Specifications grading with a plus/minus grading scale

I have moved many of my classes to specifications grading over the last two years. Using specifications grading, assignments are grading on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis.1 I have written on this before. If you want to find more about specifications grading I suggest Linda Nilson’s book and her appearance on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. Robert Talbert has written extensively on this grading strategy. Two examples in political science are a recent article by Blackstone and Oldmixon in the Journal of Political Science Education and a series of blog posts by Amanda Rosen on the Active Learning in Political Science blog.

In this post I want to write about subject related that is often ignored: how to assign grades using a plus/minus grading system. I decided that having separate bundles for each incremental grade from failing through A—twelve in total—was too many. In Nilson’s book, she writes about A-F grading without +/-. Generally creating 5 bundles of assignments. Most of the examples I found online did the same. We use +/- grading at SUNY Oneonta and I was concerned that _not- using +/- would undermine this already new grading system in the eyes of many students. My chair and dean were also a bit concerned about me only assigning full letter grades.2 So what to do?

A search for examples

I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but I did find a couple of examples that were helpful. The first came from Robert Talbert who describes his refined specifications grading approach in his calculus class. After slotting into a letter grade bundle, students can earn a plus or minus depending on their performance on a comprehensive final, used solely for this purpose and the number of experience points (XP) that they earn through classroom and online engagement.

The base grade gets a + or - modifier depending on what happens with the final exam and XP:

  • If the final exam grade is at least 85%, and at least 85 XP are earned, add a “+” to the base grade.
  • If the final exam grade is less than or equal to 50%, or 50 XP or fewer are earned, add a “-” to the base grade.
  • Otherwise the course grade equals the base grade. So blowing it on the final, or willfully disengaging with the class (while still getting required work done) will not kill your grade, but it won’t be without effects either. On the other hand, doing really well on the final and staying engaged with the class gives you a bonus, but not a massive boost.

In a second example, Julie Mendez of Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus reports that in her engineering courses she assigns a plus grade for students who complete one requirement of the next higher grade bundle and a minus grade for students who complete all of a letter grade bundle except for the pre-class homework.

The two paths I chose

Syllabi for all of these courses can be found in the teaching section of the site.

Participation points

Each of these approaches had some appeal for me, but I didn’t follow either of them exactly. I have used specifications grading in two classes in the past, US Government and our research methods class, and this fall I converted my Law, Courts and Politics class to specifications grading. I have taken two different paths in these courses.

In Law Courts and Politics, an upper-division course that enrolls political science majors, criminal justice majors, and pre-law students, I created bundles as Nilson and others describe for the five letter grades based on a series of multiple choice and short essay exams, a field research project, participation in two group exercises based on a book length case study on a tort case and a series of video and audio pieces on plea bargaining, and take home final essay. These are all assignments I have used regular over the years. The only changes are in how assignments are assessed.

To earn an A students must complete all of the following at the satisfactory level:

  • Three basic exams
  • The A-level judicial system field research project
  • Two jigsaws
  • One advanced exam
  • The final essay

To earn a B students must complete all of the following at the satisfactory level:

  • Three basic exams
  • The B/C-level judicial system field research project
  • Two jigsaws and one of the following:
  • One advanced exam
  • The final essay

To earn a C students must complete all of the following at the satisfactory level:

  • Two basic exams
  • One jigsaw and two of the following:
  • The second jigsaw
  • The final essay
  • The B/C-level judicial system field research project
  • One advanced exam

To earn a D students must complete all of the following at the satisfactory level:

  • Two basic exams

Students earn failing grade if the requirements for a D are not met.

Plus/minus grades are earned through participation points. There are total 75 potential participation points for attendance and small assignments: 1 point for attendance to each class for up to 25 points and 5 points for each of 10 small assignments for a potential total of 50 points. Students earn pluses and minuses based on these rules:

  • 62 or more participation points earns an A (there is no A+), and raises grades from B to B+, from C to C+, or from D to D+
  • A student who earns 52-61 participation points earns an A- if they have earned an A bundle, stays at B, stays at C, or stays at D
  • Finally, students earning 51 or fewer participation points Drop from A to B+, drop from B to B-, drop from C to C- , or drop from D to D- 51 or fewer points.

I have used variations of these small assignments for years and I generally take attendance in classes. This set up doesn’t require attendance or completion of the small assignments, but it will create strong incentives to do so.

Choices in how students earn points

In both US Government, an introductory general education course and a requirement for political science majors, as well as research methods, required of all majors in the political science department, I have chosen a different approach. I use specifications grading for almost all assignments,3 but I have gamified the assignments: students collect points through assignments that they choose to dos.

In US Government for example can earn points through two multi-session simulations, through online quizzes, in class short essay exams, attendance, and a few exploration assignments (for example visiting a government meeting). I use the online grade book, Gradecraft that helps students understand their options and create a path to the grade they wish to earn. There are no bundles of assignment, but students cannot earn enough points to receive a B- or above unless they complete one of the simulations. Students wishing to earn an A- or higher must complete both simulations. Although the grading system must be explained multiple times, providing students with choices in how they earn grades has been well received, and it makes incorporating specifications grading with a plus/minus grading system easy.

  1. Satisfactory doesn’t mean pass/fail. Generally instructors using specifications grading use a B as satisfactory. ^
  2. In fairness, both my chair and dean said they would support me if I chose to not use +/- grading. ^
  3. The exception: reading quizzes in US Government where students earn points for each question the answer correctly. ^
Bill Wilkerson
Professor of Political Science

Political scientist. College professor. Learning new things.