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When classroom interactions have to go online: the move to specifications grading in a project-based design course

Rebecca Quintana (School of Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA and Center for Academic Innovation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)
Chris Quintana (School of Education, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA)

Information and Learning Sciences

ISSN: 2398-5348

Article publication date: 16 July 2020

Issue publication date: 10 August 2020




The events surrounding the COVID-19 crisis had a profound effect on higher education, forcing students and instructors to face a sudden transition to wholly online learning contexts. This paper aims to examine how the design of a residential course was adapted to an online context and how this adaptation may prove beneficial to future iterations of the course.


This analysis centers on a master’s-level course in which students design software to support learning. One of the major changes to the course revolves around the transition from a traditional rubric-based grading scheme to a specifications grading system. This latter approach provides a series of binary (pass/fail) requirements (specifications) that students must meet to pass. Various forms of interactions were also altered during the transition; the authors investigate these in the paper.


This study found that the move to specifications grading helped students and the instructor to focus on the important work of meeting course learning goals. The approach also aligned well with authentic scenarios in which software projects are tested against certain specifications. Finally, this study concludes that thinking about specifications grading in the future can help us to develop more resilient pedagogical design approaches that respond to various forms of disruptions and changes.


The course design insights described in this paper illustrate alternative ways of instruction that can be especially useful during times of emergency, but which may also provide an added level of authenticity and learner motivation during times of stability.



The authors would like to acknowledge Juan D. Pinto for his invaluable assistance in preparing this manuscript. Additionally, we would like to recognize the resilience and good humor of the students in this course.

This article is part of the special issue, “A Response to Emergency Transitions to Remote Online Education in K-12 and Higher Education,” which contains shorter, rapid-turnaround invited works, not subject to double blind peer review. The issue was called, managed and produced on short timeline in Summer 2020 toward pragmatic instructional application in the Fall 2020 semester.


Quintana, R. and Quintana, C. (2020), "When classroom interactions have to go online: the move to specifications grading in a project-based design course", Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. 121 No. 7/8, pp. 525-532.



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