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Grading by Competency and Specifications: Giving Better Feedback and Saving Time

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

New Engineering Educators 3 - Grading: Grate or Great

Tagged Division

New Engineering Educators

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Jennifer Pascal University of Connecticut

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Jennifer Pascal is an Assistant Professor in Residence at the University of Connecticut. She earned her PhD from Tennessee Technological University in 2011 and was then an NIH Academic Science Education and Research Training (ASERT) Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of New Mexico. Her research interests include the integration of fine arts and engineering, retention of women in engineering, and developing effective methods to teach transport phenomena.

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Troy J. Vogel University of Notre Dame

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Troy Vogel is the Assistant Chair, the Director of Undergraduate Studies, and an Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. He is the faculty advisor ND's student chapter of AIChE including ChemE Car and active at the National level and at the Regional level. His primary teaching responsibility is in capstone design and undergraduate labs.

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Kristina Wagstrom University of Connecticut

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Dr. Kristina Wagstrom is the Eversource Energy Assistant Professor for Environmental Engineering Education in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT. She specializes in applying chemical engineering principles to develop tools to better understand atmospheric chemistry and air pollution.

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Arguably one of the most tedious and time consuming responsibilities of faculty members, especially in large enrollment courses, is grading. Additionally creating a personalized learning experience for each student can quickly become overwhelming in such courses. By grading through the utilization of competency-based learning or specifications grading, faculty members can simultaneously provide more agency to students over what they learn and how, while also decreasing time spent on higher quality evaluation.

Specifications grading has been demonstrated as an effective method to not only improve grading efficiency and timeliness of feedback, but also student motivation and ownership of learning (Nilson, 2014). This simple grading approach is based on the principle of pass/fail grades with assessments linked to learning outcomes grouped within those required to earn a certain grade. Thus, students can choose from the very beginning of a course which assessments they want to complete in order to earn a particular grade. To earn higher final grades, students must complete assessments that demonstrate higher levels of content mastery. This grading method requires instructors to provide transparent specifications up front, and students must complete work at a minimum standard of B- to earn credit for assessments. They are typically given a token that allows them the opportunity to revise an assignment or submit late work.

The specifications grading approach was implemented in two semesters of a large undergraduate research course and a co-instructed chemical engineering senior laboratory course, both had a variety of individual and group assessments. The grading scheme was explained to the students on the first day of both courses along with a due date matrix for assessments. From the instructors’ perspectives, specifications grading saved a significant amount of time compared to traditional grading approaches. The student evaluations of teaching after the first semester indicated mixed feelings regarding the grading scheme. Based on this feedback, the instructors made the motivation for using specifications grading more transparent and provided handouts with checklists to the students during the second semester offering of the course. Details of the implementation of this grading scheme in the laboratory course and in a large research group will be discussed as well as qualitative student survey responses and suggestions for future improvements.

It is particularly difficult to maintain academic engagement with students in courses such as senior electives and capstone design. In these courses students bring varied academic preparation and motivation. Presented here is the use of a modified competency-based learning methodology in a one semester capstone design course focused on simulation skills. Competency-based learning typically focuses on mastering skills rather than traditional learning and is more often seen in more physically demonstratable fields such as healthcare or trades.

Students were asked to show a student chosen level of competency in using a process simulation package as well as the delivery method. This information was conveyed to the instructor via a one-page maximum competency proposal outlining the desired level of competency demonstrated, the modality of the artifacts created, and the technical simulation presented. Of the modalities chosen by the students, 30-minute face-to-face walkthroughs of the simulation(s) were the most time efficient for the instructor. Student efficiency was seen when students were able to utilize their design project for the simulation. Upon successfully meeting deliverables, students were asked to provide an approximately one-half page self-assessment of their competency level according to instructor given descriptions.

Discussed is detailed implementation, a review of the self-assessments and end of semester student feedback for the effectiveness of the competency based learning model.

Nilson, Linda B. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC, 2014.

Pascal, J., & Vogel, T. J., & Wagstrom, K. (2020, June), Grading by Competency and Specifications: Giving Better Feedback and Saving Time Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34712

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