Specifications Grading for a New Course

14Sep16

In my last post, I closed the book on my spring Television & American Culture course, reflecting on the general success of using specifications grading for the course. As I launch into a new semester, I’m using the same approach on a different course, Theories of Popular Culture (the whole syllabus is available at the link), trying to make some adjustments to address both the very different set of educational goals and contexts, and some of the lessons learned from my first go round.

Theories of Popular Culture is an upper-level seminar (around 15 students once the dust clears), fulfilling both the theory requirement for the Film & Media Culture department and Middlebury’s College Writing (CW) requirement (all students must take an introductory writing course as part of their first year seminar, and an advanced CW course like this, ideally within their major). Thus the bar is set much higher than last semester’s intro course, and the expectations are that students do both more advanced quality work and higher quantity of writing & revision. This is the eighth time I’ve taught this course, and I think both the content and assignments work very well, so I was not looking to do a major overhaul of either. Rather, I was trying to implement this grading system to increase student flexibility and transparency, focus on learning over grades, and avoid the stresses and negative patterns tied to traditional grading.

In adapting the course learning goals to the tiered system that forms the foundation of specifications grading, I immediately ran into a problem with the CW requirement: students fulfill this requirement by passing a course tagged as CW. This means that I needed to ensure that the goals of the CW requirement are included at the base level of my course, meaning that every student who passed the course would have to fulfill them. While the CW program doesn’t provide explicit learning goals, I tried to adapt some of the advice for CW faculty concerning writing and revision, baking them into the course learning goals:

All students who pass the course (with a minimum grade of C) will have demonstrated the ability to:

  • Describe how various theoretical approaches approach the study of popular culture
  • Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to analyze popular culture
  • Read dense theoretical writings and summarize their core ideas
  • Communicate their ideas orally and via writing with fluency and clarity, per college CW standards
  • Revise their writing to improve both ideas and communication, per college CW standards

Students who achieve a higher level of mastery (with a minimum grade of B) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Analyze popular culture with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections between theoretical models, different examples and cultural contexts
  • Engage in serious conversation about often fraught topics with an ethos of “rhetorical resilience”

Students who achieve the highest level of mastery (with a grade of A) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Create, substantiate, and communicate an original analytic argument that synthesizes multiple facets of popular culture, appropriate types of evidence, and theoretical approaches with sophistication
  • Meet class expectations per the assigned schedule with consistency

I admit I’m not entirely happy with this breakdown, because I believe my expectations for successful writing and revision per the CW program are higher than the expectations for the C level should be. Additionally, the need to produce a significant amount of writing and revision for CW credit (typically 25+ pages) takes away one of the most successful aspects of my spring course: making the final essay optional. The best solution I came up with would be to disentangle the CW credit from the course grade: students would earn what they earn in terms of a grade, and those who met the CW expectations would receive that credential separately (and those who didn’t, wouldn’t). However, that’s not how things work here: the CW marker is tagged to a course, not an outcome, so anyone who passes a CW course fulfills the requirement on their transcript. Needless to say, reworking this system is not something that an individual faculty can implement on an ad-hoc basis, so I’m stuck with keeping the CW goals as part of the course’s ground floor requirements, and working with students to make sure they fulfill them.

Two of the other shifts in how I scaffold assignments and assign grades are embedded in the assignment bundles:

C Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of C:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to five absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 8 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one successful revision

B Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of B:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to three absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 10 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one Sophisticated mark and at least one successful revision
  • Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least four course meetings

A Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of A:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to two absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 12 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least three Sophisticated marks and at least one successful revision
  • Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least eight course meetings

One key difference is that instead of different versions of an assignment (Basic vs. Advanced prompts for my TV exams), I’m implementing differential evaluation for the same prompt, allowing for Satisfactory and Sophisticated as dual passing marks. Each assignment will have some additional specifications to achieve Sophisticated, so it does function somewhat as an Advanced version, but it is really more about execution than taking on different questions. In my mind, a Sophisticated essay will demonstrate upper level learning around originality and synthesis of ideas, as well as using more effective rhetoric and prose style to convey ideas. The pitfall is avoiding treating this as a backhand way of giving A vs. B grades under different names, but I will strive to emphasize the specifications rather than more subjective evaluation, especially in giving feedback for potential revisions.

The other major change involves class participation. In my TV class, I was a bit dismayed that a few students who got A or A– never contributed much in class discussions; although I technically said that attendance would measure participation, there was no real way to implement that. So given the smaller size and more theoretical/analytical bent of this course, I’ve created a tracking system for participation: at the end of each class, I will mark each student that I thought demonstrated active engagement and made productive contributions that day. With a 15 person class, that seems manageable, although we will see if I can be consistent in my tracking.

The final difference involves the use of tokens and flexibility. Last semester, I found that too many students were trying to game the system by handing in weak first drafts and revising them as de facto extensions, or relying too much on tokens to fall behind in their weekly responses. So this semester I’m being more strict with the use of tokens; students get three to use for any of these purposes:

  • Eliminate an absence from their attendance record
  • Count an Unsatisfactory or not completed reading response as Satisfactory
  • Revise and resubmit an Unsatisfactory essay to fulfill Satisfactory expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
  • Revise and resubmit a Satisfactory essay to fulfill Sophisticated expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
  • Submit an essay assignment up to 48 hours late

Unlike last semester, the first revision is not “free,” and each revision will cost a token. If a student uses all three initial tokens and needs to use more for revisions, they can be “purchased” at the cost of one gradation of the final letter grade—thus if a student achieves the expectations for the B bundle, but must revise an essay multiple times and uses four total tokens, that student would receive a B– for the course. While this may be a bit harsh for some, it will hopefully discourage procrastination or manipulation of the expectations, but still provide some agency and control for students and reinforce the pedagogical values of transparency and flexibility that students really valued last spring.

Like before, this is an experiment. My primary goal is to encourage students to focus on learning rather than grades, and take more ownership of their education. But I also recognize that this is a very challenging course, both with the highly theoretical content and the quantity of writing, so I expect there will be some bumps along the way. I will hopefully offer updates as we go.



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