February 29, 2024

My 1st Experience with Specifications Grading

This article is a translation of a text published in Eductive’s French edition. 

Let’s take 2 groups from the same chemistry course with the same course notes, same assignments, same labs, and the same evaluations. The only difference between these 2 groups is the teacher. In theory, we would expect these 2 groups to perform similarly, wouldn’t we? If it’s not the case, it would be the teacher’s fault, right?

Certainly, the teacher’s judgement is an important element in assigning grades to students. But would it be possible that the grade itself plays a role in the inequity between these 2 chemistry groups? Should students be required to submit all the assignments during the semester? If they don’t, should they receive a zero grade for each assignment not submitted?

On the contrary, does a student who perfectly writes a lab report based on a pre-determined experiment necessarily deserve 100%?

If, like me, you have these thoughts between 2 classes or when you come back home in the evening, you would probably be interested in this new concept related to assessment practices: ungrading.

My discovery of specifications grading

What is ungrading? Is it evaluating without grades? If so, how can we confirm the successful completion of a course? Even worse, how can we determine the student’s R score?

Fortunately, I am part of a community of practice made up of chemistry teachers from various colleges. During a meeting in the winter of 2023, Caroline Cormier, a chemistry teacher at Cégep André-Laurendeau, mentioned a project she has been working on regarding alternative grading practices, funded by the Programme d’aide à la recherche sur l’enseignement et l’apprentissage (PAREA) [in French]. Would it be possible to approach assessment in a more equitable way while preserving the existing grading systems? Clearly, the topic piqued my curiosity!

During the summer, I wanted to learn more about alternative grading practices. This is how I discovered that these practices are diverse. Yes, they include ungrading, but also other approaches, such as specifications grading.

This summer, I read an excellent book called Specifications Grading by Linda B. Nilson, recommended by Caroline Cormier. The author explains the key concepts surrounding specifications grading, but also how to implement this practice in a course in a very practical way.

This fall (2023), I took the plunge in my Coordination of a Work Team course (Coordination d’une équipe de travail), which has nothing to do with chemistry. As a teacher in the DCS in Food Processing and Quality Assurance Technology, and in the ACS in Dairy Processing technical program, I find myself teaching many courses with diverse content. I believe that the concepts of industrial psychology were more suitable than those of chemistry for a 1st attempt at specifications grading.

What is specifications grading?

With specifications grading, the course is divided into several specifications, which are essentially the expectations regarding the students’ competencies.

For each specification, there is a list of tasks to be completed by the students. For example:

  • read an article on the internet
  • summarize a given text
  • etc.

In my course, I’ve defined 6 specifications, each counting for 10% of the final course grade. The remaining 40% is associated with the final evaluation of the course (certification evaluation), in line with the InstitutionalPolicyon The Evaluation of Student Achievement (IPESA) of my institution. This is what Linda B. Nilson refers to as a “mixed approach”: a portion of the grade is awarded by specifications and another portion is awarded through a different method.

I defined 4 tasks by specifications. When a task is completed to my satisfaction, I check it off the list.

  • When all the tasks on a list have been checked off, the student gets a grade of 10/10 (10% of the final course grade), and the specification is considered “mastered”.
  • If the 10 items on the list are not checked off (whether none are checked or all but 1 are checked), the student gets a 0/10, and the specification remains as “in progress”.

For each specification, students have a deadline to complete the tasks. Then, during the following week, they can make adjustments based on my feedback so that I can consider the tasks have been satisfactorily completed.

Examples of tasks

I didn’t have to reinvent my entire course. The specifications themselves are derived from the general course outline and the course competency. Thus, the activities I was doing beforehand could be integrated into task lists. I still added a few activities compared to the previous years. In accordance with Linda B. Nilson’s recommendations and the best practices on inclusive pedagogy, I tried to vary as much as possible the types of activities I offer to my students. They have to:

  • complete a portfolio
  • write several reflective texts (feedback on hands-on activities, for example)
  • participate in different hands-on team activities (facilitate a meeting, provide a short professional training session on a task, etc.)
  • host a podcast
  • record a video
  • write summaries
  • conduct an individual interview with me (to prepare for the final evaluation)
  • etc.

As examples, here are the specification sheets describing 2 of the course specifications [in French].

The description of specification 1, “Se définir au regard de la fonction de coordination (chef d’équipe), des normes du travail et des conventions collectives en vigueur” (Define oneself in relation to the coordination function (team leader), labour standards, and the current collective agreement), along with the corresponding task list.

The description of specification 2, “Communiquer adéquatement un message à une équipe de travail” (Effectively communicate a message to a work team), along with the corresponding task list.

In this course, the portfolio is composed of activities done in class (for example, completing a questionnaire on leadership styles according to the Blake & Mouton model). Students record in their portfolios their answers to different metacognitive questions about these activities. I was already using a portfolio in this course, but I believe it makes even more sense this year in the context of specifications grading.

Screenshot of a page from a student’s portfolio in OneNote [in French]

An example of an activity carried out in the course: facilitating a meeting

One of the activities I traditionally included in the course was asking the students to facilitate a meeting.

In the past, I would present the students with a fictional scenario. For example, I would inform a team that there had been a food safety-related incident in the food factory where they work: an employee on the production line has lost a jewel suspected to be now in one of the cakes produced. Each student had a role (production manager, the person who lost their jewel, etc.) Students had to meet to solve the problem or discuss actions to be taken.

However, the exercise was challenging for the students: since the scenario was fictional, many didn’t have a sufficiently deep knowledge of the context to be able to realistically carry out the roleplay. For example, the specific role of the production manager wasn’t clear to everyone, making the activity less successful. In addition, there was the stress that the students experienced during the task. Every little action was scrutinized under the lens of my role as a teacher.

Is this student listening to his colleagues’ responses? Does he show assertive leadership throughout the meeting? If so, good job! He successfully facilitated a meeting with a grade of 82%. But in a workplace context, do we really conduct department meetings at 82%?

This year, I had the idea to revamp my activity using a “specifications grading” approach by taking advantage of one of the concurrent courses, which focuses on dairy products. In this course taught by one of my colleagues, the students choose a product to make (sour cream, cheese, etc.). It’s a complex project. For example, to make sour cream, the students must choose the proper lactic acid bacteria, the fermentation temperature, etc. In my course, I therefore ask them to organize a meeting to present their project to their peers and get feedback from them. (This is the advantage of teamwork: others’ opinions can help us improve our project.)

In this project, the students play their own roles and truly benefit from the meeting they facilitate. It allows them to improve their project for their dairy product course.

For my part, I participate in all the meetings. What I assess are exactly the same concepts as in previous semesters, namely:

  • organizing a structured meeting
  • demonstrating assertive leadership
  • applying active listening techniques
  • etc.

It can be stressful for students to facilitate a meeting, especially in front of the teacher who is taking notes. In past years, some individuals lost points, for example, because they were looking at the floor when they were thinking instead of making eye contact with others. By transforming the activity into a task in a specifications list, students feel less pressure to perform. To check off the box in the list, the student’s performance doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to be generally satisfactory according to my expectations (or criteria) specified before the evaluation.

As a matter of fact, it’s a point I had to explain (and re-explain) to the students: the fact that the grade for a specification is either 0% or 100% doesn’t mean everything has to be perfect to succeed. It’s quite the opposite!

It’s important to explain to the student the intention behind specifications grading. And even when we explain it, they don’t automatically assimilate it. However, for those who have understood, specifications grading becomes a less stressful practice than traditional evaluation.


I try to give feedback to the students promptly. I find it even more important in a course like this one (where the focus is on human skills rather than technical skills) than in the chemistry courses I usually teach. In my chemistry courses, I think students can know if their answers to exam questions are correct before seeing my feedback. But in a course like Coordination of a Work Team, it can be less obvious because there is not necessarily only a single “right answer.” I want to give them my feedback as quickly as possible, so they’re not left in the dark.

My comments on a podcast created by a student [in French]

My feedback to a student on one of the specifications [in French]

This semester, I have 21 students in my Coordination of a Work Team course divided into 2 groups (1 in the DCS program and 1 in the ACS program). Providing feedback was time-consuming. It must be said that I have added activities to the course, compared to what I did in previous years. In addition, this year, I have to check (and mark!) the content of the students’ portfolios 6 times during the semester, whereas I only did it 4 times in the past.

Furthermore, I decided to use OneNote for assignment submission. I realized that keeping track of everything happening on OneNote was demanding for me. I don’t receive notifications when a student answers a question or submits a document: I have to periodically go through all the notebooks to see the names of the pages in bold, indicating that these pages have been modified since my last visit. Perhaps OneNote was not the best option to meet my needs. (Your suggestions are welcome!)

Misunderstanding of the approach by students?

The semester isn’t over yet; there are still many things that can change, and I may get surprises along the way. However, at the moment, what concerns me is that several students haven’t completed many of the tasks that were assigned.

In a specifications grading approach, I think you need to expect that some students will choose not to do tasks related to a given specification to save work, knowing that they will still pass the course by mastering the other specifications. However, in my course, some individuals have done multiple tasks from a list… but not all of them. These are “wasted” effort… If they complete 3 out of 4 tasks, they get a 0. I was expecting the students to either complete all the tasks on a list or none of them… not just a part of them!

Next time, I will make sure to further clarify the principle of specifications grading.

Also, I’m considering adding the checkbox “I will not do this task” on OneNote. This way, I will know if the non-submission is voluntary and deliberate or if I need to communicate with the student to learn more.

Another thing I will probably add to my course is an individual meeting with each student after the deadline for the 1st specification. This will allow me to clarify my expectations and ensure that each student understands the approach.

The final evaluation of the course: a roleplay with actors

For the final evaluation of the course (which counts for 40% of the total course grade and is not based on specifications; thanks to my institution’s IPESA…), historically, the bar is set high.

I collaborate with actors from the École de théâtre du Cégep de Saint-Hyacinthe. Each student has to interact with the actors to resolve a simulated conflict (a misunderstanding) between a team leader and an employee.

In line with the course competency, the students must communicate, explain how they perceive the situation, and ask the character performed by the actor to explain their own perception of the situation. (The student chooses the scenario from a list.)

For example, in one of the scenarios, an employee leaves before the end of their shift without informing anyone. The student plays the team leader who must meet the person to find out what happened and explain the consequences of an unannounced departure from work.

Another scenario revolves around a case of psychological harassment. Talk about stress!

In “real life,” resolving a conflict is an extremely difficult exercise, even more so for novice students. Can we really resolve a conflict but only at 74%? And is it the resolution itself that has to be evaluated?  Even an employee under the legislation on psychological harassment in the workplace doesn’t have this obligation. (They have obligations of means but not of results.)

This is why alternative grading practices are important for some college-level courses.

This year, with specifications grading, I included in my task lists several activities that led to a progression toward the final evaluation. One of them is an individual meeting to do a “practice” roleplay. But, in addition to the progression, what’s important to me is the opportunity for students to make successful attempts, but sometimes also experience failures. There is no need to fail a student because they fail their 1st attempt… On the contrary, that’s how we learn!

At this point in the semester, the final evaluation is yet to be completed. I don’t know what the outcomes for the students will be, but at least I will have the conviction that I have prepared them better this time.

A promising experience

The current semester is marked by many challenges, but I’m convinced that specifications grading is a very interesting approach for my teaching practices. This seems particularly true in the technical sector since this way of working is quite representative of the reality of the job market. On the job market, a technician often has a list of tasks to perform, each of which is validated by a supervisor. Each task must satisfy the person in charge… lust like in my course!

Additional resource: another teacher’s story on specifications grading

The story of Bruno Voisard, a chemistry teacher at Cégep André-Laurendeau [in French]

What about you? Have you tried or would you like to try specifications grading? Do you have any advice for me? Share your experiences and opinions in the comments section!

About the author

Christian Mercier

After teaching chemistry for nearly 10 years at Cégep André-Laurendeau, Christian Mercier has been a teacher in the Food Processing and Quality Assurance Technology program at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire du Québec (Saint-Hyacinthe campus), since 2018.

A jack-of-all-trades teacher, he is also interested in workplace dynamics and college research. For him, teaching is synonymous with humour and rigour, qualities he wishes to convey to both his students and colleagues.

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