Developing and Implementing a Specifications Grading System in an Organic Chemistry Laboratory Course

Large, multi-section laboratory courses are particularly challenging when managing grading with as many as 35 teaching assistants (TAs). Traditional grading systems using point-based rubrics lead to significant variations in how individual TAs grade, which necessitates the use of curving across laboratory sections. Final grade uncertainty perpetuates student anxieties and disincentivizes a collaborative learning environment, so we adopted an alternative grading system, called specifications grading. In this system each student knows exactly what level of proficiency they must demonstrate to earn their desired course grade. Higher grades require demonstrating mastery of skills and content at defined higher levels. Each students’ grade is solely dependent on the work they produce rather than the performance of other students. We piloted specifications grading in the smaller, third quarter course of the lower division organic chemistry laboratory series held during a summer term. Open-ended questions were chosen to gather student and TA perceptions of the new grading system. TAs felt that the new grading system reduced the weekly grading time because it was less ambiguous. Responses from students about the nature of the grading system were mixed. Their perceptions indicate that initial buy-in and multiple reminders about the bigger picture of the grading system will be essential to the success of this grading system on a larger scale.