Professors need to consider a lower stakes grading system

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Sam Thielman

Ah, the new semester. People aren’t stressed out of their minds yet, classes are still fresh and interesting and there’s a sense of excitement around campus. 

Let’s fix that. Time to talk about grades! 

Grades are a huge source of stress for most college students. After all, they can drastically alter your future opportunities, whether that means career options, graduate schools, scholarships and more. However, it seems like there’s never a good grading format. Either you have a few assignments that are weighted too heavily, or you have many smaller assignments that generate hours of work each day. 

There’s another option, though. Specifications grading is a system of grading designed to be less stressful for both students and professors, and it should be employed by more professors at UT. 

Religious studies professor Jennifer Graber uses the specifications grading system in class. 

“Really, it’s grading everything on a pass/fail basis,” Graber said. “Students will have a certain number of assignments or tests, and if they want credit they just have to complete them in a satisfactory manner.”

Every assignment has a detailed outline of what “satisfactory completion” looks like. If students meet those requirements, they get full credit — it’s as simple as that. 

This addresses problems with more conventional grading systems, such as their subjectivity. There will never be a perfect essay, so what do professors do about that? Should they just never assign 100s to reflect this? I mean, they can, and some do, but I’ve yet to meet a student who likes this system. What counts as “good enough?” It can vary from professor to professor, TA to TA and sometimes even day to day. With specifications grading, that subjectivity gets removed from the equation. Students know exactly what they need to do to receive the grade they want, and professors know exactly what to look for when assigning grades. It’s easier on everyone involved.

Having every assignment be pass/fail may sound stressful too, though. If you misinterpret the instructions, you don’t get partial credit, you don’t get a B — it’s like you didn’t even complete the assignment. In specifications grading, though, that’s covered too. Each student has a certain number of “tokens” that serve as their “get out of jail free” cards. 

“Tokens come in as a way to deal with the fact that we’re all humans, and life is full of funny obstacles and unexpected things,” Graber said. “The tokens can be used, for instance, to revise a paper. If you turned in something that wasn’t satisfactory, you can use a token to have the opportunity to revise it and make it satisfactory.”

Tokens prevent students from being punished for the occasional off day. They can even completely take the place of smaller assignments. Plenty of professors excuse a certain number of absences, but don’t allow assignments due during that time to be submitted late or via email. With tokens, students don’t have to suffer any penalties for missing a day of class.

“I think in that sense they’re super helpful,” said Annie Scroggs, a government freshman who is taking Graber’s class. “If you need to miss class for a day you can still get grades for your assignments, which is really helpful because those zeros can add up.”

The specifications grading system is an efficient way to address a number of problems with current grading systems, and can easily be incorporated into plenty of liberal arts or social science courses. It makes assignments less stressful for students and easier to grade for professors, allowing that beginning-of-semester feeling to stick around for a little while longer.

Thielman is a history and rhetoric and writing sophomore from Fort Worth.