Skip to Main Content

Feedback and Grading: Specifications Grading


Specifications grading (or specs grading) is a unique assessment methodology that aims to simplify and clarify grading by using a non-traditional rubric where assignments and exams are evaluated on a pass/fail basis against a predefined set of criteria. This approach to grading emphasizes transparent and straightforward standards that students must meet to pass. In specs grading, each task or assessment clearly specifies the requirements for success, and students must meet these "specifications" to achieve a pass mark. The grading system is binary—work either meets the required standard (pass) or it does not (fail), with no partial credit given.

Implementing specs grading in college courses can encourage students to focus on achieving defined learning outcomes without the pressure of quantitative scores. This method can also promote higher standards and consistency in student work by setting clear expectations. For faculty, specs grading can reduce subjectivity in grading, making the assessment process more efficient and focused. It often includes the opportunity for students to revise and resubmit their work, fostering a learning environment that values mastery and continuous improvement. To successfully implement specs grading, faculty members need to invest time in designing precise, clear specifications and communicating these effectively to students. Additionally, this grading system encourages students to take responsibility for their learning, aiming for quality and competency in meeting course objectives.


Implementing specifications grading in a college setting can be a transformative approach to assessment, promoting clarity, consistency, and motivation among students. Here are several strategies faculty can use to successfully implement specifications grading in their courses:

Develop Clear Specifications: Create precise and transparent specifications for each assignment and assessment. These should clearly outline what constitutes acceptable (pass) work. Specifications should be rigorous but achievable, and aligned with the course’s learning objectives. It is essential that these criteria are communicated clearly and early to students.

Use a Bundling System: Organize assignments and assessments into bundles that correspond to different grade levels or course outcomes. For example, completing a basic bundle of assignments might result in a passing grade, while additional, more challenging bundles could lead to higher grades. This approach allows students to choose their workload based on their goals and capacity, encouraging autonomy and self-directed learning.

Offer Revision Opportunities: Allow students the opportunity to revise and resubmit their work until it meets the specifications. This approach emphasizes learning through iteration and improvement, supporting a mastery learning model where the focus is on achieving a deep understanding of course material over time.

Incorporate Contract Elements: Combine specs grading with elements of contract grading by having students agree at the outset of the course to complete certain bundles or tackle additional challenges for higher grades. This can help manage expectations and foster a commitment to meeting specified standards.

Streamline Feedback: Given the pass/fail nature of specs grading, feedback can be streamlined to focus specifically on whether the submitted work met the specifications and, if not, what is lacking. This efficient approach to feedback can save time and clarify for students exactly what they need to do to improve.

Utilize Peer Review: Encourage students to engage in peer review before submitting their work. This process can help students understand the specifications more deeply by seeing how they apply to others’ work and also provide additional feedback, helping them meet the required standards before final evaluation.


Specifications Grading : Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time - Linda B. Nilson

Linda Nilson puts forward an innovative but practical and tested approach to grading that can demonstrably raise academic standards, motivate students, tie their achievement of learning outcomes to their course grades, save faculty time and stress, and provide the reliable gauge of student learning that the public and employers are looking for. She argues that the grading system most commonly in use now is unwieldy, imprecise and unnecessarily complex, involving too many rating levels for too many individual assignments and tests, and based on a hairsplitting point structure that obscures the underlying criteria and encourages students to challenge their grades.

Yes, Virginia, There's a Better Way to Grade - Inside HIgher Ed

While we in higher education keep using it, our grading system is broken, argues Linda B. Nilson, and she offers some concrete ways to fix it.

What is Specification Grading? - University of Nebraska Lincon Center for Transformative Teaching

A thorough introduction to specification grading Is Specifications Grading Right for Me? A Readiness Assessment to Help Instructors Decide - College Teaching
Specifications grading is an alternative grading scheme that prioritizes transparency and progress-oriented feedback, with the goals of increasing student motivation, fostering clear communication, and achieving educational equity. Despite its recent, rapid increase in popularity, little attention has been paid to the forms of support faculty need to implement specifications grading successfully, and to the personal and professional circumstances that shape instructors’ experiences with specifications grading. To fill these gaps, we have created a readiness assessment tool that prompts instructors’ reflection on how institutional culture, identity, and course/curricular contexts may pose or alleviate the risks of adopting nontraditional grading practices.



  • URL:
  • Last Updated: May 2, 2024 1:40 PM
  • Print Page