Linda B. Nilson, Ph.D.

Linda B. Nilson, Ph.D. is an Internationally-Known Keynote Speaker, Workshop Designer/Leader, and Author on College Teaching, Scholarly Writing, and Academic Career Development.

Metacognition and Specifications Grading: The Odd Couple?

More than anything else, metacognition is awareness of what’s going on in one’s mind. This means, first, that a person sizes up a task before beginning it and figures out what kind of a task it is and what strategies to use. Then she monitors her thinking as she progresses through the task, assessing the soundness of her strategies and her success at the end.

So what does this have to do with specs grading?

In specs grading, all assignments and tests are graded pass/fail, credit/no credit, where “pass” means at least B or better work. A student product passes if it conforms to the specifications (specs) that an instructor described in the assignment or test directions. So either the students follow the directions and “get it right,” or the work doesn’t count. Partial credit doesn’t exist.

For the instructor, the main task is laying out the specs. A short reading compliance assignment may have specs as simple as: “You must answer all the study questions, and each answer must be at least 100 words long.” For more substantial assignments, the instructor can detail the “formula” or template of the assignment – that is, the elements and organization of a good literature review, research proposal, press release, or lab report – or provide a list of the questions that she wants students to answer, as for a reflection on a service-learning or group project experience. Especially for formulaic assignments, which so many undergraduate-level assignments are, models and examples bring the specs to life.

The stakes are higher for students than they are in our traditional grading system. With specs grading, it’s all or nothing. No sliding by with a careless, eleventh-hour product because partial credit is a given.

To be successful in a specs-graded course, students have to be aware of their thinking as they complete their assignments and tests. This means that students, first have to pay attention to the directions, and the directions are themselves a learning experience when they explicitly lay out the formula for different types of work. Especially when enhanced with models, the specs supply the crucial information that we so often gloss over: exactly what the task involves. Otherwise, how should our students know? With clear specs, they learn what reflection involves, how a literature review is organized, and what a research proposal must contain. Then during the task, students need to monitor and assess their work to determine if it is indeed meeting the specs. “Does the depth of my response match the length requirement?” “Am I answering all the reflection questions?” “Am I following the proper organization?” “Have I written all the sections?”

Another distinguishing characteristic of specs grading is the replacement of the point system with “bundles” of assignments and tests. For successfully completing a bundle, students obtain final course grades. And they select the bundle and the grade they are willing to work for. To get a D, the bundle involves relatively little, unchallenging work. For higher grades, the bundles require progressively more work, more challenging work, or both. In addition, each bundle is associated with a set of learning outcomes, so a given grade indicates the outcomes a student has achieved.

If students fail to self-monitor and self-assess, they risk receiving no credit for their work and, given that it is part of a bundle, getting a lower grade in the course. And their grade is important for a whole new reason: because they chose the grade they wanted/needed and its accompanying workload. This element of choice and volition increases students’ sense of responsibility for their performance.

With specs grading, students do get limited opportunities to revise an unacceptable piece of work or to obtain get a 24-hour extension on an assignment. These opportunities are represents by virtual tokens that students receive at the beginning of the course. Three is a reasonable number. This way, the instructor doesn’t have to screen excuses, requests for exceptions, and the like. She also has the option of giving students chances to earn tokens and rewarding those with the most tokens at the end of the course.

Specs grading solves many of the problems that our traditional grading system has bred while strengthening students’ metacognition and sense of ownership of their grades. Details on using and transitioning to this grading system are in my 2015 book, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Sterling, VA: Stylus).

Originally published in 2015 as an invited post on the Improve with Metacognition blog. Available at Improve with Metacognition