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If you are interested in alternatives to the traditional point-based grading system, I’m here to say that you don’t have to dive in all at once. Last semester, I dipped my toes into this whole new world by incorporating specifications grading just for assignments. 

Here’s how I did it:

  1. I gave my students very clear, detailed specifications for what constitutes a passing (acceptable/satisfactory) homework assignment.
  1. Then I graded student submissions as Pass/Fail, provided written feedback, and gave students an opportunity to revise and resubmit (if necessary).

And here’s what I saw:

  • With the opportunity to resubmit, students were willing to take on harder assignments and felt comfortable admitting “I don’t understand how to do this part. Please help!” 
  • Grading was much faster
  • Students actually read my written feedback 
  • There was no fixation on points

Two of my learning goals for this course were for students to clearly communicate mathematical ideas and solutions and to exercise persistence by working through perceived failure. Simply put, meeting these learning goals would not have been possible without specifications grading. The first was explicitly stated as a specification for the homework (“The solution is neatly hand-written or typed, using complete sentences, and each step has a sufficient explanation.”) and the second was a natural product of allowing resubmissions. 

The rest of my course structure (quizzes, exams, group work, etc.) remained the same. I only used specifications grading for homework assignments. And what a success it was. I’m thinking about going in the deep end (by structuring a whole course with specifications grading using “bundles” of assignments and tests)… or at least into deeper water.

For more information on specs grading, here are some great resources:

And there are other alternatives out there (e.g. contract grading, mastery-based grading, and ungrading)! If you want to hear some experiences from Notre Dame faculty that have used these alternatives to traditional grading, I recommend attending the Kaneb Center panel discussion on Alternatives to Traditional Grading on April 27, 2021.

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