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Specifications Grading – Update #1

February 18, 2015

This semester I am trying out Specifications Grading in my upper level Animal Behavior class. I am doing this in part because our institution is going to be going through an accreditation visit in a few years and I want to explore assessment methods that are more authentic than perhaps traditional, points-accrual grading does. If you teach, you are familiar with traditional grading where one accumulates points over the course of the semester and if you cross some threshold number of points (or a threshold average of points across assignments), you attain a given grade. Traditional grading is how I was graded and how I have been grading for my entire career. Specifications Grading is not something I invented. I have been informed by my colleagues in our excellent Education Dept. that they have been doing this AND training their education students to do this for years. I also read a short book over the winter break that convinced me to try this. I am not plugging the book as the author has fairly negative things to say about students but there are a lot of good ideas in it (Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time by Linda Nilson, 2015, Stylus Publishing).

As I thought about my class, I realized that for virtually every course I have ever taught, I can tell you the grade a student made in the course but I can not point to the specifics of how that grade related to what she knew or what she could do. This is one of the criticisms of current grading methods that is found in the book and also one that is levied by people outside the academy. So, the act of shifting to Specifications Grading forced me to confront the following:

What do I want my students to know?

How deeply do I want them to know it?

How do I want them to demonstrate this knowledge?

How do I want them to demonstrate that they can work with this knowledge (analyze, apply, evaluate and create)?

One would think I would have thought about this more critically in 15 years of teaching, but…

So, I went back to the basics and read Anderson & Krathwohl’s (2000) update of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. I don’t really like the term “Educational Objectives” because these things seem more like cognitive processes to me so I will probably call them that from here on. Briefly, they are, from least inclusive at the center and expanding outward:Bloom's Taxonomy

Some of these terms are problematic for scientists (and non-scientists). For example, creating. Some will say that scientists are not creative but I view every new hypothesis, every experiment (even experimental apparatuses we must design), every new idea that grows out of reading a paper that leads to the next test of a particular idea, to all be creative acts. And in science, you need the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy to achieve at the higher level. But I liked this particular way of thinking about what I wanted my students to learn and the things I wanted them to be able to do.

So, now I had to think about which levels of the taxonomy I think they should be performing at and how to assess that. Well, they need to know things. The “facty” nature of science is something that you must have decent facility with if you are going to do anything else. Knowing whether a lizard species is an insectivore rather than a herbivore is necessary if you are going to understand anything about how it forages. You will understand little about foraging behavior of said lizard unless you know some things about predation (the predation sequence, sensory systems used to find food, etc.) and some of the general ideas about how foraging decisions are made (e.g., ideal free distribution, marginal value theorem, energy maximization vs time minimization). Only after you have these first two simple levels of Bloom’s taxonomy down can you begin to approach higher levels of thought (how applicable is the MVT to herbivores and insectivores and what modifications must you make to the model to apply it to these two different types of foragers?). I decided that I need to have a way of testing that they know things and understand things. Knowing things includes recognizing correct information from incorrect information and being able to retrieve that information. Understanding information requires that you can recall it and recall it correctly in addition to being able to rephrase it in your own words, explaining it, classifying it, etc. Multiple choice tests and short answer tests seemed like a reasonable way to go about this. The difference between an A, B, C or F (there is no D in this course) is the level at which you can do these two things and they are spelled out explicitly in the syllabus.

I am well-known at my institution for designing exams that attempt to test all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. As a result, I have multiple-multiple choice tests, short answers and essays that are often a series of imbedded questions leading you to some creative conclusion at the end of the question. I was, basically, insane. Because I was trying to test everything in Bloom’s taxonomy on an exam, I was simultaneously testing whether my students could do the things I was asking them, but also testing how fast they could do them. And, in the same way that on a Likert scale on a teaching evaluation the distance between strongly agreeing and agreeing that I am an insane test maker is probably different than the distance between being neutral and agreeing that I am insane where test design is concerned, the distance between “remembering” and “understanding” is probably different than the distance between “understanding” and “applying” and these are certainly different than the difference between “evaluating” and “creating”. So I decided to only test the lowest two levels of Bloom’s taxonomy using exams.

But, I want my students to go beyond these two levels of cognitive processing. So, I thought about other assignments I have had in the past and how these will allow me to assess other levels of thinking. I use literature a lot in class and often have students write literature summaries. This is a two page assignment. Approximately 1.5 pages are summary and half a page is devoted to “critical thought”. You might think that 1.5 pages is too short to summarize a paper. But it forces the students to think hard about what really is crucial to me understanding that they understood the paper and what is just filler. They are force to filter information. Now, critical thought is IMHO one of the most poorly-defined terms in the educational lexicon. So, I was very explicit about what I want in this section. I wanted them to reach Bloom’s highest level of cognitive processing. I wanted them to think about the research done before the paper in question and think about the paper in question and then project what the next question would be in this system with a brief design of a set of observations or an experiment that would shed light on that question and advance our knowledge in that area. You could critique the paper’s experimental design, its writing, its presentation of results, etc. (all things students try to pass off as “critical thinking” but are really just criticism), but you will be using up the limited amount of space you have to demonstrate to me that you can think in scientifically creative ways. The difference between and A, B and C in the class (and an F) is how often you reach this level of thought in these (among other things).

Each of these assignments have specifications for formatting, science and writing (one student failed solely because the margins were incorrect). Students must pass the writing specifications on all writing assignments in order to pass the class. Because of this, we spent an entire lab period going through a literature review on behavioral decisions made under predation risk and the students had to analyze the paper both on the structure of the paper and the science within it but they also had to examine the paper for 19 common writing mistakes made by writers of science. This got the students thinking about their own writing in ways that I don’t think they had in their first two years of college.

I handed back the first literature summaries this past week. All but one student failed the assignment (specs grading is usually done on a pass/fail basis). The specification were clear and the rubric I used points out exactly where students did not meet the specifications. The first two of these assignments are eligible for revisions, which I suspect will all receive passing marks. Why? Because half the class has been in to see me about their papers. But they did not come to chisel points away from me to get the passing grade. They came to me for help in knowing how to recognize a running jump, why I thought what they said was factually inaccurate when they thought it was correct, how to identify poorly structured writing, how to pay better attention to the appropriate details in a paper they are reading, etc. They are coming to see me about how they can meet the specifications of the assignment. I suspect the literature summaries they handed in today are going to be better.

There are other things they have to do in the class like a literature review and a self-designed research project, and those will all have specifications as well. My students know the grade they are aspiring to and they know what they need to do to get it. And when I assign them a grade at the end of the semester, I suspect I can point to precisely what they could and could not do that got them that grade. More on that in a later post.

Feel free to share your won experiences with Specifications Grading (or Standards-based Grading in the Comments section.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Sara Schley permalink
    January 24, 2016 11:07 am

    I am thinking of trying this approach to grading. Can you update on how it went? Would you mind sharing a few of your assignments and their specifications? Thanks!

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