In high school, music was my passion. I excelled in both performance and music theory, so I took an independent study in band (yes, you can do such a thing if you’re geeky enough!) my senior year.
My band director gave me the arduous task of teaching written and aural music theory to the freshman band, an ensemble filled with kids who mostly either wanted to be able to play in marching band or drumline (being in “regular” band was a prerequisite) or were doing it because their parents were making them give band “one more try.” Of the entire group of 100+ kids, maybe a handful of them actually cared about what I was tasked with teaching them.
So, having never taught anything, ever, and being only 17, I taught “to the six” students who were advanced, interested, and willing to work on the tasks I gave them. But then I made the grave mistake of also grading to the six, too, which proved extraordinarily stressful for everyone involved.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of my “students” performed very poorly on every assignment, quiz, and test I administered. I thought it was just because they were either dumb or didn’t care (which was definitely true in some cases, but certainly not all), but after reading Nilson today — as well as Lang and other authors who have stressed the importance of making one’s learning objectives and expectations crystal clear to one’s students — I realize the onus was on me to explain what I wanted them to learn and how I expected them to demonstrate progress toward those goals. Silly 17-year-old me didn’t know any better, so I call mulligans on that one.
In the end, my band director still let me teach theory to the ninth graders, though nobody ever actually received a grade for anything I taught or tested them on. Thank goodness.
My point is that even back then, when I knew absolutely nothing at all about teaching, grading was already far more anxiety-inducing than any other part of the independent study. Both Land and Nilson mention this anxiety in their books, and I’ve heard my colleagues and classmates at Wayne State express the same sentiment on multiple occasions. Neither teachers nor students seem to enjoy the process of grading/receiving grades, especially when these grades may seem arbitrary, expectations may be unclear, and results are not guaranteed.
Enter Nilson’s specifications grading. The core element of specs grading, clear expectations, “raise a student’s confidence in her ability to attain a goal and reinforce her belief in an internal locus of control” (108). Using this method, students are graded on a pass/fail basis for most assignments and tests and work toward a specific letter grade based on “clear, detailed specifications [specs] — even models if necessary — for what constitutes a passing [acceptable/satisfactory] piece of work” (128). The idea is that by allowing students to self-select their desired grade, they will be more motivated to work to achieve that goal. This also takes the pressure off the student-faculty relationship, which sometimes suffers after the first grades are distributed (I believe both Lang and Nilson touched on this?), since grades are no longer arbitrary but given based on clearly defined criteria.
But, both Lang and Nilson cautioned that rigid grading systems don’t account for outside factors can upset a student’s abilities to make certain deadlines or spend as much time as they would like on a certain project (lord knows I have benefited from my professors’ kindness, understanding, and willingness to be flexible as my family endures several unforseen hardships this term). Nilson’s method allows for revisions in this instance, and tokens can be exchanged for revisions or to “drop unacceptable work or to submit work late” (128).
From the reactions I’ve read online to Nilson’s “specs grading” method, however, many educators are still resistant to her methods. Personally, having never taught anything (except theory, though I’m not counting that), it certainly sounds like a fair grading system, but I’m curious to hear others’ comments.