Digital Learning Blog

Reframing Assessment and Grading Design to Focus on Mastery Using Specifications Grading

by | Apr 4, 2023 | Bo Choi, Digital Learning Blog, Faculty Spotlight

Steven Mang

Steve Mang

Associate Professor of Teaching

Department of Chemistry

In this faculty spotlight blog, I had an opportunity to interview Steve Mang, an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Chemistry department, who teaches upper-division physical and analytical chemistry lab classes and two of the department’s upper-division writing classes. He has been recognized for his teaching with the School of Physical Sciences award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Teaching and the UCI Academic Senate Early-Career Faculty Award for Teaching. I met him during the Teaching Experiment Academy (TEA) grant project promoting Mastery Learning and Specifications Grading . He joined the TEA Program as a UCI peer coach where he coached faculty to help them learn about mastery learning and specifications grading and implement this new grading method into their teaching. I was privileged to work with him as an instructional designer co-supporting TEA faculty and have seen many great examples and strategies that Steve had shared with them. I would like to use this blog to share with anyone who is interested in learning about specifications grading and also highlight Steve’s stellar work.

Question: How would you describe your teaching philosophy and why specifications grading?
“I’ve always tried to put students at the center of my teaching, which has led me to switch all of my classes to specifications grading. In this system, students earn grades corresponding to their demonstrated mastery of course learning objectives, rather than their accumulation of points. Assignment rubrics consist of a checklist of yes-or-no items, each corresponding to a learning outcome for that assignment. An important aspect of specifications grading is frequent feedback and revision opportunities, which I facilitate using a token system. A well-designed specifications grading system clearly describes what students should learn during a course and has straightforward rules for earning grades.”

Figure 1. Student Grade Tracker for Chemistry 152 in Winter 2022

Question: How have you used spec grading?
“In upper-division lab classes, I developed specifications rubrics in Canvas that help students identify the important components of a lab report and make it easier to give specific feedback when they fall short. Criteria are repeated for different experiments, so students know there are some experimental and communication skills that will be common to all labs. In writing classes, I encourage students to develop their own writing process by including criteria for explaining how they approached a writing task, in addition to those that evaluate writing proficiency and argument structure. We also use Canvas peer reviews to increase the amount of feedback given. In all classes, students can earn tokens and redeem them in Canvas for extra revision opportunities or small grade bumps.”

Figure 2. An example of a specifications grading rubric for a lab report on a High Performance Liquid Chromatography experiment. There are 11 total criteria, corresponding to the major learning outcomes for the experiment.

Question: What did the students think about it?
“Some students resist the new grading scheme, but many tell me that they appreciate the clarity, the increased feedback, and the chance to try again if they didn’t get something right the first time. They also generally appreciate the token system. My favorite student evaluation quote ever was the one that said, “While I personally dislike this grading system, I admit that it forces me to improve my writing.’”

Question: What did you and the TAs think about it?
“I learned that I’d been making a lot of assumptions about what my students valued and how they approached my courses. Centering learning outcomes clarified expectations for everyone. The specifications rubrics simplified grading and shortened the time my TAs and I spent giving feedback, because we weren’t having to figure out partial credit. It also changed our conversations with students: instead of ‘Can I get one more point?”, students started asking, ‘How can I meet this learning objective?’ How great is that?”

5 Tips that Steve would like to share with you to get started with specifications grading:

  1. Figure out the learning outcomes for a course overall and for individual units/modules and make them measurable.
  2. Identify assessments that don’t fit with your learning outcomes and modify them to fit or get rid of them.
  3. Check assessments and learning outcomes that they are aligned and make rubrics organized by learning outcomes.
  4. Think about the time associated with revision opportunities, and don’t give more than you think you can re-grade.
  5. If you have TAs, spend time with them before the quarter showing them how grading works and getting them to buy in.

Visit our TEA website, if you would like to learn more about specifications grading and see more examples that TEA participants shared. If you would like another opportunity to learn more, join the Spec Grading Faculty Learning Community, where faculty share experiences and teaching best practices for implementing specifications grading.

Helpful Resources to learn more about Spec Grading:

About the Author

Bo ChoiBo Choi, M.A.Ed
Instructional Designer, Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI)

Bo is an instructional designer at at Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation, University of California, Irvine (UCI). She has been serving in higher education as an instructional designer over a decade, with training and many years of experience in creating effective teaching and learning experiences and materials for technology-infused, hybrid and online learning. Bo uses campus learning technologies to great effect, with attention to universal design principles that provide meaningful and inclusive learning opportunities for students with different strengths and abilities. She joined the DTEI team in August 2019 after serving as an instructional designer at Cal Poly Pomona for 12 years. She has a BS in Engineering Technology and a MA.Ed in Multimedia Education.