Tutorials and Specs Grading for Building Resilience

Why Specifications Grading?

I moved to using a type of “specifications grading” with tutorials in response to two things that really worried me about my teaching methods:

  • Students weren’t getting much value from my feedback – they weren’t being asked to act on it, so a major opportunity for learning and improvement was lost. Papers felt like they were simply boxes to check (both writing and grading them) instead of learning opportunities.
  • Students were learning that mediocre work is sufficient to pass – which is a poor preparation for working life. I felt that I was serving my students badly by teaching them a lousy work ethic.

In contrast,specifications grading” holds students to appropriate standards, makes feedback more useful by requiring students to act on it, and provides students with opportunities to build resilience by failing, trying again, and ultimately succeeding.

Specifications grading works extremely well for highly motivated students, who take pleasure in “nailing it in one”. It is also energizing and encouraging for motivated but weak or academically ill-prepared students. It helps them improve their skills and gain confidence. 

This system can be challenging for students who are perfectionists and/or anxious. If these students don’t get everything right the first time, it can be rattling. In such cases, lots of friendly encouragement is essential. Ultimately, many of these students report increased confidence because they’ve learned that they can overcome setbacks if they persist.

On the other hand, the system is profoundly frustrating for the students who want to skate by with a D for the semester. I tell them that I want to teach them how to succeed in their professional lives, and lousy work won’t lead to success.

The quality of papers I receive has definitely improved since I implemented this system.

The Fine Print: How (My System of) Specifications Grading Works

Written assignments are each assigned a certain number of points – typically 15 points for a shorter assignment and 30-40 points for a more involved assignment. These add up to a total of 100 points for the semester for the “major assignments” category in my gradebook.

THE KEY: Each assignment is all or nothing. Students must fulfill all the criteria for the assignment, or they earn none of the points for the assignment. The criteria for the assignment are laid out in a rubric that consists solely of “yes/no” questions (see below).

BUT…if they don’t fulfill all the criteria for an assignment the first time they submit it, students are offered multiple opportunities for revision.

At the end of the semester, I add up the number of points a student has earned on all their written assignments and that’s their grade for the writing part of the course.

Coaching: How (My Version of) Tutorials Works

To make these opportunities for revision worthwhile, I use an adaptation of the Oxford/Cambridge tutorial model to facilitate individual support. In order to be graded, students must come to my office and read their work out loud. While I listen, I make comments in a shared Google Doc. These comments, together with at least twenty minutes of feedback and dialogue after the student is done reading, offer a clear understanding of what is good about their paper and what still needs work. After this “tutorial” session, students must revise and resubmit their papers, sometimes more than once, until all the assignment criteria are met.

Students regularly report how much they appreciate the personal attention and feedback they receive during the tutorials – and, seriously, it takes about the same amount of time to offer feedback on a paper during a tutorial as it does to try to piece together a coherent written response in Canvas to a paper obviously written in the middle of the night in a Red-Bull-fueled frenzy.

Besides, I defy even the bravest student not to feel some qualms about having to look their professor in the eye while reading work they clearly put no effort into. The quality of papers I receive has definitely improved since I implemented this system.

How I Keep This System Sustainable for Me

This probably sounds like a lot of grading, but I’ve found ways to keep it sustainable. For each assignment, I split the rubric criteria into two basic categories: 

  • Objective (did you make a clear attempt to answer the question, do you have the right number/kind of sources, is the paper at least a certain length, do you use MLA format, do you have fewer than X number of grammar/spelling errors, etc) 
  • Subjective (does the paragraphing make sense, are the topic sentences strong, and – the nuclear criterion – “is it logical?”)

As long as students meet ALL the objective criteria when they first turn in an assignment, I’ll give them feedback so that they can revise it to meet all the subjective criteria as well. In other words, they must take the assignment seriously to earn the opportunity to revise it.

Students who earn the opportunity to revise can submit as many revisions as they want up until a final deadline, which is usually a few weeks after the initial submission date. They must give me at least 72 hours to respond to each revision, which prevents them from constantly bombarding me with tiny little revisions.

If a student doesn’t revise thoroughly and doesn’t meet all the criteria by the deadline, they don’t get any of the points for the assignment.

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On Grading for Professional Growth