Specifications Grading

Focus on Learning and Improving Academic Performance and Abilities

What is Specifications Grading?

Specifications grading is a complement to mastery learning because grades are structured on competencies achieved rather than on points earned (Nilson, 2014), meaning that mastery is the key to success. The goals of a grading system include:

  • Uphold high academic standards,
  • Reflect student learning outcomes,
  • Motivate students to learn,
  • Motivate students to excel,
  • Discourage cheating,
  • Reduce student stress,
  • Make students feel responsible for their grades,
  • Minimize conflict between faculty and students,
  • Save faculty time,
  • Give students feedback they will use,
  • Make expectations clear,
  • Foster higher-order cognitive development and creativity,
  • Assess authentically,
  • Achieve high interrater agreement,
  • Be simple

Specifications grading can encourage mastery of topics, rather than partial mastery based on partial credit.  Tsoi et al. (2019) used specifications grading in 12 different STEM courses, finding that a very wide variety of implementation strategies were productive, allowing faculty a great deal of latitude and creativity in the system. Implementing Specifications Grading in teaching could motivate student learning, bring rigor and quality of student work up, and lessen the grading load and student stress and cheating.


Mendez, J. (2018). Standards-based specifications grading in a hybrid course. 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings. doi:10.18260/1-2–30982

Nilson, L. B., & Stanny, C. J. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Tsoi, M., Anzovino, M. E., Erickson, A., Forringer, E., Henary, E., Lively, A., . . . Woodbridge, C. (2019). Variations in implementation of specifications grading in STEM courses. Retrieved March 04, 2021, from