Cranking MBT up to 11 with Specifications Grading (Part III)

Hello! I’m not Mike!


My name is Derek Thompson, and I’m an Assistant Professor at Taylor University in Upland, IN. Like the others on this blog, I’ve seen the transformative power of mastery-based testing. And like Mike, I’ve seen how powerful it can be when combined with specifications grading. What this post will be about is a huge mistake I nearly made – here’s what not to do with specifications grading and mastery-based testing.


One of the largest perks of mastery-based testing is getting the buy-in from students on day one. The idea that they can retake exams, and that they can even skip the final if they do well, is alluring and comforting. Specifications grading takes this a step further. My syllabi were carefully designed last semester to adjust one aspect of MBT and to amplify another.

First, weekly quizzes (“quests”) were the first crack at a topic, the two midterms were the second, and the final was the third. This meant that unlike the traditional MBT model, each topic was given three attempts rather than favoring earlier topics with more attempts. Second, if you look at the specifications outline below from last Spring’s Advanced Calculus course, you can see that grades can only go up. Mixing MBT with traditional weighted percentages for other aspects of the course kept me from making this claim previously.


There were a number of growing pains with this method in my first run in the Spring, but overall I think it was a success. The main problem was that the topics were too easy, and in that course no one even needed to take the final. The university, of course, wants us to have a final on record in case grades are contested, and likewise midterms are somewhat needed to indicate poor grades at midterm to coaches, advisors, etc.

With specifications grading, it’s easy to simply add more specifications, although you run the risk of making the syllabus too complex. When I presented the ideas at Mathfest 2016, I presented this “solved” list of specs for my Discrete Math for Computer Science course.


Do you see the problem? While it makes sense that the final can be its own grade (and you don’t see this on the chart, but it  would still count for a retake of each core objective), one of my main benefits of specs grading is now a lie. Students can do all the work and tank the final, and they would receive an F in the course by this model. This generated some awkward looks in the audience, and I thank God that I gave a poorly thought-out presentation before I gave my students a poorly thought-out syllabus.

I said something in that talk that I think is succinct and profound, and illustrates why specs grading is the natural evolution of MBT. Last Fall, before I did specs grading, my students were already doing mastery proofs and redoing WebAssign problems in addition to MBT. The whole course was mastery-based – except for my syllabus. That’s important, and the syllabus I presented failed to keep that aspect from last Spring.

With that plan properly in the garbage, I’m still presented with the problem of needing students to take the midterm and the final. I’ve got a bad habit of moving by miles when I should only go inches if I’ve already got a good framework. Keeping myself in check, my solution for this semester is to keep the weekly quests but have some new topics on the two midterms, just like there would be in traditional MBT. These topics can be attempted again on the final. Here’s the corrected Discrete syllabus:


They can still opt out of the final if they’ve done well enough, but since it will only be the second attempt for the midterm topics, it’s not as likely. It guarantees a large exam grade that I can use for midterm reports. While it doesn’t allow for equal attempts at each topic, it allows me to categorize them – the heavy stuff will be on the weekly quests when it’s fresh and retested twice; the midterm topics will be lighter reminders of old material that only gets retested on the final. Of course, students will have a few “coins” (I call them “power-ups”) to do specific retakes in my office, if they need to. It’s also a nice way to hand out “extra credit” by allowing retakes for doing extra work – they’ll still need to redo the original material correctly.

You’ll also notice that I have twice as many core objectives as I had Quests for Advanced Calculus – breaking the objectives into smaller chunks will help relieve pressure and also make it more likely that they’ll have a few odds and ends to show up for on the final. It’s also consistent with the ACM standards for discrete math, which include about 40 learning objectives. Having some new ones as midterm topics helps space out this large number as well.

And you might also notice that there’s still one way grades can go down – unexcused absences. This is consistent with official university policy, but now it’s neatly wrapped into the specs so that students are reminded of the issue, instead of it being in a random corner of the syllabus and forgotten.

To summarize, I think that one of the most appealing aspects of MBT, and specs grading (done right) is how grades only increase. Students begin with an F, but they can never lose credit for work accomplished. That’s a huge motivator, and encourages growth mindset, grit, and all of those other learning dispositions we’ve been talking about. Feel free to comment below with questions, or send an email to


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s