[dropcap]D[/dropcap]o you use auto-graded multiple-choice and true-false quizzes and exams? If so, why?
Is it because you’re convinced that these forms of assessment are rigorous and authentic instruments for measuring student learning? Or is it because, given that you are teaching larger enrollment classes with fewer resources and support, you don’t know what else to do?
It's the latter for many of my faculty colleagues when I ask about their use of Learning Management System (LMS) or publisher auto-graded tests. They simply don’t know what else to do.
But I think most of us would agree, these forms of assessment can be problematic. Often, multiple-choice quizzes don’t measure higher-order cognition, such as problem-solving, analysis, synthesis, or academic writing. Don’t get me wrong—auto-graded assessments can be effective, depending on the purpose. Testing vocabulary terms? Ensuring comprehension? Holding students accountable for doing the pre-class reading? In these and similar scenarios, LMS or publisher quizzes can be quite appropriate. But to measure students’ ability to critically think, analyze, synthesize, and create? Probably not.
Just the other day I had a conversation with a friend and colleague about her son’s online high school English class. As someone with a PhD in literature, she was horrified that all the assessments in the class were multiple-choice. How can students learn to think and write, she argued, if they never have to write? And, by implication, if they never have to think?
She has a point. Harried instructors of ever-larger classes have resorted to using auto-graded assessments because they are quick and easy. But I don’t think it’s the only choice.
Specifications grading to the rescue
We are not locked into using auto-graded quizzes that target the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Using Specifications Grading, we can design meaningful and authentic assessments that put the work of learning squarely where it should be: on the students.
Linda Nilson describes this approach in her 2014 book, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time.
That sounded too good to be true, so I read the book and subsequently decided to apply this approach in my online graduate-level technology fluency class.
You see, I had a problem. I was, and am, convinced that students won’t do the reading if there are no points attached. So, I give them a quiz to make sure they do the reading.
But a multiple-choice quiz, one that targets the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, is truly not appropriate for a graduate-level course. Students at this level should demonstrate advanced thinking skills. They should read critically. Analyze. Apply the concepts to their own experiences. A typical multiple-choice quiz doesn’t help them to do any of those things.
My online graduate students are working professionals, juggling the demands of school, family, and work. If there’s no accountability, they won’t do the readings. Sorry, but it’s true.
When I came across this grading solution, I decided to try it. Spoiler alert: it worked. Really well.
How specs grading solved my problem
Like many of our teaching and learning methods, there are many ways to apply Nilson’s grading strategy. I’ll share with you what I did in the hopes that it gives you ideas for your own classes.
I used Specs Grading to design assignments that cause students to think deeply, evaluate, synthesize, and write critically—without overburdening me with the grading. A basic tenet of Specs Grading is that such tasks are graded on an all-or-nothing approach. If students do the work, if they meet all the assignment criteria, or specifications
, they earn 100 percent. If they don’t, it’s a zero.
Sounds harsh, right? I’ll agree that it’s a bit risky. It forces us as instructors to provide really detailed instructions, to list exactly what the assignment must include. Nilson compares it to software engineering. A customer provides specifications for the product they require. If some of the specs are met, but not all, the production does not move forward with a grade of 75 percent. No. It goes back to the drawing board until all
the specs are met.
So it is with Specs Grading. If the submission does not meet all specifications, it earns a zero.
Nilson is quick to encourage the use of “oops tokens,” one or more opportunities that allow students to learn from their mistake and try again, to resubmit the assignment knowing that this time they must ensure all specs are met. In this way, Specs Grading develops a growth mindset. Let me tell you, once a student earns a zero instead of the low A or high B she expects, she begins taking the assignment seriously.
In my class, students were assigned to read five of a possible 15 articles for each module. They could choose the ones that were most relevant and interesting to them. For each, they had to write a 200-word response describing what they learned and how it will impact them at work or at home. This produced 3–4 pages of writing per student per module, enough to be potentially off-putting in terms of grading.
But the written response enabled students to really think about the concepts and apply them to their own experience and context. Exactly what I wanted them to do.
I provided clear instructions and a two-column LMS rubric. Meets Expectations or Does Not Meet Expectations. Grading their submissions took mere seconds. All I had to do was to quickly read their writing and click-click-click my way through the rubric. They did the work of learning. Not me.
As you can imagine, there was some pushback. But students soon saw that with a fair level of effort, they earned full points on these tasks, as opposed to an 87 percent or a 93 percent or some other number picked out of the blue (from a student perspective, anyway).
This approach worked for me. I’d encourage you to choose one assessment in your class and give it a whirl. Let’s bring back the rigor without killing ourselves with grading.
Nilson, L. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time.
Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Flower Darby is a senior instructional designer at Northern Arizona University. You can join her on October 25 for Grading Strategies to Promote Academic Integrity and Rigor, a Magna Online Seminar.
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