Chris Woods, Department of Chemistry

The current grading paradigm has been seldom challenged for a long time, and for many, leaves much to be desired. The assignment of grades can be a cause of trepidation for many educators. Many students feel that they do not earn a grade as much as it is ‘given’ based on subjective criteria. Students feel encouraged to prioritize points and partial credit over subject mastery, and instructors spend woeful amounts of time parsing out these points. Enter Specifications Grading. Specification-based grading is a relatively new system in which students are graded pass/fail on modules of assignments/assessments. The criteria to pass each of these modules is explicitly defined, allowing students to choose what grade they would like to earn and complete the necessary work. Each of these bundles of assignments are linked to learning outcomes of the course, allowing students to track progress and allocate effort accordingly.

Emphasize Learning Over Grades

By organizing assignments/assessments as opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in learning outcomes, students work towards mastery of skills. The pass/fail nature of specification rubrics prevents students from skating by on partial credit, while upholding rigor by setting the threshold at ~80% on the traditional scale. Students with unsatisfactory work get immediate feedback on where they went wrong and have opportunities to retake or submit written corrections to earn satisfactory marks.

Give Students Agency in Their Experience

In this framework, course grades are earned, not ‘given’. Students know what requirements must be met to achieve a certain course grade. Often, implementors organize their student learning outcomes (SLOs) into essential (EO) and general (GO) outcomes. Passing the class then requires fulfilling the specifications for the EOs, while a specific number of GOs are required to achieve higher grades. The benefit of this is twofold. First, students choose which outcomes to focus on and can be given multiple options to meet outcomes. Second, students that only seek proficiency can choose a path to suit their needs without grade stigma. For example, having achieved the appropriate combination of EOs and GOs for the course, a student with the final course grade of a C has demonstrated proficiency in all the essential material. Compared to the current system, this is a much more positive and descriptive way to represent student achievement!

Example grade specifications breakdown from Ring et al.

Take Emphasis Off Exams

Implementing a well-organized unit structure with frequent assessments allows students to work towards meeting specifications step-by-step as opposed to the lump sum of high stakes exams. This, coupled with regular opportunities to correct past work, allows much of the assessment burden to be taken off exams while encouraging frequent study. By incentivizing the revisit of unmastered concepts, students can focus on achieving learning outcomes instead of playing the points game.

Quick, Transparent Grading

Without having to scrutinize work for fair, consistent partial credit, a specifications grading regime saves considerable time. Rubrics can be setup as simple as criteria for passing or failing a learning outcome. Alternatively, a rubric can be more descriptive and directive, such as in the EMRN scale (excellent/meets expectations/needs revision/inassessable). Scores of either “R” or “N” can be made eligible for reattempt, while scores of “E” can be applied to higher grade criteria due to showing higher order work.


Nilson, L. B. Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade. (2016)

Martin, L. J., Introducing Components of Specifications Grading to a General Chemistry I Course. In Enhancing Retention in Introductory Chemistry Courses: Teaching Practices and Assessments, ACS Publications: 2019; pp 105-119.

Ring, J., ConfChem conference on select 2016 BCCE presentations: specifications grading in the flipped organic classroom. Journal of Chemical Education 2017, 94 (12), 2005-2006.

Mendez, J., Standards-Based Specifications Grading in Thermodynamics. 2018.

Roberson, C., Techniques for using specifications grading in computer science. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges 2018, 33 (6), 192-193.

 Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.