 years old now! --rt

Our guest this time is Linda Nilson, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She’s the author of numerous papers and books on teaching and learning in higher education, including the essential Teaching At Its Best, and she gives regular speaking and workshop engagements around the country on teaching and learning. Her latest book, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, is IMO maybe the most innovative, provocative, and potentially revolutionary one she’s done, and that’s the focus of the interview.

I first met Linda almost 20 years ago, when I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University applying for a Master Teaching Fellowship at the Center for Teaching. Linda was the CFT director and interviewed me for the job, and eventually hired me. The one all-too-brief year I spent working under Linda’s guidance was an incredible time of inspiration and learning for me. So it’s especially great to have her here on the blog.

1. You have a new book out, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Could you briefly describe what specifications grading means, and what problems does it (attempt to) solve?

It’s easiest to understand specifications, or “specs,” grading in three parts. First, you grade all assignments and tests satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail, where you set “pass” at B or better work. Students earn full credit or no credit depending on whether their work meets the specs that you laid out for it. No partial credit. Think of the specs as a one-level, one-dimensional rubric, as simple as “completeness” – for instance, all the questions are answered or all the problems attempted in good faith, or the work satisfies the assignments (follows the directions) and meets a required length. Or the specs may be more complex – a description of, for example, the characteristics of a good literature review or the contents of each section of a proposal. You must write the specs very carefully and clearly. They must describe exactly what features in the work you are going to look for. You might include that the work be submitted on time. For the students, it’s all or nothing. No sliding by. No blowing off the directions. No betting on partial credit for sloppy, last-minute work.

Second, specs grading adds “second chances” and flexibility with a token system. Students start the course with 1, 2, or 3 virtual tokens that they can exchange to revise an unsatisfactory assignment or test or get a 24-hour extension on an assignment. At your discretion, they can also earn tokens by submitting satisfactory work early, doing an additional assignment, or doing truly outstanding work. At the end of the course, you might let them exchange so many remaining tokens for skipping the final exam or give those with the most tokens some sort of “prize,” like a gift certificate for a pizza. Faculty have a lot of leeway in how to set up and run this system, and keeping track of the tokens is no more trouble than keeping track of late submissions or dropped quizzes. Tokens have a game-like value that makes students want to save them. At the very least, they are insurance, and they discourage procrastination.

Third, specs grading trades in the point system for “bundles” of assignments and tests associated with final course grades. Students choose the grade they want to earn. To get above an F, they must complete all the assignments and tests in a given bundle at a satisfactory level. For higher grades, they complete bundles of more work, more challenging work, or both. In addition, each bundle marks the achievement of certain learning outcomes. The book contains many variations on bundles from real courses.

These are the major problems that specs grading intends to reduce: the lack of rigor in college courses, the disconnect between grades and learning outcomes, student confusion over faculty expectations, students’ low motivation to work and to excel, faculty-student grading conflicts, student and faculty stress, students’ sense of not being responsible for their grades, their tendency to ignore faculty feedback, and faculty’s grading burden, which has been growing for years.

2. Many Casting Out Nines readers are familiar with standards-based grading (SBG). (And if they are not, they can learn about SBG here.) How is specifications grading different from SBG?

Both grading systems replace the accumulation of points with skills assessment, and “standards” in K-12 terminology are equivalent to “learning outcomes” in higher education lingo. However, SBG gives a verbal description of the degree of mastery achieved, and students are allowed unlimited attempts to show mastery. In specs grading students get a pass or fail assessment of their work and maybe one chance at a redo. The point is not to address student weaknesses nor to give feedback. Specs grading assumes that there’s no reason why students shouldn’t be able to achieve the outcome(s) the specs describe. The specs are essentially directions on how to produce a B-level-or-better work or the parameters within which students create a product. If students don’t understand them, they have to ask questions.

3. In this article that gives a thorough summary of a workshop you did on specifications grading, it said that you “could hardly complete three sentences without addressing a new faculty concern”. What are maybe the top 2 or 3 concerns you hear about specifications grading, and how did you address those?

These issues came up not only at Pitt but also on my main professional listserv and at three other institutions and conferences where I’ve conducted a workshop on specs grading. Let me pair the first two concerns because my answers to them overlap.

1. If we tell students precisely what to do in the specs, they won’t learn to figure things out, make their own decisions, or be creative. All they will learn is how to follow directions.
2. How do you specs-grade major assignments, especially if they are sophisticated or creative?

How much direction you provide depends upon the assignment and, ultimately, your learning outcomes. If you want students to learn how to do something fairly formulaic, you will want to give pretty detailed and precise instructions. For instance, these assignments follow a formula or template, even though the topics may vary widely: a five-paragraph essay, a review of the literature, a research proposal, a lab report, a corporate annual report, a press release, and some kinds of speeches. Some of these formulas are very sophisticated and well worth learning. For example, a teaching philosophy can follow the five-paragraph essay format, and scientific journal articles also follow a formula.

Other assignments may not be formulaic, but we want students to address certain topics that they might not think of including. If we assign a lengthy reflection, which is a pretty loose task, we would serve our students to list the questions they have to answer and the approximate number of words we want their answers to be. If the students honor the number-of-words specifications and answer all the questions, they “pass” that assignment.

For more creative assignments, you need given only the barest directions and can offer plenty of choices for students. For instance, one final project encourages students to take something important they have learned in the course (any brain and behavior topic) and creatively communicate that information to others in one of many possible modalities, such as a documentary video, a series of commercials, a collection of pamphlets for a specific audience, a staged debate, an educational play, or a job talk. The instructor’s specs are length parameters, such as how long a video, play, debate or whatever should be. Another faculty member has her students do a mind map of the course material as the capstone assignment. Her specs are simply the minimum number of first-level “branches” and branching levels.

By implication, the size of the assignment is irrelevant.

3. Won’t faculty feel pressured to pass any work, especially when the stakes are high?

The token system works in our favor as well as the students’. Faculty can judge a piece of work unsatisfactory and give the student a chance to do it again at the required level of quality. Of course, second chances have to be limited.

4. If I understand the specifications grading idea correctly, students self-select the grade level they wish to attain. Do you worry that students will elect not to strive for the highest possible level of attainment — that they’ll settle for a B when they are capable of getting an A — or that students may self-select out of a grade level just to avoid higher-level learning tasks?

The only students I worry about are those from underrepresented groups and those who are first-generation because they may not believe in their abilities enough to aspire to the A. They need special, individual encouragement from faculty. Other than these students, why should we mind if a student opts for a B or a C in our course because that’s all she needs to serve her purposes? In traditional grading, students opt for lower grades by submitting less-than-their-best work, which takes more time to grade and just adds to our workload. In specs grading, if students opt for a B or C but completely meets those requirements, we can respect this as their decision and not a reflection on their character or abilities.

A-students haven’t slacked in actual specs-graded classes, and I don’t think we have to worry about them. Of course, we can and should praise their work in our comments, but such students will continue to excel because they are self-motivated and take pride in their coursework. Specs grading may even help them relax and foster their intrinsic motivation.

+1. What question should I have asked you in this interview?

What are my hopes and expectations this somewhat radical book?

My hope – in fact, my personal career mission – is to make the faculty’s life easier and more rewarding. I expect that some faculty, especially younger ones, will “get it” and readily embrace specs grading, and my book lays out how to make the transition. It also offers ways to synthesize specs and traditional grading, as some faculty may adopt only part of the specs grading system – just pass/fail grading, or just bundling, or just tokens. But only the whole system addresses all the problems with our traditional system I listed above. We need a change, or at least better alternatives.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.