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Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time
Date Reviewed: April 23, 2015
Concerns about mastery of learning outcomes or competencies, grade inflation, student motivation, and faculty time compel reflection on how we assess students in higher education. In Specifications Grading, Nilson critiques the traditional, point-based grading system and argues that students should be assessed on whether they have mastered course learning outcomes. She proposes specifications (specs) grading as a positive alternative to the current grading system.
Nilson makes the case for specs grading in ten chapters. Chapter 1 examines critiques of the traditional grading system and offers fifteen criteria for judging a grading system. Chapter 2 briefly introduces learning outcomes and course design. In chapter 3, Nilson shows that grades should correspond to whether a student has mastered learning outcomes. Nilson ties grades to specific learning outcomes: a student can earn higher grades for demonstrating the amount of their learning, mastering more learning outcomes, or both (25). In chapter 4, Nilson argues that assessments should be graded pass/fail because this raises the expectation for a passing grade to the B-level. This also potentially reduces faculty time spent grading as it eliminates the need to justify partial credit. In chapter 5, Nilson outlines some aspects of specs grading: a single level rubric, faculty clarity on assignments and assessment, student choice, and opportunities to resubmit work. Chapter 6 describes how to convert specs grading to final course grades by either employing a point system for assessment or requiring students to complete certain assessments (bundles or modules) to achieve a particular course grade. Chapter 7 offers examples of courses that employ specs grading in diverse disciplines. After addressing theories of motivation, chapter 8 demonstrates how specs grading can motivate students to master learning through student choice. Chapter 9 explains how to design a specs grading course and introduce students to this grading system. Chapter 10 evaluates specifications grading according to the fifteen criteria set out in chapter 1.
Among its strengths, Specifications Grading offers experiential evidence from faculty as well as examples of specs grading from diverse disciplines. These examples encourage faculty to creatively re-envision their courses. Moreover, Nilson challenges faculty to draw on adult learning theories and motivational theory to promote mastery of course outcomes and encourage students to achieve their potential. Nonetheless, Nilson recognizes faculty’s hesitation in committing to a new grading system. As a result, Nilson describes (pure) specs grading courses as well as blended courses: courses that employ a mixture of point-based assessment and specs grading. These options enable faculty to slowly adjust to the new grading system or to attend to departmental or institutional grading expectations.
Nilson argues provocatively for the ways specifications grading motivates students and raises the standard of student work. To do this, faculty must know their expectations for student work and be clear in the directions for assignments. Moreover, faculty must expect students to fulfill those expectations – to take responsibility for their own grades and master course outcomes.
Using Technology to Gather, Store and Report Evidence of Learning
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2015
In this short synopsis, Using Technology to Gather, Store, and Report Evidence of Learning from NIACE’s Digital Learning Guides series, Terry Loane presents an overview of the current prevailing technological methods for collecting and reporting evidence of learning. Largely, the guide is sufficient and serves as a solid reference for non-technical educators; it demonstrates the best methods for individual circumstances by providing ten vignettes of real-life situations. Loane’s opening theme of “a revolution whose time has come” (4) flows fluidly through the seven chapters, comparing and contrasting old ways with the new.
Loane explains both the need and value of utilizing common elements of modern technology like mobile devices, online tools, and e-portfolios, in order to efficiently and effectively collect and present the fruit of one’s learning. He notes that the days of simply having to state that a qualification was met are gone; now the learner can present learned skills using easy and effective methods like mp3 recordings, YouTube videos, and blogging (55). The majority of the book covers the various forms of evidence gathering, technological means for data collection, and options for long-term cataloguing and presentation of one’s learning. The methods covered do offer a satisfactory representation of current options; however, as Loane notes, “the world has indeed moved on in just five years” (23). With rapid technological shifts, we must be open to adjusting our methods. Even since this book was published in early 2014, technology has moved more toward video, the one method Loane warns readers includes a range of issues involving lighting, intrusiveness, file sizes, and non-standardized codecs (28-29). As these obstacles are fast being worked out, and becoming more standardized, this guide may have a short shelf life and be in need of a second edition in the near future.
What I found most intriguing was Loane’s futuristic idea – and possible current direction in the use of technology in preserving evidence of learning – of developing an “Online Record of Learning, Experience, and Achievement” (5) that will “rehumanize learning” by showing that learning is more than marks on paper (56, 57). The development of an online clearinghouse of sorts for learners and assessors to store and share evidence of learning is one that could greatly benefit the educational community as a whole. Loane rightly demonstrates that even technology that learners and assessors use everyday (like smart phones and tablets) has all the tools necessary to easily present learning and to create such a system, offering the ability to take certifications and evidence of learning along as one moves from institution to institution and job to job.
I recommend this guide as a suitable reference tool for the non-technical educator, learner, or assessor seeking to move from old paper-and-pen methods to contemporary digital options. As Loane demonstrates, the benefits of embracing technology in learning far outweigh the hindrance of changing former traditional methods.
Assessing and Improving Your Teaching: Strategies and Rubrics for Faculty Growth and Student Learning
Date Reviewed: February 12, 2015
Assessing and Improving Your Teaching by Phyllis Blumberg describes a comprehensive plan for teacher development and offers creative strategies for teachers at all stages of their professional career. Blumberg identifies many ways by which faculty can gain insights and improve the quality of their teaching to foster better student learning. This book is an excellent resource for both beginning instructors and more experienced ones especially in terms of recommended methods and tools for assessing faculty growth and learning outcomes. The book goes beyond well-documented analysis of individual strategies and contributes to the relatively few studies that integrate strategies from a hierarchical approach to improve teaching. For Blumberg, “a hierarchical approach” is one “that places the locus of control with the instructor who wants to improve, rather than with others who need to judge teaching performance,” and “provides a robust teaching enhancement process” (4).
The first part of the book describes Blumberg’s hierarchical approach by initially establishing criteria that define teaching standards. Borrowing a commonly used, learning-centered approach to teaching, Blumberg focuses primarily on what the instructor does to promote student learning and discusses misconceptions about teaching. She then recommends alternative ideas and essential aspects of teaching for “deep and intentional learning.” The second and third parts of the book build on each other by describing a constructive self-assessment model which uses self-assessment rubrics for purposes of improving and assessing teacher effectiveness. Blumberg believes that teaching is composed of many different skills that can be learned. However, she encourages “systematic growth” which results from periodic, critical reflection on one’s teaching along with on-going critical review and the incorporation and documentation of both.
In addition to discussing ways to improve teaching, Blumberg proposes three types of principles for assessing teaching, namely: (1) the context for assessment or what to assess; (2) the assessment methods or how to assess; and (3) the results of this assessment process. She notes that many professors who serve on promotion and tenure committees regularly comment on how little is actually analyzed or documented about the teaching process or teacher effectiveness. Using multiple sources of data about teaching effectiveness, Blumberg shows there is a need throughout the academy to supplement student course evaluation data with other appropriate procedures and tools” (116). Opposed to the older instructor-centered models in which assessment focuses on teaching performance or lecturing skills, she emphasizes other roles and skills such as course alignment, organization of educational experiences, and reflection on instruction. The tools for self-reflection and analysis include rating scales and descriptive rubrics; Blumberg also describes five cases from very different contexts of teaching and faculty members with different levels of experience.
This book is a valuable contribution to literature on the evaluation of teaching in higher education because it contains both assessment forms that others can use to assess teachers as well as tools that instructors can use for self-reflection and analysis.
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