Specifications Grading

After designing KNES 289W, Dr. Ross Miller worked together to implement Specifications Grading (Nilson, 2014). The Specifications approach assigns levels based on student performance in four categories: Knowledge, Quality, Timeliness and Engagement. The grades are translated to a scaled score of 1 – 4 which then translates to a final letter grade (A – F).

Through the trials and tribulations of implementation we found that students felt more in control of their grades overall. They appreciated clear expectations and the linear path to success.

From Course Syllabus:

Grading in KNES 289W is based on the Specifications Grading (SG) system (Nilson, 2014). The criteria for earning letter grades in SG are different from the “total points accumulated” system that students may be more familiar with. Grades will be based on student achievement in four categories:

(1) Knowledge level: what level of knowledge did the student demonstrate on exams?

(2) Quality of work: did the student consistently turn in high-quality work?

(3) Timeliness of work: did the student consistently turn in their work on time?

(4) Engagement level: how often did the student opt out of Homework problems?

A student’s letter grade will be assigned according to the sum of their four achievement levels:

12=A; 11=A-; 10=B+; 9=B; 8=B-; 7=C+; 6=C; 5=C-; 4=D+; 3=D; 2=D-; 1 or less=F

For example, a student at Level 3 on Knowledge, Level 2 on Quality, Level 1 on Timeliness, and Level 2 on Engagement has a sum of 3+2+1+2=8 and will receive a “B-” grade. “A+” grades will be received by students with a sum of 12 who exceed the minimum Level 3 requirements in all categories. Additional notes on level achievement in each category and related grading issues:


  • The Knowledge level is determined by the average score from both exams. For example, it is not necessary to get 87.5% or above on both exams to reach Level 3; 77.5% on the first exam and 97.5% on the second exam (average = 87.5%) would suffice for Level 3.
  • Students must take both exams. Not taking an exam at all will result in a one-level reduction per exam, including the possibility for a Knowledge level below zero.


  • A “Passing” score is a score of 80.0% or above on that particular assignment. This threshold is based on the historical distribution of assignment scores in the class.
  • Students must complete all Discussion Exercises that involve group work. Failing to complete a group Exercise will result in a one-level reduction per Exercise, including the possibility for a Quality level below zero.


  • An assignment is considered “Late” if it is received by Canvas any amount of time past the posted deadline, for any reason without an Excused Absence. The email received by the instructor each week from Canvas is the arbiter for whether an assignment is late or not.
  • All assignments must be submitted through Canvas. No hardcopy or email submissions will be accepted without prior permission from the instructor.
  • Students are solely responsible for Canvas receiving their assignments on time and in a format viewable by the instructor (.doc or .pdf). Technology-related issues will not excuse a late submission unless they impact the entire campus for an extended period of time. Students are expected to budget time for the possibility that formally submitting an assignment may require more time and effort than what is minimally anticipated.
  • Assignments cannot be submitted after grades for that assignment have been posted on Canvas. Unsubmitted assignments at this time will be considered “Late” and will count against both the

NOTE: Quality level and the Timeliness level: Submitted assignments must include content relevant to the class. Assignments that are blank or consist of nonsensical or off-topic content will be counted as “Late”.


  • A “Grading Token” is used in place of answering a problem on a Homework assignment.
  • Students simply write “Token” as their answer and will receive full credit for that problem.
  • However, each Token used beyond the first reduces the Engagement level.
  • Grading Tokens may only be used on Homework assignments, not on Exams or Exercises.


Nilson, L.B. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing: Sterling, VA.

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