As I start the Fall semester, I find myself right where I left off at the end of last year – trying to keep my students engaged in a virtual high school choral program. This year, my high school moved to a two-semester scheduling system with students taking four classes per semester in 80 minutes blocks. For the first semester, I will each all my choir students online. For the second semester, most choir will return to in-person ensemble rehearsals, with some students choosing to remain virtual for the entire year.
A New Syllabus for a New Time
With my new teaching schedule this year, and no concerts in sight, it was time to revise my teaching philosophy a bit and rewrite the choir syllabus. The biggest challenge I am now facing in adapting my syllabus is trying to cultivate student interest and excitement while at the same time creating a new grading system that maintains high expectations while also acknowledges the present situation.
Small Teaching Online
I first discovered Specification Grading or Specs Grading last Spring while reading Small Teaching Online by Flower Darby with James M. Lang. At the time, I was mainly focused on keeping my students engaged and participating in online high school vocal music. In chapter 7, Creating Autonomy, Darby presents several strategies to help the students become more aware of their responsibility and take control of their learning.
In her book Specifications Grading, Linda Nilson presents a grading system that develops a learning-centered environment that focuses on students learning outcomes and student autonomy. Specs grading is a competency-based grading system that incorporates a pass/fail system of assessment. I know that sounds a bit harsh, but it is not.
With Specs Grading, students must now read all the specifications needed to achieve a specific grade, select the grade they would like to earn, and then fulfill all the requirements to show competency for a given course or assignment. Here is an example of specs for a calculus class:
Why Consider Specs Grading
In an excellent post titled What is Specification Grading and why should You consider Using it?, Macie Hall provides an overview of Specifications Grading and the fifteen ways Specs Grading will:
- Uphold high academic standards,
- Reflect student learning outcomes,
- Motivate students to learn,
- Motivate students to excel,
- Discourage cheating,
- Reduce student stress,
- Make students feel responsible for their grades,
- Minimize conflict between faculty and students,
- Save faculty time,
- Give students feedback they will use,
- Make expectations clear,
- Foster higher-order cognitive development and creativity,
- Assess authentically,
- Achieve high interrater agreement,
- Be simple.
Introduction Video for Specs Grading
Start with Simple Specs
This year, I am incorporating and modifying the fundamental elements of Spec Grading with my virtual and hybrid high school choir students. In chapter nine, Developing A Course with Specs Grading (p. 115), Nilson suggests teachers may want to “start small” and create a synthetic grading system that incorporates both specs and traditional grading. I decided to start with “Simple Specs.”
With Simple Specs, student grades are earned by following and completing simple assignment directions and procedures. Specifications for grades are always included in the assignment instructions, and within a Google Classroom assignment, you can create a rubric.
Google Classroom Assignment 2, “TikTok” Video Introduction Rubric
Move Towards Complex Specs
Later this semester, I will slowly increase the rigor of assignments, and the specs will become more challenging. See the attached document.
Tokens – Adding Flexibility for Your Students
Think of tokens as a safety net that gives students a way to bend the rules just a bit – a kind of assignment currency. If, at some time during the semester, a student gets behind, would like to resubmit an assignment, or they need a “sanity break,” students can take advantage and redeem one of the following tokens. Each student will begin the semester with 1 Oops Token and 1 Sanity Token.
Oops Token – Students may exchange these tokens to 1. Revise or resubmit an unsatisfactory assignment, or 2. Extend an assignment due date.
Sanity Token – Students redeem this token to be excused from one assignment (sometimes, we all could use a break).
Earn-A-Oops Token – Throughout the year, choir members will also have the opportunity to earn extra Oops tokens by completing additional student or teacher-initiated assignments/activities. Some opportunities will be announced, and some will not.
A Few Words of Caution
To successfully implement Specs Grading, educators need to take great care in developing and writing class assignments and specification criteria. It does take more time and planning to become secure and confident in addressing specific learning standards and student outcomes for a given assignment.
When creating Specs Grading criteria, students must understand the assignment specifications, and students must know precisely what to do to make their work acceptable. (Nilson, 2014, p. 57)
Teacher modeling is a must!
Some students may also become anxious as they learn the new grading system. With the pass/fail aspect of fulfilling all the requirements needed to earn a specific grade, there is no more bargaining for more points. Either the student satisfied all the requirements, or they did not – it is very black and white. It may take a while for students to understand the nonnegotiable.
Specs Grading also requires teachers to remain aware of and actively monitor student engagement and progress. We need to provide support and encouragement to students who may lack confidence and decide to shoot low and only try for a B or C. Mindful awareness of scaffolding specifications will help students become more confident and successful.
Conclusion – Specs Grading and the Virtual and Hybrid Choral Program
Last Monday, I graded my first assignment using Specs Grading – most outstanding! In about 30 minutes, I was able to review the Google Sheet, apply the specs, grade their work, and enter 72 grades into SchoolTool. But better than that, 83% of my students completed the assignment on time and achieved the grade they were shooting for.
It is my hope that implementing Specs Grading this year will help me create more meaningful assignments, offer students a sense of ownership of their school work, and support this year’s virtual and hybrid choral music program.