4 Encouraging Curiosity and Experimentation with Ungrading

Alicia Vaandering

“A willingness to explore more equitable forms of assessment that encourage rather than discourage student curiosity and exploration is critical for library instructors who grade student work.”


Ask a teacher what their least favorite part of teaching is, and grading will likely be part of their response.  While teachers and instructors often enjoy engaging in conversations about student learning and progress, the act of marking grades is less gratifying.  As Peter Elbow (1997) wrote, “Grading tends to undermine the climate for teaching and learning.  Once we start grading their work, students are tempted to study or work for the grade rather than for learning” (p. 127).  Traditional grading methods, such as points-based grading and the A-F grading scale, are often at odds with student learning (Beck, 1991; Harland et al., 2015).  By providing an extrinsic motivation for learning, these methods often fail to provide students with the intrinsic motivation needed to become lifelong learners (Blum, 2020).  They may also disadvantage students with less knowledge or experience with course content, which further exacerbates the challenge to inspire authentic learning and curiosity in the classroom.  As students seek the “right” answer, they often ignore their own curiosity in favor of adhering to instructor or textbook examples in order to achieve a high score (Pulfrey et al, 2011; Feldman, 2019).

A willingness to explore more equitable forms of assessment that encourage rather than discourage student curiosity and exploration is critical for library instructors who grade student work.  This case study examines how I implemented specifications grading, which integrates core aspects of ungrading, in a 100-level information literacy course to better support student success for a class of primarily first- and second-year students.  Dissatisfied with the traditional grading and feedback process that I had previously used in my course, my goal was to pilot an alternative grading system that offered students greater agency in the classroom by providing them with more opportunities to experiment, fail, adapt, and grow.  This study also highlights the challenges and successes I experienced implementing specifications grading.

Literature Review

An Introduction to Ungrading

The current A-F scale that is popular in most American colleges and universities uses a points-based grading system to assign letter grades.  It emerged roughly a century ago in response to major shifts in primary and secondary education that were prompted by economic, political, and social upheaval (Rojstaczer & Healy, 2012; Feldman, 2019).  During this time, grades transitioned from a means of “internal communication among teachers and families” to external communication that was used to build and define an expanding public education system (Schneider & Hutt, 2014, pp. 202-203).

Despite the ubiquity of assigning letter grades to student work, a number of educators have challenged this practice.  Some have questioned the ability of grades to accurately communicate student progress (Dressel, 1968; Rojstaczer & Healy, 2012; Feldman, 2019).   Others have argued that grades are an extrinsic motivator and, as such, undermine learning and education (Beck et al., 1991).  However, these voices have remained on the margins of broader conversations about grading and assessment, failing to inspire a major reform (Schneider & Hutt, 2014).

Over the last several decades, ungrading has emerged alongside concerns over traditional grading systems, and it has gained considerable popularity over the last decade.  However, a simple definition of ungrading remains elusive.  Educator Jesse Stommel (2021) describes ungrading as “raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice,” a term that is “a present participle, an ongoing process, not a static set of practices” (para. 1).  Others have described ungrading as a broader set of assessment strategies and practices that challenge aspects of traditional grading (Supiano, 2019; Greenberg et al., 2022).  As documented in editor Susan D. Blum’s pivotal book UNgrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (2020), as an umbrella term, ungrading embodies common aims such as decentering the instructor in the grading process, providing students with greater autonomy, and encouraging students to engage in critical reflection and self-assessment.  Ungrading encompasses specific practices like contract grading, standards-based grading, and specifications grading.

Understanding Specifications Grading

Falling under the purview of ungrading, specifications grading (also referred to as “specs grading”) centers on students reaching a level of mastery in their work so that grades align with the achievement of learning objectives rather than rank student work on a grading scale.  As Linda B. Nilson (2015) notes, when instructors structure grades along an A-F scale, only students who achieve an A have submitted work that meets instructor expectations.  Instructors who implement specifications grading, instead, outline what specific expectations (“specifications”) students must meet in their work to demonstrate that they have met set learning objectives.  Specifications set the bar for success with “high yet reachable standards” (Earl, 2022, p. 51).

When using specifications grading, instructors typically grade student assignments using a pass/fail system and offer opportunities for revising failed work through the use of tokens or other established parameters.  A student’s grade, then, is based upon either the number of assignments submitted that “pass” or the satisfactory completion of specific objectives across assignments.  As Nilson (2015) notes, students can “earn higher grades by jumping more hurdles that show evidence of more learning…and/or jumping higher hurdles that show evidence of more advanced learning” (p. 25).  To help students understand how skills and objectives are built and scaffolded across assignments and projects in specifications grading, assignments are often placed within “bundles” that clearly outline what must be completed to specifications in order to earn each grade (Leslie & Lundblom, 2020).

Specifications grading shares many goals with other ungrading strategies and practices, but it focuses more specifically on motivating students with transparent instructor expectations, increasing academic rigor, and reducing the time instructors spend grading (Nilson, 2015).  Leslie and Lundblom (2020) have linked the option to resubmit failed work, which is a crucial element of specifications grading, with a greater facilitation of student learning by providing actionable instructor feedback and empowering students in their learning processes.  Furthermore, Prasad (2020), who used specifications grading in a mathematics course for preservice educators, found that this alternative grading system helped students revise patterns of thinking and increase risk-taking.  However, research has indicated that some goals of specifications grading are more easily achieved than others.  For example, Vitale and Concepción (2021) found that using specifications grading did increase student motivation and academic rigor, but it failed to reduce the time spent grading assignments.

Ungrading and Intellectual Curiosity

There is an undeniable link between curiosity and learning.  In a recent study, Gruber et al. (2014) found that participants with states of heightened curiosity experienced increased learning and retention.  Perhaps this helps explain why intellectual curiosity is valued so highly within higher education.  However, by the time first-year students reach college, they have spent years operating within systems that prioritize extrinsic rewards for learning (Eyler, 2018).  This makes it challenging for college students to reframe learning as a process of fulfilling their own curiosity.  First-year students may face additional barriers to exhibiting curiosity and risk-taking due to external factors.  Concerns of failing, being rejected by one’s peers, as well as an “aversion to uncertainty” can prevent students from moving beyond their comfort zone (Choi et al., 2019, p. 74).  These concerns may be particularly pronounced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, for many students, exacerbated anxiety and feelings of social isolation (White, 2022; Wilson et al. 2021).  Jones et al. (2022) also stress that feelings of anxiety and social isolation are especially concerning for students of color who have lost valuable social spaces for discussing racially relevant issues and may be struggling to balance an academic workload with familial responsibilities.

Specifications grading and other methods of ungrading offer promising opportunities for instructors striving to stimulate students’ intellectual curiosity and risk-taking in their work.  The practice of allowing students to use instructor feedback to revise and improve projects and assignments seems particularly promising.  As Gibbs (2020) explains, “Learners need the freedom to make mistakes in order to learn from those mistakes; they should not be punished for making mistakes” (p. 97).  In one study, Gorichanaz (2022) found that students tended to see traditional grades as a game with a “one-size-fits-all approach” that privileges certain pathways to learning and fails to “encourage students to discover other ways of solving problems, thus dampening creativity and limiting perspective—and along the way generating stress and anxiety for students” (p. 7).

Library Instruction and Grading

Although research into information literacy instruction has provided much insight into the role of assessment, particularly regarding authentic assessment, it has been less focused on how assessment computes to grades and the subsequent impact of grades on student learning.  For example, Badia (2019) explored the use of holistic and analytic rubrics in assessment for single or multiple library sessions.  However, these rubrics were primarily intended to inform future library instruction planning and provide feedback to students rather than to assign grades.  Some librarians have graded student work as part of teaching first-year experience and seminar classes or as part of collaborations with faculty, yet much of this research has centered on exploring how librarians’ involvement in grading impacts relationships with faculty and the broader university community (Auer & Krupar, 2005).

While specifications grading and other forms of ungrading have gained ground in fields like mathematics and philosophy, they are largely missing from the literature pertaining to the assessment of information literacy instruction.  As many librarians are excluded from the process of assigning students’ grades, this is perhaps unsurprising, although there is a growing number of librarians who engage with grading in their own courses or in collaboration with other faculty.  This case study is an attempt to begin to explore how specifications grading can be implemented in information literacy classrooms to better support student learning by encouraging curiosity and experimentation.

LIB 150: Search Strategies for the Information Age at the University of Rhode Island


The University Libraries, a college of the University of Rhode Island, offers credit-bearing undergraduate information literacy courses.  LIB 150: Search Strategies for the Information Age introduces students to the exploration and practice of information literacy and college-level research.  As a 100-level information literacy course, it primarily enrolls first-year students, although there is usually a small number of sophomores, juniors, and seniors in the class.  The course supports two university General Education Course Outcomes: Communicate Effectively and Information Literacy.  An additional learning outcome is for students to learn how to work as part of a group.  LIB 150 has the following course objectives:

  1. Students will be able to navigate print and digital information research tools and use them for both college-level research and lifelong learning.
  2. Students will be able to differentiate information formats and quality and be able to apply these to college-level information research assignments.
  3. Students will be able to communicate their findings effectively to specific audiences.

Prior Assessment

I began teaching LIB 150 in 2017, and the structure of my class sessions remained largely unchanged from 2017 to 2021.  I interspersed my lectures with discussions and active learn opportunities.  Similarly, during this time my assignments and grading schema remained largely unchanged.  I graded students on an A-F scale using the following assignments and projects:

  • Five skills-based exercises: These exercises help students begin building their information literacy and research skills by developing research questions, evaluating sources, citing sources, using the library catalog and databases, and writing annotations for sources.
  • The Database Information Solutions Project: This group project requires students to develop a presentation and model how to use library databases to meet the specific information needs of a provided scenario.  Students develop a group annotated bibliography using sources from their databases.
  • The Beyond the News Project: This multi-pronged individual project requires students to create a research proposal, develop an annotated bibliography, present their findings, evaluate peers’ presentations, and compose a reflective journal.

From 2017-2021, these assignments were scaffolded with later, more substantial projects building on the knowledge and skills gained in the earlier skills exercises.  Each assignment was accompanied by an analytic rubric with multiple criteria.  The rubrics provided a rating scale that classified student work as exemplary, proficient, developing, or beginner level for each criterion.  The breakdown of students’ grades can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1 

Original Grading Scale for LIB 150 

Like most instructors who choose to engage in a time-intensive overhaul of a major aspect of a course like assessment, my changes stemmed from dissatisfaction with my current practices.  While I considered my grading to be a reliable assessment of student learning, I was worried that it missed the mark in both providing assessment for student learning and helping students develop a growth mindset. Students who had more extensive experience with libraries and academic research often easily met course objectives, while those who had less experience, often coming from marginalized communities or low-income high schools, struggled to master critical skills.  Additionally, concerns over the disruptions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic deepened my interest in a grading system that offered greater flexibility and support for students who might be struggling from anxiety, stress, and isolation. 

Four years of experience in teaching LIB 150 to students from diverse backgrounds and major areas of studies left me well-situated to consider major adaptations to the course.  This experience was essential because, as Streifer and Palmer (2021) have explained in regard to specifications grading, “Layering a complex assessment approach on top of the process of developing fundamental teaching skills could overwhelm novice instructors and lead to low-quality implementation” (p. 5).  In Fall 2021, specifications grading became one of many course changes, which also included adopting a flipped instruction model, allowing student choice in selecting in-class activities from a menu of options, and updating assignments to draw more directly on real-world problems.  However, because grades are so deeply ingrained as extrinsic motivation for learning, I found that the adoption of specifications grading had the most significant impact on student learning and achievement in my course.  It was also the most challenging change to explain to students, who were usually new to specifications grading and other ungrading methods and practices.

Implementing Specifications Grading in LIB 150

Overhauling a grading system is daunting, so I began by examining the larger pieces of LIB 150 before moving to revise individual assignments and rubrics.  This approach helped me maintain a comprehensive overview of how the pieces of the course aligned to ensure that students met course objectives.

Aligning Learning Outcomes Across Assignments & Projects

I began my implementation of specifications grading by mapping which course learning objectives were demonstrated in each assignment and at what level of sophistication.  For example, while both Skills Exercise 3: Finding & Evaluating Books and the Beyond the News: Annotated Bibliography align with the first course objective by requiring students to find, evaluate, and annotate a book, the latter assignment requires students to demonstrate more advanced skills in locating books, articles, and other sources and using them to identify the scholarly conversation surrounding their research topic.

After reviewing the course assignments, I discovered that students could meet all required course objectives, student learning outcomes, and general education learning outcomes at their most basic level by completing the five skills exercises and the group project.  These assignments, then, became my first grade bundle that determined what must be accomplished to achieve a D in the course.  I then spread the remaining assignments across the other grade bundles with the most complex assignments as part of the work for an A or B.  Each grade bundle required students to submit all the assignments of the prior grade bundle to ensure that the development of research skills was amply supported and scaffolded.  Figure 1 details the grade bundles constructed for Fall 2021.

Figure 1 

Specifications Grading Chart–Fall 2021 

grading rubric chart for course

Because my course is capped at 24 students and I was minimally concerned with the additional time required to assess revised work, I allowed resubmissions on all assignments.

One substantial change that occurred as I moved to specifications grading was the role of attendance and participation.  While ungrading does not require eliminating attendance and participation from student grades, those who practice ungrading are more likely to question the role of attendance and participation in assessment (Schulz-Bergin, 2020).  Susan Blum (2020) has highlighted that the inclusion of attendance and participation in students’ grades tends to favor students who are extroverted, and it can also become a problem of equity as it benefits students “who are fortunate enough to avoid serious illness, financial challenges, and family responsibilities” (pp. 10-11).  The pandemic reinforced my concerns regarding the meaningful and equitable grading of attendance and participation, so I experimented with eliminating both from my specifications grading beyond a baseline expectation that students would have no more than five unexcused absences.  Given the unequal burden of COVID-19 on marginalized communities, I felt that I could better support my students from these communities by dropping a standard that I already felt was challenging to uphold fairly.

Formatting Assignments & Rubrics

My goal in switching to specifications grading was to offer students greater agency in their learning process.  As the specifications grading chart took shape, I made further adjustments to assignments, recentering them on real-world situations and providing opportunities for student choice.  I did this to encourage students to experiment and follow their curiosity.  The Database Information Solutions project became the Database Teach-In, which shifted to requiring students to work in groups to explore a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of their choice.  The Beyond the News Project, which had always allowed students to select a topic of interest but required a live presentation in the classroom, evolved to allow students to replace the live presentation with a final product that they felt best shared their research findings.  While a live presentation remained an option, students could instead submit a recorded or poster presentation, extended annotated bibliography, or an alternative option developed in conjunction with me.  The research journal that had initially been a key piece of the Beyond the News project also underwent substantial revisions to become the Myself, the Research Essay.  This assignment now asked students to reflect upon their growth as a researcher over the entire semester.  Students could select which assignments, projects, and activities to highlight as evidence of their learning.

All assignment guidelines were updated to include specifications of what students must accomplish to pass.  For example, while assignment directions might tell students to provide a ~100 word evaluation of a source using criteria from the CRAAP test, the specifications would establish that students needed to compose an evaluation of at least 85 words that used no less than three criteria from the CRAAP test to pass the assignment.  While these specifications set more rigid expectations, they also provided clear guidelines to students.  The specifications also transformed my rubrics to holistic rubrics with just three rating scales: accepted, indicating that all specifications had been met; revise, indicating that the work needed to be revised in order to meet missing specifications; and not submitted.

Takeaways & Next Steps

Encouraging Curiosity & Experimentation

Using specifications grading in my course yielded key benefits, particularly in encouraging students to experiment and take risks in their work.  For students who learn better through trial and error, ample opportunities were provided to test out their own methods for meeting specifications.  If initial methods fell short, students were able to adjust their approach with no penalty to their grade.  This experimentation deepened the learning process as students reflected upon why their initial methods failed and reoriented their approach.  Embedding opportunities for revision also mitigated some of the stress of assignments.  This helped support the mental health and diverse needs of many students who were struggling during the pandemic.  For students who were still figuring out how to balance academic work with other responsibilities, specifications grading provided the opportunity to review feedback, identify errors, and revise work if specifications were not initially met.  This process was particularly helpful for students who had less experience with college-level research.

However, specifications grading did pose challenges.  Many students had no prior experience with specifications grading or other ungrading strategies and practices.  Over the semester, I had to repeatedly explain not only how their work was being assessed but also why it was being assessed that way.  For students to take advantage of the opportunities for experimentation that are so central to specifications grading, they had to be aware of those opportunities and what they offered. Additionally, students sometimes rushed to resubmit work and failed to reflect and ask questions that would deepen their learning.  This often resulted in unproductive experimentation that was frustrating and time-consuming to both the student and myself as the instructor.

Quality of Work: Feedback as Conversation

One goal of specifications grading is the restoration of academic rigor, and I was pleased to see the quality of student work improve over the course of the semester.  I set assignment specifications at what I would have expected to see students accomplish to receive a B or B+ in my prior grading system.  Many students went beyond the specifications in their initial or revised work.

One critical factor that contributed to the higher quality of work was the reframing of feedback as a conversation between student and instructor.  In previous semesters, when course assignments and associated grades were final, many students focused exclusively on their grade, ignoring the feedback that I provided to help them in future assignments and research.  When I began to allow for the revision of failed assignments, students were incentivized to carefully review my feedback and enter into a conversation about how to strengthen their work.  This process also provided me with opportunities to learn more about what interested and motivated my students, which allowed me to draw connections and contextualize learning with greater nuance.

Moving Forward

Since Fall 2021, I have continued to experiment with specifications grading.  Responding to student feedback from Fall 2021, I explored blending pass/fail grading on lower-level assignments (like the skills exercises) with traditional grading on higher-level projects.  While this provided opportunities to revise the early skill-building exercises, I was quickly dissatisfied with loss of the grade bundles and the lack of opportunities for revisions on more advanced work, particularly for students struggling with course content.  The quality of the work once again slipped as students endeavored to just turn in “something” for each assignment rather than following their curiosity to complete assignments that were of greater interest to them.  I considered this a failed experiment and returned to the specifications grading system I initially used, although I now use tokens to limit the number of resubmissions allowed for all work beyond achieving a D in hopes of encouraging earlier questions and conversations about assignments and the research process.

To better align assignments with course objectives and learning outcomes, I again tweaked the final piece of the Beyond the News project.  In drafting the specifications for the assignment in Fall 2021, it was challenging to set specifications because students were permitted to submit a wide range of final products.  To resolve this problem, I limited the options to submitting a live, recorded, or poster presentation. This change provided students with agency while maintaining more equitable standards for determining when student work met specifications.

Moving forward, I hope to implement specifications grading in the 5-week summer sessions and 3-week winter terms of LIB 150.  This implementation has been more challenging since the course is already condensed to enable students to meet the same objectives and learning outcomes of the typically 13-week course.  Figuring out how to provide opportunities for revisions that will still allow students to stay on track to complete the course is a hurdle that I am still seeking a way to overcome.


While transitioning to specifications grading takes time, reflection, and effort, it may be a good fit for library instructors seeking new approaches to support student learning, encourage intellectual curiosity and experimentation, and implement more equitable grading practices.  As part of a broader movement to use assessment for learning, specifications grading provides increased opportunities for library instructors to engage students in conversations about their research and work and tailor support to meet the individual needs and abilities of each student.  These efforts are crucial to helping students hone their critical information literacy skills, experience authentic learning, and become informed lifelong learners.


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About the Author

Alicia G. Vaandering is an Assistant Professor and the Student Success Librarian for the University Libraries at the University of Rhode Island.  In her role, she participates in instruction, reference, and outreach to support the learning and research of students, with an emphasis on undergraduate first-year, international, first-generation, and transfer students.  She received a Bachelor of Arts in History from Willamette University and a Master of Library and Information Studies and Master of Arts in History at the University of Rhode Island.  Her research interests include the representation of the LGBTQIA+ community in children’s picture books, information literacy instruction, the history of public libraries, and library collaborations with academic services. Alicia lives in Rhode Island with her husband and two cats, and she can often be found reading mysteries, knitting, or hiking in state parks or wildlife refuges.

Alicia can be reached at avaandering@uri.edu


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