How Specs Grading Is Influencing Me

I hope I have not come off too negatively about specs grading. Reflecting on what I have written, it could seem like I am trying to discourage people from using it. I hope that is not the case. I am engaging in this conversation so much because I am very hopeful about it.

So when I say that the examples of specs given in the book are “shallow,” I do not intend this to say that specs grading is bad. Rather, what I mean (but say poorly) is that the examples of specs do not capture what I would want in a mathematics class. To put a word count requirement on a proof would be a very shallow way to grade, but I do not necessarily think that word counts are bad for other subjects (at the very least, I don’t know enough how to teach other subjects to make a judgment).

So this whole process is mainly to help me figure out how to make specifications grading work in my courses. I apologize if it sounds complainy.

So I am going to switch gears to describe the positive things I learned from the book.

  1. I should include specifications. I see no reason not to explicitly tell students what my expectations are; I just need to stop being lazy and do it.

    For instance, I collected Daily Homework in my linear algebra class last spring. It was graded only on completion, but some students did not know what to do when they got stuck or didn’t understand the question. If I had explicitly given them a set of specifications for Daily Homework that included something like, “If you cannot solve the problem, you should show me how the problem relates to \mathbb{R}^2” (we often worked in abstract vector spaces), I think that I would have been much happier with the results.

    Similarly, I gave my students templates (as Lawrence Leff does) for optimization and \delta\epsilon proofs in calculus, but I could be doing more of that.

    The one catch is that I do not know how to specify for “quality” (thanks, Andy!). I think I have been annoying people on Google Plus trying to figure out how to solve this—sorry. But this is essential for my proofs-based courses. If I can’t figure out how to specify for quality in those courses, I will likely have to modify specs grading beyond recognition if I am going to use it in those courses.

  2. To get a higher grade in my course, I have been requiring students to master more learning goals. This is fine, but the book suggested that I could also consider having students meet the same learning goals, but have students try harder problems if they want a higher grade. Nilson’s metaphor is that the former is “more hurdles,” whereas the latter is “higher hurdles.”

    I really like this idea, and I can sort of imagine how that could work. In my non-tagging system, I could give three versions of the same problem: C-level, B-level, and A-level. For optimization in calculus, I could imagine that a C-level problem would give the function to be optimized, a B-level question wouldn’t, and an A-level would just be a trickeier version of a B-level question.

    This would require me to write more questions AND it would require me to be able to accurately judge the relative difficulty of problems. But I think that both are doable, and I like the idea.

  3. Specs grading requires that students spend tokens before being allowed to reassess. The thinking is that if reassessments are scarce, students will put forth more effort the first time. The drawback is that each assessment has higher-stakes.

    I definitely want to keep things low-stakes, but I am also finding that students aren’t working as hard as they should until the end of the semester. Using a token-like system could be a partial-solution to that.

  4. The book reminds me that I should be assigning things that are not directly related to course content; the book calls them meta-assignments. Here is a relevant quotation:

    Other fruitful activities to attach to standard assignments and tests are wrappers, also called meta-assignments, that help students develop metacognition and become self-regulated learners…Or to accompany a standard problem set, he might assign students some reflective writing on their confidence before and after solving each problem or have them do an error analysis of incorrect solutions after returning their homework (Zimmerman, Moylan, Hudesman, White, & Flugman, 2011).

    One such idea that I had to help the students start working earlier in the semester (see my previous item) is to have students develop a plan of action for the semester. Determine a study schedule, set goals for when to demonstrate learning goals, and (if they want to) determine penalities for missing those goals.

  5. I should consider including some “performance specs” (which simply measures the amount of work, not the quality of the work) in my grading. I don’t like this philosophically, but I think that it might help my students to practice more.

So even if I don’t convert to specifications grading, I have already learned a lot from it.

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3 Responses to “How Specs Grading Is Influencing Me”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

    I like your example with having students relate to R^2. In my system, they do something and then I’ll usually give them that advice for their next reassessment. I agree that telling them ahead of time makes more sense, and I’ll need to think about how to structure that. What happens a lot to me is I hear them present something and I get suspicious that they don’t *really* understand where a particular aspect comes from. So I come up with something on the fly to get them to really dig in. I have a (small) fear that if I lay out those specs ahead of time, while it might ensure better first assessments, it could also lead to an easier time for students to game the system.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      I think that there is definitely a balancing act. I like the R^2 example, too, because it is just the beginning of figuring out how to start the problem—it doesn’t take them all the way. But I don’t have many other examples like this (yet).

  2. Specifications Grading: Final(?) Thoughts | Solvable by Radicals Says:

    […] « How Specs Grading Is Influencing Me […]

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