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Specifications Grading in General Physics and Engineering Physics Courses

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Engineering Physics and Physics Division Technical Session 3

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Paper Authors


Harold Evensen University of Wisconsin - Platteville

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Hal Evensen has been a Professor of Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville since 1999, where he has led ABET accreditation efforts and served as Program Coordinator. His research interests always involve students and range from carbon nanotube electronics and nanopatterned graphene to automated control of grazing dairy herds. He enjoys teaching courses in Sensors and Electric & Magnetic Fields, and has developed a new, project-based course for first-year students in EP. He also enjoys wilderness backpacking beyond the reach of cell phones.

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Specifications grading (“specs grading,” or “standards-based grading”) bases course assessment on students’ meeting various course objectives, each at or above a minimum level of proficiency. While there can be a wide range of variability among courses that pursue “specs grading,” almost all share the following features: (1) all assessments are graded pass/fail; (2) students are given multiple opportunities to re-take assessments and demonstrate competency. With the shift in focus to attaining outcomes, the overall grade moves away from a what can be an arbitrary averaging of scores from disparate parts of the course. Instead, the grade is based upon students mastering individual learning outcomes. These outcomes can be based on laboratory skills, problem-solving application, ethical considerations, or whatever else is deemed important for the course. In specs grading, students gain a clearer understanding of what is needed to pass the course, and they can also have the ability to select their own learning goals. In Fall 2020, the author converted a General Physics I section and an upper-division Electric & Magnetic Fields course into a specs grading format; in Spring 2021 this was applied again to another General Physics I section. While this was long under consideration, the change was made during the pandemic because of two other purported benefits of this system: it simplifies grading for the instructor (and any grader), and it removes the stress of one-time, “high stakes” examinations for the student. This paper will present an overview of specifications grading, including some of the few examples in university-level physics. It will then detail the author’s modified courses, including changes made in response to student feedback and instructor experience, and discussion of the impact on upper- vs. lower-division courses. Overall, despite the significant change to the “norm,” students responded very positively to this format, praising its flexibility and rigor. The instructor feels that students’ grades appropriately matched their work, and that students overall were working hard on the “right things:” learning and mastering the content.

Evensen, H. (2022, August), Specifications Grading in General Physics and Engineering Physics Courses Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN. 10.18260/1-2--40676

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