My Take on Specifications Grading (or, How I Learned to Not Spend My Weekends Marking)

I’ve been proselytizing this method for a while now, and have used it in a range of creative writing and publishing modules. It’s been wildly successful for me (though of course I’ll continue tweaking it), and enough people have asked about it that I thought I’d put it together into an overview/summary resource. It should probably be an actual paper one of these days, but that would require time and research and motivation. Natch.

My teaching model is based on Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading (she’s also got a great intro article on Inside Higher Ed), just so the original genius can get plenty of credit.

My motivations are these: I came a hair’s breadth from burning out entirely. I went from teaching creative writing classes with 7-10 students on them to massive creative writing modules with 80+ students on them. Marking loads were insane, despite the fact that I have a pretty streamlined process with rubrics and QuickMarks and commonly used comments that I can cut and paste, as well as voice recordings of general comments instead of writing them out. I was honestly thinking about chucking it all in.

I’d already instituted a few radical techniques to handle the ever-increasing academic load: I have a firm policy against checking emails on evenings, weekends, research days, and holidays. Undergraduate students are directed not to email me (either they can find their answers in the syllabus or online, or they can come to office hours); if they do email me, they get an auto-response with an FAQ and a reminder to come see me if they still can’t find the info. If I’m not required at work, I’m working at home, free from distractions and chatting and drop-ins.

If you haven’t read Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading (or her Inside Higher Ed article) yet, this template will seem nuts and overwhelming. So go, at least read the article, and come back, and it will make more sense.

What follows is from the “Read Me” file in the following documents folder, which contains all my sample materials: Click here to access the documents.

I put these documents together during my first go at creating a “specifications grading” module. The module is a creative writing and publishing module, so very writing-heavy, but also with very industry-based critical exercises leading to a critical essay. To get a feel for the actual module, review the “SAMPLE Handbook” PDF document.

The handbook lays out module policies and assessments, but not the “behind the scenes” of how I designed the workload. That’s what this overview is meant to do. Feel free to get in touch with me and ask questions.

Teaching Structure

2 hour “lecture” session per week (led by module coordinator)

  • Broken into 1-hour lecture, and 1-hour “study group” time. This 2nd hour is where the study groups led the session (25 min for 2nd years, 50 min for 3rd years) for their “Group Presentation” assessment.

1 hour seminar session per week (led by module coordinator or seminar leader)

  • The seminars are where all of the tasks are submitted, marked, and given back to the students. These were highly organized to enable this (see the “Sems OL & Checklists” document).


I didn’t want to revalidate this module, so in the official books there are only three assessments (creative portfolio, critical essay, group presentation). I just made the tasks part of doing the assessments. I will note the tasks were always part of the module – they were exercises and seminar activities that I had the students do in order to prepare for the actual assessments. So while it LOOKS like they’re doing more work, they’re doing the same things I always asked of them and getting more credit for the exercises and process.

Of course, if you’re designing a module from scratch, you can do whatever you want. But that’s the reason for the seemingly complicated structure of this sample module (Plus, our validation people really don’t get it yet – I do have one module designed this way, and it completely flummoxed them. See “SAMPLE Handbook 2” for that module.).

It’s important for both instructor and student to remain/be made aware that the emphasis in the marking has shifted from the final artifact itself to more of the process of creating that artifact.

The Documents

You’ll see from the documents that I’ve made some things that are traditionally document-less (writing workshops) documented so that we can mark them!

You’ll also see the amount of work that goes into preparing the module. But once you have a template for how you like to do things, subsequent modules get much easier.

A key element is the “Sems OL & Checklists” document. This goes in the front of a hard copy binder that I provide my seminar leaders with. The binder also includes class registers for taking attendance (if the leader can’t access the online system), a printed version of the “Task Tracking” worksheet (again, in case a digital copy can’t be accessed), and extra copies of all the worksheets and feedback sheets for the various tasks (for the students who inevitably don’t bring their handbooks).

This binder minimizes all the stress of remembering what task is due and what the seminar leader has to keep up with. My seminar leader in the very first class I used it in actually complained that it felt like he wasn’t even needed, compared to previous modules he’s taught with me!

Note: If I’m leading the seminars, or have seminar leaders who are familiar with this module structure, I let the Blackboard site do most of the organization, and forego the binder.

Marking Strategy

As much as possible, I planned the module so that the tasks could be marked in class. Students were required to attend the sessions in which a task was due (which helped attendance as well). Each seminar session included a practical exercise for the students, which gave the seminar leader an opportunity to check the tasks off and give them back.

UPDATE: The 0-3 marking system I describe below was my way of easing into Specs Grading. I’ve since scrapped it, as it still caused confusion and grade-grubbing amongst the students. I now just mark all tasks on a pass/fail basis – fail works get feedback on how they can pass. And that’s it.

  • Tasks that incorporated in-class participation (workshops, peer review, peer feedback, etc.) each had a hard copy worksheet for the students to fill in (these are included in the documents). I included sufficient copies of these in the module handbooks for students to use throughout the semester; they were also on Blackboard so that if students lost their handbook, they could print them out. (I always had extras on hand, but emphasized they needed to keep their handbooks with them.)
    • Note: I did the full “here are all the handouts you need for the semester right in your module handbook” initially. In later semesters, I was not this organized, so just brought sufficient sheets to each session for that day’s activities. Works fine, given that most of them lose the handbook anyway.
  • Tasks that were done out of class could be submitted directly to Blackboard. I just created a bunch of TurnItIn assignments.
  • Any task done on hard copy worksheet had to be scanned & uploaded to Blackboard to count. Once it was marked and given back to the student, they were responsible for officially submitting it to the relevant Assignment on BB (so we have evidence of all work done). If they didn’t do this, they didn’t get credit for the task. We have scanners in all buildings, but most students just snapped pics with their phones and stuck those in a Word doc to upload.
  • No feedback is given on work that earns a “2” (satisfactory) or “3” (satisfactory-plus). The rubric is sufficient feedback for these.
  • Work that earns a “1” (unsatisfactory) gets brief comments about how it can be improved.
  • TOKENS!!! Each student gets 2 tokens for the semester. They can use these for just about anything, but most common is to turn in a task for a seminar in which they were absent without a university-approved reason, to submit a task late, or to re-submit an unsatisfactory task. These are also negotiable! I’ve had some students negotiate for extra word count on creative assignments, a few extra days on a deadline, etc.
  • Task Tracking Template. It’s here as an Excel file, but I actually use it as a Google Sheet. This enables both the module coordinator and seminar leader to enter marks on the same sheet, and keep track of token use, etc. It also enables attendance taking (on our system, only the module coordinator has access to the actual attendance system, a pain for the seminar leader).
  • Group Presentations. This was probably the most pain-in-the-ass part of it. It was a GREAT use of study time, and the students did some fun stuff, and really engaged with the material. But this method of collecting peer feedback and collating it was actually more time-intensive than I would have liked. Trying to improve on this point in the future.
  • Marking the “big” assessments (creative portfolio / critical essay). Previously, these assessments were marked entirely on their own merit. A student who never attended class but turned in an amazing essay could still get an A. A student who worked really hard but struggles with essays would get a C+. I don’t necessarily think this reflects what each of them learned.

The emphasis in the specs system shifts marking from the final artifact to the process of creating that artifact. I’d argue it’s the process of work that’s more important in what we’re teaching (how to research, how to think, how to draft, how to communicate, etc.), so I like that. But it REALLY takes some getting used to.

I struggled the most with it when it came to marking these “big” assessments. First, I offer much less feedback on these, which saves a ton of time. The rationale is that they’ve been getting graduated feedback on all the tasks going along, so you don’t have to give much here. I record a voice memo, max 3 minutes. I tend not to put in-line comments (such as QuickMarks), because they have had so much opportunity for class and peer feedback. One or two for significant errors/trends.

Second, they get the same “0” (not submitted), “1” (unsatisfactory), “2” (satisfactory), or “3” (satisfactory-plus) mark as any other task (which again, saves marking time) (Based on my university’s categorical marking system, I equate a “0” with an F4, a “1” with F3 to E+, a “2” with D- to B+, and a “3” with the A-range.). A terrible essay that is just about at the D- level earns the same “2” as a very good essay in the B-range. This is so hard to mentally wrap my head around! But in the end, the final marks are about right – the students that put in good effort in their tasks get Bs and As, the students who didn’t still get those Ds and Cs.

Third, I can be more generous with “3” marks than I feel I’m able to with As, because they don’t skew the average so badly. A student who has never earned an A overall in the old system can easily earn a few 3s here and there, and I’ve gotten some great feedback already from students who were extremely excited to get 3s. This gives positive reinforcement to the students without contributing to grade inflation.

Online Classroom (Blackboard)

While the “Sems OL & Checklists” helps the seminar leader know what’s up throughout the semester, something has to help the students! I use a weekly schedule (see below) to help the students see exactly what’s due, when (in addition to the assessment sheets in their handbooks). Another technique might be to use the “tasks due” function of BB (but I’ve never gotten that to work properly!).

Pulling the items due for the “Current Week” into a prominent and easy-to-find spot on BB is key. Nb. I wouldn’t make it TOO much easier on the students than this – if you start doing the thinking for them about what task is due when, they rely on that too much, and fail to think for themselves. This is about teaching them responsibility, accountability, project and time management – necessary skills for the real working world – and the more we do for them, the less they learn.

I set up my Blackboard site with the following key content areas:

  • Current Week
    • The readings and exercises (including task/assessments) they are expected to have done “in this current week”.
  • Previous Weeks
    • The readings and exercises that have done (from previous weeks) – so students can catch up or review as necessary.
  • Coming Up
    • This is a week-by-week list of all the readings and exercises (including task/assessment deadlines) they will be doing over the whole semester. (Another area where preparation is intense, but pays off during the semester.)
    • These are listed as separate items that are moved to the “Current Week” and “Previous Weeks” content areas as the semester progresses. (A key benefit of this method is that when you import the content areas to the next year you teach this module, you can just change the “Previous Weeks” title to “Coming Up”, and it’s already set for you (bar any changes you may make)!)
  • Lecture Notes
    • Posted after the lectures (as incentive to attend). Students with disabilities necessitating notes in advance are emailed with PDF notes in advance of the lecture.
  • Assessments
    • Assessment descriptions (often in more detail than the handbook, including formatting & citation info) and links to submit, as well as any helpful links.
  • Readings and Resources
    • Additional readings and resources that may be useful, outside the required reading.
  • Grades
  • Staff Contact Info
  • Module Information
    • Copy of the module handbook.

Future Innovations

For first years, I’m implementing study skills elements as part of their tasks, as well as a “writing journal”. Their tasks will be more straightforward, and weekly, as opposed to scattered deadlines (to make it easier for their little brains to wrap around).

As mentioned, I’m working on a better system of feedback for the presentations, as the current one is cumbersome.

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