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University of Pittsburgh

May 15, 2014

Advocating a new way of grading

When Linda B. Nilson presented her new grading system to Pitt faculty on May 1 — it uses mostly pass/fail exams and assignments, tokens that students can trade for missed homework or classes, and classwork grouped into bundles so that students can choose to shoot for an A (or a D) — she had to assure the group they wouldn’t be fired if they used it.

“People have implemented this system and they’re leading rich, full, employed lives,” Nilson told about 75 attendees at his year’s first Summer Instructional Development Institute at the O’Hara Student Center. “This will not get you in trouble with anyone.”

The institutes are offered by the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE). Carol Washburn, CIDDE’s senior instructional designer and manager of teaching and learning, introduced Nilson as “one of the best presenters [with] one of the most provocative presentations” she had seen recently.

Nilson is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University and author of “Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors.”

Nilson, Washburn said, “presents some ideas that make us question our assumptions.”

Attendees certainly questioned Nilson’s assumptions. She could hardly complete three sentences without addressing a new faculty concern.

She began her presentation by announcing that the current method of grading students using points fails to foster rigorous student work. “By rigor, I mean having standards that actually distinguish levels of quality, that actually distinguish levels of attainment, that actually distinguish levels of competency,” Nilson said, “so our grades mean something to parties out there,” including deans, employers and graduate school admissions officers. Under her grading system, she said, “An A is going to mean, ‘Hey, the student actually achieved all the outcomes.’”

Instead, today a C often denotes the poorest student work. “It’s rare for a student to fall below to a D,” she said. “How does this happen that we are grading them and they don’t come out with the competency” the class is supposed to impart — let alone the capacity for deeper reasoning?

At Clemson, she reported, “you can take a course and get a D or an F and you can take it over again and the D or F disappears from your transcript. Aren’t we sweet? Is our grading system motivating to students? Does it motivate them to learn and excel? A’s aren’t motivating anymore.”

Institute participants acknowledged that not only is their grading subjective, varying among professors, it also may vary across one evening’s grading session, with a paper at the top of the pile assessed more generously than one at the bottom, with its 25th iteration of the same error.

Linda Nilson, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University, says the current method of grading students using points fails to foster rigorous student work.

Linda Nilson, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University, says the current method of grading students using points fails to foster rigorous student work.

The “specs” grading system

Instead of awarding points for how well or poorly test questions are answered or assignments completed, Nilson proposed a “specs” grading system that asks faculty to devise specifications and note them in detail on the syllabus. These specs will tell students exactly what they must accomplish to earn a D, C, B or A.

Begun at Clemson in 2005, specs grading today also is being used at the universities of Oklahoma and North Carolina-Greensboro, as well as Duke, Western Illinois, Lee and West Liberty universities, along with Pima Community College in Tucson.

In its simplest form, specs grading might mean offering a D if a student gets an average of 60-69 percent on exams and does nothing else; a C to students who average 70 percent or higher on exams without completing other assignments; a B to those who achieve C-level test scores and finish a group project according to its specs, and an A to those who fulfill the B requirements and also meet the specifications for an individual paper.

Alternatively, students may be asked to complete the least demanding assignments to earn a C, mid-level assignments to earn a B, and the most demanding assignments to earn an A.

The results, she said, will be more motivated students, since they know exactly how to reach a self-selected grade level. It also will mean more time for faculty to concentrate on the students aiming for higher grades. It’s possible — perhaps even desirable — to write the specs for each grade requirement so that D-level and C-level students complete all their assignments earlier in the semester, “and then, maybe, its ‘I’ll see you at the final,’” she suggested. “That’s radical — but just try it on for size.”

Specs for an assignment may be as simple as asking students to follow basic directions, hit the required length and turn it in on time. Or the specs may be more complicated, with section-by-section or even paragraph-by-paragraph instructions for a paper, including specific questions the students must address. Care must be taken in writing detailed specs, she cautioned; they must “describe the features you’re looking for and only those features.”

If students are asked to complete a literature review, for instance, faculty should specify how many references must be cited, how recent they must be and how the material must be organized and presented.

Students “are not doing what they’re capable of doing,” she said. “Why should they, when they can do partial work and slip by?” In contrast, the specs should be clear and firm. This will prompt higher quality work, she maintained, and work that is easier to grade.

For every assignment assessed using specs grading, she said, each faculty member may decide whether students would receive full credit for trying to answer a question or solve a problem in the proper manner, or whether they would receive full credit only for getting an answer correct — or for both. But faculty should gear their specs to desired learning outcomes, Nilson said. They should also keep in mind that the specs for the lowest passing grade must ensure that students demonstrate they have learned the course’s fundamentals. This is particularly crucial when a course is not an elective and is part of a sequence of courses, each dependent on the student attaining a certain level of knowledge successfully, she said.

On the other hand, specs for an A in any course should make certain that students show they can undertake higher level thinking about the course’s subject, Nilson said.

“If we get kids who come in with high qualifications, I expect them to get A’s,” said one faculty member. “Am I soft?”

“If they work for it and they meet your expectations … everyone can get an A,” Nilson said.

Bundling assignments

Nilson also proposed basing student grades on specific “bundles” of assignments completed. The specs should require students seeking higher grades to jump more and higher hurdles. “Each bundle is associated with one or more of your student outcomes,” she noted, which makes clear what each student actually is learning.

Some specs-graded courses could allow students to create their own bundles from a menu: To get a B, the student must complete four of 10 bundles, while an A requires six of 10 to be finished. In this setup, each student will achieve his or her own mix of outcomes, “but students like the choice,” she said.

History faculty member Laurence Glasco expressed uncertainty about how to handle spec grading using bundles, particularly a bundle menu: “My students read the syllabus like lawyers … they can spot any loopholes,” he said. “Some of these mix-and-match things … I’m afraid my students would really get me over a barrel on how to mix this.”

But after a break in the presentation, when faculty used their own syllabi to construct assignment bundles, one faculty member concluded: “It gave me the ability to break away from grading students relative to each other. It gave each student their own path” to mastering course materials.

“It’s freeing” for students, Nilson said. “They say students are adults and we’ve got to treat them like adults. Well, not all students are adults. …. This is edging them in this direction without putting too much responsibility on them.”

Aiming high enough and accepting failure

Carol DeArment, CIDDE senior instructional designer, pointed out that students taking classes in their major need to aim for better grades — and that this needs to be specified in a course’s syllabus.

Under this proposed new grading system, students will fully understand faculty expectations, Nilson said. “Our jobs, instead of becoming graders, we are explainers: Here’s what we’re looking for…

“And there’s research on this,” she added. “When students know what we’re looking for, they’re more likely to go for it, because it will be feasible.”

However, she said, “they still might decide they have better things to do this semester. What grade they wind up with says nothing about their capabilities, to me. It might say something about their time schedule.”

What happens when a student aims to complete A-level assignments and fails? asked Glasco. Does the student get a B or an F? “I can see a student changing their mind, doing four difficult assignments, then they run out of time, and they do an intermediate assignment and one easy assignment and they want to negotiate” their grade, he said.

“You have to specify what happens” in that situation via the specs, Nilson said. “You have to set terms. Don’t let students think that doing an easy assignment is going to make up for anything.”

“You need a lawyer …,” Glasco began.

“It’s not that hard,” Nilson reassured the group. “It’s not like there’s this contract where you can only go for an A, if you declare it. You go for the sky, but you see what you can reach.”

Grading according to specs may require faculty to accept that students earning lower grades will never achieve their course’s highest outcomes.

“You let the students who want to earn a low grade earn a low grade and learn less. But they have to learn enough,” she said.

Both students and faculty also must accept that failure is possible.

“Most students (today) have never failed at anything,” Nilson noted, since their generation grew up receiving inflated grades and trophies for mere participation in sports. “If they don’t fail now, they’re going to have a really hard life.”

“The most controversial part”

In fact, in what she called “the most provocative and controversial part” of her grading system, she recommended that most assignments and tests be graded on a pass/fail basis, assessed strictly on whether students have fulfilled the specs or reached a certain threshold of correct answers.

Together, detailed specs and pass/fail grading actually raise the stakes for students, she said. Students no longer will do half an assignment at the last minute, hoping for partial credit under a points system. And faculty no longer will be stuck figuring out how to grade such poor work. However, she cautioned, “We shouldn’t let students off the hook so easily. Especially on disadvantaged students, we want to really positively encourage them to go for that higher grade.”

Lauren Russell, a Pitt MFA graduate who teaches poetry here, wondered how to apply specs to her students, some of whom use specific writing techniques, such as metaphors, better than others.

“There’s the person who knows how to use a simile, and there’s a simile that gives me chills,” Russell said. “Everyone understands what a simile is, but some are using them effectively … that’s what matters.”

“You’re going to have to set a standard for what ‘effective’ is,” Nilson said. “Issues like depth and quality — that’s the time to start bringing out models” for students to emulate.

In fact, she added, don’t even use words such as “synthesis” or “depth” in your specs unless you provide models. “Why are these shallow and why are these deep? They don’t know what we mean. They weren’t born into our world. They come to us as feral children … Analyze? They don’t know what that means. Synopsis? Are you kidding? They’ve never seen that.”

Russell also was concerned about how to include class participation in the grading mix.

“Be careful on grading on participation,” Nilson answered. “Everything gets real squishy,” since there is no proof of each student’s participation level. “I’ve never heard of anybody taking anybody to court on this, but I’m just letting you know.” She suggested setting a minimum number of student contributions each term as part of a class’s specs. “And you get to define what a contribution is. And if you define how many, you’ve got to keep track. And it’s a drag to keep track.” As a solution, she suggested writing each student’s name on a card and calling on them by choosing cards randomly. Each student’s response would be assessed on the card: whether the student answered and whether it was correct or worthwhile. “Otherwise you’re stuck with attendance, but that doesn’t tell you much,” she said.

“I hear from so many professors that students can’t write,” offered another faculty member. “I don’t see where that fits in with this” spec grading system.

“There’s no incentive” for students to fix their writing errors today, Nilson said. “They don’t look at your edits.” Instead, she suggested that faculty not correct the errors on the paper or even label them with the error type. Rather, faculty who allow revisions as part of their specs should place a mark after each sentence containing an error, then let the student figure what was wrong and how to correct it.

“You don’t care how they find out that there is an error and you don’t care how they correct it,” Nilson said. “You don’t care if they call their mother. They’re going to learn what they did wrong and fix it. They’re not going to make that mistake again. Why? Because it was a real hassle” to find it and correct it.

As one faculty member in attendance said in agreement: “Students who get the A should be helping the students who didn’t get the A.”

“The one thing we don’t do enough of is using student mistakes as a method of learning,” Nilson said.

How much feedback should students be given on assignments, another faculty member asked —especially students who are just shooting for a C?

“If they fail, do they still get feedback?” Washburn added.

“Yes — just say which specs were not met,” Nilson said. “If you’re allowing a revision, you might write more.” Under the current grading system, she added, students see teacher feedback only as their opportunity to argue the professor into upping their grade.

“How would you determine if a group project passes or fails?” came another faculty query. “My concern is that you’d have that one over-bearing student who would become even more over-bearing” when the entire group passes or fails together.

“You have specs for it,” Nilson said. And the group also may be allowed to vote someone out, after a warning, Nilson suggested. In a large class, the teacher can group all the fired classmates into their own project group.

Grabbing tokens along the way: videogame principles in class

Nilson also suggested faculty give tokens to students, starting them in class with three or four tokens to exchange for an extension of a deadline, a revision or a make-up assignment. Class specs also may spell out how a student can earn tokens during the class, perhaps for early or outstanding work, and what they get at the end for unused tokens — up to and including a free pass on the final. All of this will buffer the risks of the pass/fail system, she said.

One faculty member suggested that tokens might help students take greater responsibility for their work. Susan Albrecht, nursing faculty member and associate dean for external relations, praised the token idea but added, “I can see myself working twice as hard with everybody clamoring to earn tokens.”

“Don’t let them earn them,” Nilson said. “The concept is for you to adapt to your needs.”

“In my experience,” she added, “students suddenly become very protective of their tokens.” They won’t earn tokens just to cut a class. “Most of them will end up keeping them just in case they need to revise something. You don’t need to listen to excuses” for missed or late work or classes anymore, she added; a student either will be able to pay for the gaffe with a token or not.

“It’s like a little economy you’re setting up,” she added. “But don’t get too fancy with it. It will take up too much of your time.”

Possibly “revolutionary”

Donna Nativio, director of nursing’s Doctorate of Nursing Practice program, asked Nilson how individual faculty fared when instituting this grading system amid colleagues using more traditional methods.

“Nobody had any trouble” with department chairs, colleagues or students, Nilson said, apart from one instructor at a for-profit online college who didn’t pass enough people to satisfy his dean.

Not that the average student ends up with a lower grade under the specs system, Nilson claimed: “Some people have found the same distribution and some people have found higher grades. Nobody has found lower grades.” In fact, in more advanced classes, and in classes for students’ majors, more A’s were awarded, she said.

“I would think the grades would drop if this were applied properly,” said Laurence Glasco. “So these reflect that students are producing …?”

“They’re not afraid anymore, so they are producing,” Nilson said.

“I thought this was a technique to get the grades down,” Glasco said. “If it really does improve the quality of student work … this is revolutionary.”

“I can see that some of you are finding at least pieces of it useful,” Nilson concluded. “That’s fine. Whatever makes your job more rewarding.”

—Marty Levine