Specifications Grading at UC Irvine with Renee Link

August 3, 2020
Ideas That MatterJulia Winter

I teach organic chemistry at UC Irvine and my main job is running the gigantic lab program, mainly for non-chemistry majors. My biggest class is usually during winter quarter and we have 1200 students in that course. I am the only instructor, but I have graduate teaching assistants teaching the lab sections, and I oversee the whole thing with the help of a head TA. In the UC system, we have a unique job title that is officially called Lecturer with Security for Employment, but we get to call it a “Professor of Teaching". My main job is teaching with a side part of scholarship.


What is Specs (Specifications) Grading?

The general idea is laying out specific criteria that students need to meet to get particular grades and just being really specific about what that is and specifications and bundling things so that if you are aiming for an A, B, or C grade, here's what you need to do. How you do that depends on your class and what you decide are the specifications for those individual grades. That is up to you as an instructor. It can be negotiated with students. So that brings in a little bit of contract grading, but I have a giant class that is really hard to negotiate with a thousand people. So I am dictating the contract and, I like to think about how if I were a student, what kind of things would I want in this contract? Specs grading brings in aspects of competency-based and mastery learning, where students get to try multiple times. With a large class, I can’t have students re-submitting 5,6,7 times.That’s just not feasible for me or for my TAs. We use a token system to take care of this issue at UC Irvine. (Details about the tokens on the podcast).

How to present to students?

I've turned around that old, like trope about STEM classes in general, the one that goes, “look to your left, look to your right. Two of you aren't going to pass.”  So now what I say is, “Look around at everyone in this room, you are not competing with any of them. If everyone in the room meets the criteria, then everyone gets an A.”That has not happened yet, but I am hoping for the day that it actually happens.

Practical skill testing.

There is a multiple-choice fundamental knowledge and safety test that everyone has to take. For higher grades, an A or a B, then students have to complete open-ended exam questions that are split into different categories. There are two questions in each category. And ideally you just pass one out of each category for an A, but you can do as many as you want. We do this testing during two weeks of the lab session, if they are aiming only for a C, then they do not need to come to the last week of class, which is the 10th week of the quarter.


Listen to the whole thing! Or read Renee’s paper either at ChemRXIV.org  or at Journal of Chemical Education (currently in review).

Renee Link

Other references:

Joshua Ring's work at Lenoir-Rhyne University

Linda Nilson's book on Specifications Grading


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