Nov. 8, 2022

Specifications Grading - E107

Specifications Grading - E107

This week, we are chatting all about specifications (or specs) grading. This is an alternative grading strategy that focuses on mastery of learning by defining specific requirements for what students need to meet. 

If you like what you hear, we would love it if you could share this episode with a colleague or friend. And make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss out on any new content! And consider supporting the show by buying us a coffee or two!

We would love to hear from you – leave a comment on our website OR check out our FLIPGRID!

Featured Content
**For detailed show notes, please visit our website at**

  • Specifications (specs) grading works well with mastery-based learning
  • Create specifications for what students need to demonstrate mastery
  • Divide up the course into small modules and each module is passed by scoring 80% (mastery) or better
  • Final grades are determined by how many of these modules are mastered
  • One possible way to do this is to create essential outcomes (absolutely must pass) and general outcomes (grade modifiers)
  • Example - IB Chemistry Year 1 grade conversion chart
  • Students need multiple opportunities to master the outcomes - create multiple versions (think larger mastery check) for each outcome
  • Each week, students can attempt outcomes
  • Students appreciate this model - focus on learning, less stress
  • Linda Nilson - Specifications Grading Book
  • Popular in post-secondary, not sure who else is doing this K-12?
  • Benefits - students are not getting left behind, experiencing success, working hard
  • General outcomes - can become your focus of the final exam for one extra attempt!
  • Tokens - can trade them in for handing in an assignment late, getting another attempt, etc
  • Sharing with colleagues - some curiosity and some pushback
  • Practice for standardized tests - can happen outside of this and doesn't need to be high stakes
  • Webinar on Specs Grading in Chemistry
  • Labs are also included - passing each lab will have specific requirements
  • Another benefit - giving a test back is way less stressful and no grade grubbing! Tests are seen as learning opportunities
  • Can be used in any course area (works well with single point rubrics too)
Support the show

Connect with EduGals:


[00:00:40] Rachel: In this episode, we are talking all about specifications or specs, grading.

[00:00:46] Katie: Rachel's going to share some of the learning that she's been doing and how she has been implementing this in her classroom.

[00:00:52] Rachel: Let's get started.

[00:01:01] Rachel: This week Katie and I are talking and chatting all about specifications grading or specs, grading for short. And this is something I came across last summer and I loved it so much when I came across it that I've been implementing it in one of my courses this year.

[00:01:19] Katie: Yeah, so I'm kind of learning along with you this week. I don't know too much about specifications grading beyond the little bit that I have been reading up on so far. So Rachel has really kind of taken this on and then I'm gonna ask her all the difficult questions to get her squirming in her seat.

Not just joking

[00:01:38] Rachel: Perfect.

[00:01:40] Katie: but yeah. So we thought we'd bring you this, this week as an alternative type of grading. , which is exciting.

[00:01:47] Rachel: I think it's, it's a really nice type of grading system. It works really well with mastery based learning, which is why when I sort of read about it and learned a bit about it this past summer, that I immediately [00:02:01] latched onto it. So, I guess, you know, somewhere where, where we should start is maybe defining what it is and, and what it's all about.

[00:02:10] Katie: So what is it? 

[00:02:11] Rachel: I think it's, I don't, I don't have the perfect definition for it, but this is how I kind of think about it. So you set certain specifications or specs for what students need to meet in your classroom, and then everything is graded on a pass or fail kind of basis. So, , you set that bar for passing at whatever you want that bar to be.

And so because I'm doing mastery based learning, and a lot of people who do specs grading does this, is that they'll set the bar to what they determine what mastery is. So for me, that's students achieving 80% or greater. on specific outcomes. And then um, what you kind of do is you take a look at your course and you divvy [00:03:01] it up into little chunks or modules or outcomes, and we can get into that in a bit of detail in a few minutes.

And then you determine how many of those chunks or those modules that students need to demonstrate mastery on or pass in order to get specific grades in your course.

So you could lay out, you know, say they need to get 15 outta 16 of the modules mastered in order to get an A in your class. And then maybe it's only 13 outta 16 to get a B and so on like that.

[00:03:33] Katie: So it, it does sound very similar to mastery based because you're still, you still have that scale. and you are determining the, the skill or the outcome that you want them to achieve. Now when you say bundled, does that kind of mean like mini units?

[00:03:47] Rachel: Yeah. So maybe it's, it's best if we kind of maybe describe it in how I've set up my course, cuz I think that, like hearing about an example is going to, you know, really kind of put this into life so, [00:04:01] The course that I'm doing this with is with my higher level IB chemistry course, our year one course.

So it's essentially a grade 11, like intro to chemistry kind of course. And what I did is I went through in the summer and I took all my curriculum and I went, What are the main key topics that we cover. And I came up with 18 of them in total. And then I looked ahead and I went, Okay, what are the ones that students absolutely must know and must be really, really good at for grade 12 chemistry for the next year that we, we would go in that course.

And what are the ones that, you know, it's nice to know but. , if they don't fully master it this year, it's okay because it gets revisited. So I divided my course up like that and I, I have 18 of these outcomes that I call them and the ones that they have to master, I've called my essential outcomes and there are 12 of them.

And then the, the [00:05:01] other six I've called general outcomes because, you know, nice to have, but if we don't master them this year, that's okay.

And then, so for grades in my class Students have to like just passing those 12 essential outcomes, gets them a level two in ib, which is equivalent to a 50 to 60% in an Ontario grade. So that's a passing grade. In Ontario, I know in America and in a lot of schools, 60% or greater is, is passing. , you know, you, you kind of set it at whatever you want.

And then from there going up, every general outcome they pass will level up their grade in terms of an IB level. So for example, in IB level three, they have to pass all 12 essential outcomes, and then at least one of the general outcomes for a level four, it's all 12 essential, and then at least two of the general outcomes.

And so on,

And then I also have labs in there that they have to pass as [00:06:01] well, and they have to meet certain specifications for a passing grade on those ones. So essentially we've pulled all the points out of the classroom, which I cannot say enough about because I've seen so many benefits and I've never seen students work so hard in my life.

[00:06:20] Katie: That's great. So what I love about what I've heard so far, Is that you're, it's really making you go back to your curriculum and you really have to take the time to make sure that what you're asking students to do is relevant. Like, does this fit with what we need to cover based on this curriculum? And, and I love how you've also ensured that it's consistent with what they will then have to know for next year.

So, so I love that kind of progression of skill and how you've ensured that it align.

[00:06:50] Rachel: Yeah, it's, it's really great. And I think what's what really helped me when I was sitting down and planning that is because I've taught these courses so many [00:07:01] times that I know what those key skills are. I know where students go. I've taught both the year one and the year two. Hl. I've seen the exams, so I know.

what sort of really matters and what doesn't. I think it would be a little bit more challenging if you were approaching a course for maybe the first time or, or not quite sure. Right.

But then I guess the other sort of piece that goes along with this model is that students then need the opportunities to demonstrate mastery on.

Those outcomes and the way that I've set that up in my class, because it's an IB class, they write at the end of year two, they write an an 80%, three sets of exams, like it's 80% of their mark. So it's insane in terms of needing to know those test taking skills. So of course, the way that we're going to demonstrate our mastery is by practicing those test taking skills.

And so what I do for each of my outcomes is [00:08:01] I create three versions of a test, and the test is not like long for each of the outcomes. It's a couple of questions. It's, it's almost like maybe a slightly larger version of a mastery check versus just doing like a little single mastery check for a particular lesson and.

Then I bundle those together to create their tests, And so we actually cycle through and we have a specific day of the week. Thursdays is what my students pick. So we, every Thursday we have an opportunity for students to sit down and attempt these outcome. And they get up to three opportunities to pass them and, and demonstrate that mastery.

Now, for the essential ones, if they don't pass it in three, like I'm gonna still probably keep giving 'em chances. I did have a student who didn't get in three, I give 'em a fourth chance. And we really kind of work together to, to get him [00:09:01] there because they are required for passing my course. But the general outcomes that kind of determine where they land in terms of their final grade, like three chances and that's it, kind of deal.

[00:09:12] Katie: Nice. I was wondering how it was going to jive with the IV exams, because the reality of that program is, it's very standardized and it does come down to a test

and it is pretty predictable as to the questions that they'll kind of encounter or the style at least.

[00:09:30] Rachel: It is, and it's a little bit of a struggle in year one of IB chemistry because you just don't cover enough of the chemistry content. Like really the year one is about building the skills that they need to then be able to actually do the real curriculum in the IB chemistry curriculum and uh, be able to be successful on those exams.

A lot of our test questions are maybe not quite IB style, but it's always been that case. With that course, it's no different just because [00:10:01] I'm doing this different kind of grading


[00:10:03] Katie: How do you explain this to parents and students? Sorry. view world is very different and there's a lot of, I, I don't wanna say demands on teachers, but there's a lot higher expectations and yeah. So how do you explain this?

[00:10:17] Rachel: you know what I, I was really, I'll be honest, I was super, super, super. I'm gonna use many supers worried when we started this school year because I was doing something very different in a program where typically different doesn't jive, right? So, when I started this course, I'm trying to picture what, what I did.

So I didn't talk about grades for the first couple of weeks, and I didn't talk about grades until we got closer to being ready to start taking some of these tests and starting to get into our regular test taking schedule. So we just kind of focused on going through our lessons, going through mastery checks and, [00:11:01] and just kind of bumping along that way.

And then I started getting some questions about grades. And so I have a grid that I created in terms of showing them like, Here's your grade conversion. Like here's exactly what you need to pass, how many of them, And then this is what your grade would. So we took some time in class once the questions started coming in about grades and they're like, Whoa, how do I get like a level six or a level seven or whatever, cuz that, that question always comes up.

And, and we, I, I explained the whole thing to them and I was so nervous. That morning before class. I'm like, Oh no, I hope this goes well. You know, because you never know. Right? But I explained it all. They asked a lot of questions and then I had students putting up their hands going miss, why don't other teachers do this? Like, this?

is amazing. 

[00:11:54] Katie: that feels like a win.

[00:11:56] Rachel: Yeah. It was such a win. I like, Oh, thank goodness


[00:12:01] was so 

relief. It could. And so, yeah. So I was very, very relieved by that response. And, and they were just, they're like, This takes off so much stress. I'm like, Yes. So we can just focus on our learning in this classroom and not on grades.

Like, you know what you need to get in order to get a specific grade in this course. Like, let's stop talking about having that conversation and get on with the learning.

[00:12:27] Katie: That's great. 

I love that. 

[00:12:29] Rachel: Yeah. And we also just recently had our parent teacher night.

and like no questions from parents whatsoever. In fact, I, I had a few parents of students who, you know, like they're, they're struggling a little bit more with mastering some of the topics and they, they just hadn't, nothing terrible to say.

Like they see how hard their students are working at home and you know how much they're really focusing on chemistry. And I had so many parents [00:13:01] of students say that chemistry was their favorite course. Like think about that. Chemistry is their favorite course. That doesn't happen very often cuz you know it, it's a tough subject it's, it's actually been really amazing.

[00:13:17] Katie: That's awesome. I love


Are there a lot of secondary level teachers that you've heard of doing this? Like most of the articles I see it's college and university level.

[00:13:26] Rachel: So where I got this from, this was from Linda Nelson's book, so we'll link to that in our show notes. And that's the book I read over the summer. It's called Specifications Grading, Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students in Saving Faculty Time. It is written entirely from a university teaching level course and.

I also went to a webinar about this kind of grading. It was specific to someone who was doing it in chemistry, but again, it was an undergrad course, and I've only actually seen this going on at the undergrad level. I [00:14:01] haven't actually seen it in any K at 12 kind of settings. Now, granted, maybe someone out there is doing.

[00:14:07] Katie: Mm.

[00:14:08] Rachel: You know, if, if you are , let us know because I'd be really interested to know if anyone else out there in the K to 12 world is looking at this. But so far, I don't know anyone.

[00:14:21] Katie: Interesting. I almost wonder if like the modern classroom mastery based approach is, is kind of like a, an offshoot of that, if they had ever heard of that. I, I'm intrigued. I wonder. Because it is fairly similar. The, I think the biggest difference here are the bundling of the learning outcomes 

as a way to come up with a grade.

[00:14:40] Rachel: I think, I think that's the big sort of difference as well with modern classrooms. It's little mastery checks after every single lesson, and I'd still do that. I do that part in my classroom as well, but then we also then bundle them together and do those summative assessments together in this sort of style.

[00:15:01] Whereas I know a lot of people who do modern classrooms projects still do very traditional kind of summative 

assessments, tests and things like that with points.

[00:15:10] Katie: Yeah. great. No, this is um, a neat concept.

[00:15:14] Rachel: I think it's very, I love this more, more so because of what I've seen in my classroom and some of the benefits I've seen so, I probably have, I don't know, maybe about six or so students in that classroom where they're learning chemistry, but their pace is a bit slower. And if they were in a traditional classroom doing traditional assessments, they would be the students who would be getting in the fifties or even potentially failing.

Yeah, but instead what I'm seeing with these students is they are working their butts off and I mean like really working their butts off and you know, it might take them the whole three approaches to master and [00:16:01] and pass one of these outcomes, but they are.

And they're even making decisions now. Like I have a few who are like, Oh, I know I'm struggling with, you know, these three essential outcomes.

I know on the test there's these three essential outcomes and these two general outcomes, so I'm just gonna leave the general ones because I need to pass the essential ones. And they're making those decisions for themselves about where they focus 

and how many of the general ones they're even approach.

because they're okay. Like they're okay to say, I'm good with getting a level three in this course.

[00:16:33] Katie: Are they able to go back later and do some of those general ones?

[00:16:36] Rachel: I haven't decided that yet.

I almost feel like, and maybe my mind will change, but I, I feel like the general outcomes, those are the ones that are like really differentiating. the final grades and like there's gotta be something to tell me where they're landing. So right now I'm kind of keeping those ones a little bit more strict and saying like, [00:17:01] These are the three weeks that you have to pass this outcome.

And like, that's it. I don't know if I'm gonna revisit 

that though. 

[00:17:08] Katie: another thing that I've read is the use of like a token or like an incentive. I like an incentive program for. Specs, grading where students can hand it in for an extra opportunity.

[00:17:19] Rachel: You just gave me an idea, 

so thank you

[00:17:22] Katie: Well, that's where I was going with this

[00:17:24] Rachel: One. Well, I, and I've read about the token system as well, or the incentivizing uh, kinds of systems. So students get, like, the idea on the premise of it is they get, say, three tokens for a semester or the year or whatever, and then they can trade those in for handing something in late or for like trying again on a, on an outcome or something like that,

My students though, they've been asking me, Well, what are we doing with our final exam in this course? And honestly, I have. I'm like, That's a great question. I haven't really [00:18:01] thought that far ahead yet. But what if I do a final exam that just has the six general outcomes to give them that one final opportunity to pass those and boost their mark.

[00:18:14] Katie: Yeah that way, those who finally, you know, had the time to process and get your essential outcomes they can use that time to have that extra opportunity.

[00:18:24] Rachel: I love it. Like, and, and this is what I love about podcasting is I hadn't even thought about that until we sat down to record this. So I think that's what I'm gonna do, and I think the students would really appreciate that, is that I will make a final exam that just has my sixth general outcome. and then they can attempt as many as they want, and if they pass, they're leveling up their mark.

[00:18:48] Katie: That's fantastic. I 

like it, 

[00:18:51] Rachel: you,

[00:18:51] Katie: You're welcome,

[00:18:52] Rachel: You just solved one of my big problems. So

[00:18:56] Katie: And do 

[00:18:57] Rachel: do, you 

[00:18:58] Katie: yet at this point?

[00:19:00] Rachel: I [00:19:01] haven't done tokens. That was a, that was like too much

to think about as I was trying to implement this cuz I'm not only doing this right. But I'm also doing destreamed grade nine science and modern classrooms and everything else on top of it.

So this was kind of a


[00:19:18] Katie: No, it is. I was just curious. 

[00:19:20] Rachel: Now, I, I do have to say I, I think I've almost painted myself in a bit of a corner in terms of like what courses I can teach going forward in my department. Because I've been sharing this and sharing what my student like, how my students are benefiting and what I'm doing in my classroom. And I've gotten some like interests, like some intrigue.

People are curious about what it is and they're like, Oh, that sounds really interesting. And I've also gotten, I feel a little bit of pushback like, okay, but you're not preparing students for timed evaluations for the IB exams, [00:20:01] which I think is silly because really, , if they've mastered content, they're going to do well in those timed exams.

Like it, it will come and it will come with practice. So to me, I'm not concerned about it, but I feel like some of my colleagues might be concerned about it a little bit. And I think some of it may come from just I don't know, not understanding, maybe fear of 

change. what, everything that comes with change, right?

[00:20:27] Katie: It's, yeah, it's not easy. But it's interesting because you can give kids however much time you want, but if they don't have the learning. time is irrelevant. So I see the value in doing something like this that focuses more on skill development and essential outcomes. And then I think the timed component can be something that comes later.

[00:20:47] Rachel: exactly. I see that as practice. And that practice happening in, in the year two course, you know, And then that's fine. They're getting all kinds of practice. And that practice doesn't have to [00:21:01] be something that's high stakes necessarily. It just needs to be practice. Right. So you could, and, and I haven't done this yet, but my thought is.

as we get towards the end of this semester that some of those activities that I put into their lessons might be okay. Try this, set a timer for yourself and try this IB style


[00:21:22] Katie: The other thing that is, It's a slippery slope because it's still technically an Ontario course at this point. Like it's not an IB mark per se. So time in Ontario is approached very differently.

Particularly for English language learners or those who require accommodations. So it's it's tricky to implement time at this point when you're still another year away from a standardized exam.

[00:21:48] Rachel: And like I said, I think it will come and I have no doubts whatsoever that these kids are probably going to do better on that exam. Than they would have if they were in a traditional classroom.

[00:22:00] Katie: That's [00:22:01] awesome.

[00:22:01] Rachel: But I feel like I've kind of painted myself into a corner now because, one of my colleagues is teaching this same course next semester, so my worry now is, Okay, she's gonna be teaching this, but she's not necessarily gonna use the same kind of grading system.

So are we going to hear from parents? Are we gonna hear from students? Are we gonna like, I'm, I'm a little worried about that sort of aspect.

[00:22:25] Katie: So I'm glad that you're teaching it in first semester. Then

[00:22:29] Rachel: I know, right?

And I, I did warn my colleagues, so I did, I did warn her less like in the summer and at the beginning of the school year and just saying like, I am doing things very different. 

I'm happy to share it. Happy to chat with you.

[00:22:44] Katie: I think that one of the things that we often forget is just because people do things the same way doesn't mean that it's as effective. Like you could deliver a lesson and I could try to deliver that lesson and. If it doesn't go with my style of teaching or my, the way that I interact with students, it's not [00:23:01] going to work the same.

So no matter what, like as long as teachers are trying to reach the students and teach the skills and content, et cetera, how we get there,

It's a little less important.

But, is neat. I'm, this is very exciting.

[00:23:16] Rachel: It is, it's, it's good. And it's not all test based, so I, I haven't talked about the other piece of their mark, but they do have labs as well. And there are very prescribed kind of practicals that they do have to do in ib. So I have six of them for this year. I think there's about 10 of them in the curriculum, or 12 or something like that.

But there's six that apply for this year. . So I went through, and again, for those labs, they have to pass at least three of them. I figure if they pass at least half of them, that's demonstrating some IB skills to me. And that pass again is gonna have very specific requirements and it's gonna be that practice of writing those IB style kind of 


[00:23:57] Katie: Awesome. 

[00:23:57] Rachel: And it's, it's just so good. Like, I have to [00:24:01] say, and I, and I've, I've kind of already said it as again, but my students, I have not seen students work so hard and have such a good understanding of chemistry in any other year.

[00:24:14] Katie: Well, it gives them more control, right? It's that self motivation now. Like we don't just have to be in front of the class and, and. talk the whole time. It's this idea of you're in control of your mark. You know exactly what you need to do to get there, and you know how many opportunities you have to show it.

So use your time.

[00:24:33] Rachel: The other big benefit is when I give a test back and because we're testing every week, I'm giving a test back every single week, is I no longer like, as a teacher, have that anxiety of giving a test back or I wait until, you know, you always wait until the last like five minutes of class to give a test back cuz you're like, I just don't wanna deal with all the questions and I don't wanna deal with the grade scrubbing and the arguing of points which.

Our IB students very [00:25:01] traditionally are very good at arguing


and they 

will. So with doing it this way, and it's, I mean, just on the test, on each section, it just says pass or revise. I have not had any grade grubbing. 

I have had no arguing over whether they've passed or not. I have had. I, I told them, you know, take your tests, go correct them and come and ask me questions the next day.

And they are actually coming and asking like really deep, insightful questions to really sort of understand their learning. They're taking these opportunities, like we want them to, as teachers, as learning opportunities. 

And it's just, it. It's very heartwarming, you know, to see that my students are just working so, so hard to really understand the material.

[00:25:53] Katie: They're engaged in the learning, 

which is our goal as educators.

[00:25:58] Rachel: it is.

[00:25:59] Katie: have have you heard of this used [00:26:01] in other courses? So whether it be more literature based or social sciences cetera?

[00:26:07] Rachel: I think in, some of the examples in university, like they, it is probably used more in literacy kinds of co like English courses, social sciences and things like that. Cuz you can, again, like for writing samples, like you set your sort of standard. On what's acceptable writing, and then students have to 

[00:26:30] Katie: Ah. 

[00:26:32] Rachel: that order to get like a passing mark.

Right. for 

for that particular thing. 

[00:26:37] Katie: I could see that because we often get lost in the literature in English courses, whereas English is actually a, a skills based course, and so it, it's almost a good way to ensure that you're going back and, and really isolating those overall skills. And then almost like a checklist, like you have to do this, this, this.

Kind of like what you've done. So

interesting. Intriguing.

[00:26:58] Rachel: Yeah, that's, that's what I've seen for [00:27:01] labs is they'll lay out and there is, there is a lot of talk about creating rubrics for. Specs, grading, and basically your rubric is here's all the things for passing and that's it. It's almost like a single point rubric in a way, 

cuz you're just laying out like what the expectations are 

and anything that meets that and above is a pass

[00:27:24] Katie: I've actually, I, I've fallen in love with single point rubrics where I can just be like, Here, I, you've mastered this. This is great. Versus, I'm not checking it, but I'm telling you why you haven't yet got there. 

It's life changing versus just the very generic for level rubrics.

[00:27:39] Rachel: I have to say those specs, grading for me has been life changing, and I don't think I could ever go back. Now,

[00:27:47] Katie: That's amazing. Thank you for sharing.

[00:27:49] Rachel: Yeah. So on that note, I think we're gonna wrap up our conversation here today. I could continue talking about this 

for ages, but I'm not going to, I'm not going to, We wanna keep this at a [00:28:01] reasonable length. So what we'll do is we'll include any of the links or resources we talked about here today in our show notes.

You can access our show notes for this episode at slash 1 0 7. That's edu G A l 1 0 7.

[00:28:18] Katie: And if you like what you heard today, then please feel free to share it with a colleague or a friend. And don't forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast app so that you don't miss out on any future content.

[00:28:28] Rachel: And as always, we'd love to hear from you. So if you've tried specs, grading or any other kind of alternative grading system, leave us a message. You can go onto our Flip at and leave us a video message there. Or you can go onto our website at and leave us a written response.