Recent trends in BME education emphasize aspects of the engineering profession such as design process, entrepreneurial mindset, and active problem-solving. However, the grading strategy in most traditional BME courses revolves around assigning points to student work based on apparent quality or degree of completion. Awarding “partial credit” is time-consuming and often is not closely mapped to learning objectives. As a result, students often focus on how many points they earned relative to their perceived level of effort rather on how closely they met the learning objectives of the activity or assessment.
In a “specifications grading” system, students earn credit for completing activities (or bundles of activities) by meeting clearly defined specifications shared at the time of assigning the activities. If the work does not meet the specifications, then credit is not earned. This system has several advantages. Specifications are closely mapped to the learning objectives for the activities and the course, making it easier to document and to reflect on learning. Students focus their effort on meeting specifications much as they would in the professional field when addressing client needs or competing for a project bid. Specifications can include aspects of the problem-solving or design process, which is often difficult to assess in a traditional points-based formula or rubric. Finally, the grading system is transparent, since students know up front what work must be completed to receive credit. Students can choose what grade level they wish to achieve, providing them with control over their learning and potentially increasing motivation.
A specifications grading system was implemented in an upper-level BME elective course of approx. 20 students. The work in the course was organized into “bundles” that reflected different levels of complexity when interacting with course content. Bundles included Concept Questions, Practice Problems, Homework, Unit Tests, and a Project. Students earned a course grade by choosing to complete the minimum number of each type of activity in a bundle.
Concept Questions and Practice Problems were low-stakes activities designed to help students learn new concepts and connect them to their professional goals outside the class. Specifications emphasized problem-solving process, risk taking, and identifying roadblocks to learning; a complete or “correct” answer was not required. Homework and Tests were high-stakes assessments in which students demonstrated mastery of content. Specifications assessed problem-solving process, providing assumptions and evidence to support answers, and arriving at a substantially correct answer. The Project involved advanced lab and data analysis activities in an open-ended problem.
Since learning and mastering content is an iterative process, a currency of “tokens” was created to support students in their effort. Tokens were earned for completing reflection activities about individual learning and effort. Tokens could be redeemed for flexibility on assignment deadlines or for opportunities to revise and update submitted work.
In order to determine how the grading system impacted learning outcomes, outcomes will be compared to the same course in the previous year, which was assessed using traditional points-based grading. The proportion of students meeting specs on homework and test assessments will be compared to the number of students achieving a score of 85% on similar traditionally graded assignments. Student motivation will be compared for these two course offerings using the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire, which measures college students’ motivational orientations and use of different learning strategies for a course. Finally, responses to a survey measuring student satisfaction will be compared.
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