Specifications grading of labs in a (moderately) large physics lecture course

Standards-based grading is attractive because it rewards growth, encourages engagement with instructor feedback, and shifts the focus from accumulating points to accumulating knowledge. If you feel overwhelmed by getting started, I benefited early on from the experiences of people like Frank Noschese and Kelly O’Shea. A faculty learning community here at Grand Valley State University led by Robert Talbert really got me to take the plunge with a full course, implementing a version of the related specifications grading in a small (20 student) Physics by Inquiry course in the spring of 2017. I may write about that some time, but this post is about beginning the process of scaling up to a larger lecture course.

Scaling up to larger courses adds to the complexity of implementing new standards-based grading. It takes a lot of time to identify standards and allow for multiple revisions of student work–one of the more important benefits of the system. To minimize these problems, I decided that in the first year of scaling up (Fall 2017), I would:

  1. Identify specifications rather than standards for student work
  2. Limit it to the lab/discussion component of the course (for my sanity)
  3. Plan to expand it to other aspects of the course in Fall 2018

The course is a second-semester introductory physics course for engineering students. The format: two, 75-minute lectures per week (all 60 students); One 2-hour lab/discussion section for each group of 20 students (so I’m teaching 3 lab/discussion sections per week).

One lesson from Robert’s learning community and Linda Nilson’s book is that some form of pass/fail is powerful in saving time and communicating your high expectations (I called it Satisfactory/Not yet Satisfactory). Although there was some student anxiety initially, I found that students really rose to the challenge.

Fall 2017 (Specifications for Lab Grading; Traditional for rest of course), 60 students

Here is an excerpt from the syllabus describing the specs-based lab grading policy.



  • The percentages of each lab (e.g. 12/13 for an A) are similar to the traditional grading scheme (see this below), but the pass/fail nature gives constant incentive to hand in quality work with low stakes the first time.
  • There is an incentive (not requirement) for keeping pace with the course, as they forfeit the revision privilege if the original is not handed in on time. This modification was also to accommodate the large lecture format so that I could keep my sanity.
  • Students were limited to one revision per assignment, again as a way to keep my sanity with the large number of students.

The hybrid grading structure needed to be reconciled in the overall course grade. The first table resembles a specifications or standards-based rubric, but the “weighted average” spec refers to the traditional grade calculation in the second table below.


Compare this to my previous grading scheme (Fall 2016), where I used a traditional points-based grading system for all aspects of the course:

Fall 2016 (Traditional points-based grading for entire course), 60 students


Student feedback for Specifications Grading of labs:

The feedback I got on this was mostly positive–the kind of stuff you wish you could see regularly on student evaluations.

Student 1:
“The lab revision policy made me fell less pressured to allow the individual at the table who was the best at physics lead and place my own thoughts and answers on the labs. This, of course, led to a better understanding. The policy encouraged me to understand the material as opposed to just agreeing with someone at the table who is good at physics then just writing down what they have.”

Student 2:
“I thought it helped me to learn. Because of the N / S grading, you tried to learn all of the material in the lab, rather than just doing 90% of the work to get an A. And then, if you still got an N, you had to go back and fix the lab to get an S, which further encouraged learning. I don’t like how the lab can only hurt your grade rather than help it, but that does encourage better work in the lab.”

Student 3:
“I liked that it was less about points and more about submitting good work. It was nice to not have to be perfect to be able to learn and do well. It took some of the stress away from what was definitely my hardest class.”

Student 4:
“I was very fond of the lab revision policy because I believe it is very practical. Being able to make revisions to bring my grades up gave me an incentive to learn the material even after it was no longer relevant and to further my education. I appreciated being able to prove that I could learn the material, even if it was at a slightly later date than had been expected. Had lab revision not been possible I am sure that I would have failed this class.”

There were also indications from students that some weeks I was not giving adequate feedback. I may have been working through grading too fast, even though I thought I may have been giving them useful feedback:

I liked the lab revision policy. Sometimes it would have been more helpful to understand what exactly we did wrong in a problem, but overall it solidified my knowledge in the material where I would have ignored it before.

Other students talked about the stress of having a pass/fail system, even if they ultimately began to understand that it wasn’t so scary:

“In the opening weeks, the prospect of having your grade capped by N marks is frightening and stressful. Once you realize that S marks aren’t very difficult to get, and as long as you make an effort to understand the material and complete the lab you will get them, this stress disappears. I would suggest it be made more clear at the outset of the course that S marks are not difficult to achieve.”

In some cases, although students understood and benefited from the grading system, there was not complete buy-in; there was evidence they still wanted to game the points system. Of course, hybridizing this with points for the rest of the course probably wasn’t helpful here.

Lab revisions were helpful in being able to recement in ideas, or to allow you to ask questions that maybe at the time you were not aware that you did not know. The only thing I would have liked better is if the labs had a more direct effect on my grade. I know that they did effect the score overall by having the ability to limit it, but I felt like for the amount of effort I put into labs, there should be an appropriate raise in the overall score.

Overall, I was really happy with how this experiment went. I am teaching the same course this fall and currently thinking about how I could expand this to the entire course. I have the smaller section this time around–40 students, but it is still moderately large and will have some of the same challenges as larger lecture courses.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts.


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