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Better Assessment
Review of Linda Nilson's Specifications Grading

By Clark Quinn / July 2018

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"Do, or do not. There is no 'try'"—Yoda

In eLearning, a critical component is the practice. If you track the performance in the practice, it's assessment. And what's been hard is both creating good assessment, and then doing a good job of actually evaluating it. We need better solutions.

Similarly, if you've ever taught, or taken, a university course, you know one of the contentious items is assessment. Students want less and/or easy, and professors want less marking. And there are concerns that rigor is dropping. Yet, learning requires committing to action, and the application-based learning model demonstrates that learners need to make meaningful decisions. How do you reconcile this? A book I just stumbled across poses intriguing and valuable answers.

I can't even recall where I first heard across Linda B. Nilson's Specifications Grading (Stylus Publishing, 2015), but it was touted as talking about meaningful assessment. And I'm interested in meaningful assessment, because we know practice is the key to learning, and yet we have real-world constraints to address. The subtitle, however, is promising: "Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time." This sounds like just the ticket!

And, indeed, the book lives up to the promise. Nilson starts out by pointing out the problems: Teachers want more auto-marked assessments, and devolve to publisher-produced question banks; students spend their energy arguing for points instead of doing the work up front; and for a variety of reasons standards have fallen and pressure is on to give high marks (to "customers"). These are all legitimate complaints, and things I wrestled with back in the days of yore. The complaints aren't new, but Nilson has an answer.

Starting from the point of having rigorous outcomes, Nilson talks about creating specification of what learners should be able to do as a consequence of this class. Then, you create assessments that demonstrate those outcomes. This is very much a competency-based approach, and that's good. She's also pushing for pass-fail (typically, you do B-level or better), or at least hard criteria. If you meet the criteria for a C, you get a C, etc. And the criteria for a B or an A are supersets of that. She makes this sound not only feasible, but desirable.

She cites results that show learners try harder and do better under this model. There are clear criteria, and the student takes responsibility for the grade they want. They can get a D if they want, but it's up to the students. If you follow the process of making clear specifications, then it becomes no argument and it makes the markings easier (Though I did feel she didn't talk enough about identifying what to do if a learner failed to meet the criteria. What should be the necessary feedback?) You can allow resubmission some number of times per assignment, or have a limited number of resubmits through the session.

Nilson provides a wide variety of examples, so anyone should be able to find something that works for what they're teaching. She also has recommendations for steps to follow. The writing's even accessible (OK, for an academic). This is a rigorous treatment of a subject that deserves rigor.

The approach suggested translates to workplace learning and elearning, too. We should be defining the outcomes we desire, test for them, and not let someone go just because they spent the requisite hour. Can they do what we need them to do? We might not be worrying about a semester's worth, but we should be worrying about demonstrating capability, particularly for any certification.

This is a valuable work that anyone who teaches in higher education ought to read, and every institution should move in this direction. It may require more upfront work, and maybe even some curriculum review, but the payoff is better, and scrutable, assessment.


About the Author

Clark Quinn leads learning system design through Quinnovation, providing strategic solutions to Fortune 500, education, government, and not-for-profit organizations. He earned his Ph.D. in applied cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and has led the design of mobile, performance support, serious games, online learning, and adaptive learning systems. He's an internationally known speaker and author, with four books and numerous articles and chapters. He has held management positions at Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio, Open Net, and Access CMC, and academic positions at the University of New South Wales, the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center, and San Diego State University's Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education.

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