I was thinking about specifications grading over break, and I came to realize that Robert Talbert was right and I was wrong.

My particular complaint about specifications grading for mathematics classes—that it is unrealistic to expect students to be able to judge that their work is mathematically correct—still holds. But Robert came up with a very slight modification that I was too quick to write off.

Robert’s solution was to move from two possible grades per assignment—PASS or NO PASS— to three: PASS, NO PASS, and PROGRESSING. The idea is that you can create all of the specifications you want—including whether the work is mathematically correct—and grade according to whether students have met the specifications. The one difference is that you split your specifications into two groups. The first group contains the specifications that students can easily check themselves, such as “There are no spelling mistakes” or “All variables are defined prior to use.” Failure to meet any of these specifications leads to a grade of NO PASS.

The second group of specifications are ones that students cannot necessarily judge for themselves, such as determining whether the work is mathematically correct. If a student satisfies all of the specifications in the first group but misses any in this group, the student is assigned a grade of PROGRESSING for the assignment (the student receives a grade of PASS if she meets all of the specifications).

The only difference between NO PASS and PROGRESSING is how easily students can re-do the assignment. If the student receives a NO PASS, the student needs to spend a token to re-do the assignment; a student who receives a PROGRESSING may re-do the assignment without any cost.

I initially did not like this system because I thought it simply added the complex token system on top of allowing unlimited re-dos—I preferred simply letting students do an unlimited number of re-dos. But I have changed my mind. I now think that raising expectations on specifications that students can easily evaluate themselves is a completely reasonable thing to do, and penalizing students for simply not doing it does not seem so unreasonable.

The benefits are that students get in the habit of evaluating as much of their work as they possibly can, I get to grade higher-quality work, and the students get used to creating higher quality work. The costs are implementing the mildly complex token system (although keeping track shouldn’t be too hard) and some potential loss of goodwill after penalizing students. But the higher quality work argument wins in the end for me.

I am rather pleased at Talbert’s plan, because this gives me the grading plan for proof-based classes that I am looking forward to (I think that I am planning on sticking with accumulation grading for the non-proof classes).

So—thanks, Robert. I am sorry I didn’t realize how good your plan was right away.