Specification Grading in Class and Lab

(Justin Houseknecht, Wittenberg University) I first heard about specification grading from Joshua Ring during the Fall 2016 ConfChem.[1] I didn’t really think about it, however, until after reading Maryellen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching[2] and hearing Joshua talk again at the 2017 ALOC Workshop. Learner-Centered Teaching has been instrumental in developing the framework within which I understand effective instruction. It helped me understand the relationships between active learning and many other important practices that we discuss at the ALOC workshops: backward design, metacognitive development, formative assessment, etc. Before reading Learner-Centered Teaching, specification grading was a neat new assessment strategy with which I didn’t have time to be distracted. Afterward, implementation of specification grading became necessary to bring my assessment strategy in line with the rest of my teaching practice. Implementation for the combined class and laboratory portions of Organic 1 and 2 wasn’t overly taxing, and the results have been very encouraging: higher motivation, better relationships, and improved learning.

 First, specification grading is an assessment method that divides course material into distinct learning objectives that students must master. Students typically do not receive partial credit, but do have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery. Linda Nilson, in Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time,[3] describes many varieties of specification grading. I chose to follow the model that Joshua described with a few adaptations. I continued to use a cumulative final worth 15% of the course grade, but the remainder of the course was assessed using specification grading. The learning objectives for each day of class / lab were either Essential or Additional. Mastery of Essential Learning Objectives was required to pass the course, but students had almost unlimited opportunities to demonstrate mastery. Mastery of Additional Learning Objectives was not required to pass the course, but each Additional Learning Objective mastered improved the course grade by about 1.5% (from 60 to 100%). The number of opportunities to demonstrate mastery was limited for the Additional Learning Objectives.

 Mastery of Learning Objectives in the class (not lab) was demonstrated by scoring at least 4 out of 5 points on a 10-minute quiz, with no partial credit. Each 90-minute class period (2 per week, Tuesday and Thursday) had a Learning Objective (Boxes 1 and 2). The Learning Objectives used and the details about each provided to students (approx. a half-page each) are available on OrganicERs.org:

Organic 1 - https://www.organicers.org/?q=%3Fq%3Dcurriculum-materials/syllabi/organi...

Organic 2 - https://www.organicers.org/?q=%3Fq%3Dcurriculum-materials/syllabi/organi...

The syllabus for each course is also available at the link above. Organic 1 had 9 Essential and 17 Additional Learning Objectives from class; Organic 2 had 12 and 17, respectively. The first opportunity to take the quizzes


was at the beginning of class the Tuesday after the Learning Objective was addressed in class. This meant spending the first 20 minutes of class most Tuesdays assessing the previous week’s Learning Objectives. We then spent another 10 minutes reviewing the quizzes before starting on new material. Students could retake each quiz over Essential Learning Objectives once a day. There were four days, including the scheduled final exam period, during which students could retake quizzes over Additional Learning Objectives.


Box 1. Organic 1 Class Learning Objectives


Describe organic bonding

Depict organic structures

Describe acid-base reactions

Name and describe alkane structure

Name and describe cycloalkane structure

Describe organic reactions

Name and describe alkene structure

Describe alkene addition reactions of HX

Describe alkene additions that go through an “onium” intermediate

Describe concerted addition and cleavage reactions of alkenes

Name alkynes and describe their reactivity

Describe chirality

Describe the role of chirality in chemical reactions

Name alkyl halides and describe their reactivity

Describe and differentiate between substitution reactions

Describe and differentiate between elimination reactions


Box 2. Organic 2 Class Learning Objectives


Predict and explain presence of peaks in mass spectrometry

Predict and explain presence of peaks in infrared spectroscopy

Provide structure(s) consistent with MS and IR data

Predict and explain chemical shift and integration in NMR spectroscopy

Predict and explain spin-spin splitting in NMR spectroscopy

Provide structure(s) consistent with MS, IR, and NMR data

Describe the stability of conjugated alkenes and ions using molecular orbital theory

Predict products and describe the Diels-Alder reaction

Describe the stability of aromatic / heteroaromatic molecules with MO theory

Describe and predict products of electrophilic aromatic substitution reactions

Synthesize polysubstituted aromatics using EAS reactions

Describe, predict products of, and use nucleophilic aromatic substitution reactions

Name aldehydes and ketones and describe their irreversible reactions

Describe the reactions of aldehydes and ketones with oxygen nucleophiles

Describe the reactions of aldehydes and ketones with nitrogen nucleophiles

Name and describe properties of carboxylic acids and their derivatives

Describe the synthesis and reactions of carboxylic acids

Describe the synthesis and reactions of acid chlorides and anhydrides

 The Learning Objectives from lab were handled differently in Organic 1 and 2. Our Organic 1 laboratory has twelve single-week experiments which we divided into six Essential and six Additional Learning Objectives (Box 3). The Essential Learning Objectives were for the experiments introducing techniques that were used for the remainder of the course. To receive credit for a Learning Objective, students had to complete pre-lab, lab, and post-lab assignments satisfactorily (B-level work or better). Pre-lab assignments included pre-lab notebook pages (Purpose Statement, Balanced Chemical Equation, Table of Reagents and Products, Safety, and Waste Management) and quizzes over the safety reading in Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students.[5] Satisfactory lab work included proper attire, working safely, keeping an accurate Data and Observations section of the laboratory notebook, and obtaining reasonable results. Post-lab assignments varied from worksheets to a formal lab report. Students could revise assignments as needed to receive credit. Our Organic 2 laboratory had five multi-week experiments. Each laboratory was, therefore, divided into both an Essential and an Additional Learning Objective. The Essential Learning Objective was for submitting satisfactory pre-lab assignments and completing the lab satisfactorily (as for Organic 1). The Additional Learning Objective was for submitting a satisfactory formal lab report. Revisions were again accepted, but only within one week of when the lab reports were returned and only five over the course of the semester.


Box 3. Organic 1 Laboratory Learning Objectives


Be able to demonstrate accurate measurement of melting points

Be able to computationally model the conformations of di-substituted cyclohexanes

Be able to demonstrate purification of solid compounds by recrystallization

Be able to demonstrate purification of organic compounds by extraction

Be able to demonstrate purification of liquid compounds by distillation

Be able to distinguish between compounds using infrared spectroscopy

Be able to demonstrate the synthesis, purification, and characterization of adipic acid

Be able to demonstrate the relative nucleophilicity of chloride and bromide

Many aspects of specification grading amplified the impact of the active learning methods that I have been using since 2013. Students paid more attention to the detailed learning objectives for each class period once it was clear how those objectives informed assessment. The increased frequency of assessment – at least weekly rather than monthly – encouraged students to keep up with the material. It also let them, and me, know if they weren’t quickly enough to recover. This, combined with the requirement of mastery-level understanding of the most important content, improved the quality of in-class collaborative problem solving. Observation of, and conversation with, students also indicated higher levels of agency and motivation, particularly for students on the lower end of the grade spectrum. Student comments also suggested that the quizzes over discrete learning objectives that could be retaken and the ability to choose which Additional Learning Objectives to focus on helped students better realize the value of their efforts. Finally, student learning continued to improve. The switch from lecture to active learning, with similar assessment, improved student grades by about two-thirds of a letter grade and decreased the DFW rate from about 25% to about 12%. Final course grades and DFW rates improved slightly with implementation of specification grading, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate that student learning improved. Scores on the cumulative Organic 1 final exam, which increased by 5-10% over previous years, did indicate improved learning and retention of course material.


I ran into several challenges implementing specification grading that I think are important to share. First, not surprisingly, I had to write a LOT of quizzes – around 100 per semester. Every time a student retook a quiz, which some did as many as 8 times, I had to prepare a new version. I was smart, however, and did not return the retakes. This means I could use one version (b) for everyone’s first retake, another version (c) for their second, etc. I also now have a library of quizzes already prepared for the next time I teach the course. Second, many students were upset about not passing quizzes, but not enough to prepare properly. I encouraged them by writing “NY” (not yet) on failed quizzes, expressing excitement when they mastered a Learning Objective, and giving bonus points for passing quizzes on the first attempt. The bonus points could be accumulated to count towards an Additional Learning Objective. These encouragements seemed effective, particularly for Organic 2 when they were used from the beginning of the semester. Finally, allowing students to revise and resubmit lab reports as needed in Organic 1 enabled students to wait until the end of the semester to submit revisions which hampered learning and increased stress. Limiting the number of revisions and providing a timeframe in Organic 2 worked much better.


Weimer, M. Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, 2nd Edition, John Wiley and Sons: San Francisco, 2013.


Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing.


A quiz over each Learning Objective is available at OrganicERs.org (e.g., quizzes 1 -5 for Organic 1 are at https://www.organicers.org/?q=%3Fq%3Dcurriculum-materials/exams-and-quizzes/organic-1-spec-grading-quizzes-1-5).


Laboratory Safety for Chemistry Students, Hill and Finster, 2nd Edition, Wiley, 2016.


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