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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Shea

Specifications grading and popular-music theory, Part 1

This semester I taught taught Theory 4 for our popular-music majors for the first time. We recently implemented a modular curriculum at ASU, where the fourth semester offers students a menu of course options, so I knew that I wanted to create a course that was as relevant and as accessible as possible for my pop students. This post details how I developed this course under the specifications grading ("specs") model, as well as some reflections on what worked well and what I might change next year.

To start, I will be completely honest that teaching music theory at ASU has had its challenges. We have an ~88% acceptance rate, which means that students enter the program from an incredibly wide range of backgrounds, training, and ability. And before I proceed, I want to be super clear — this is a good thing. We should be more inclusive of who we invite to study music. There are many paths to musicianship and not all of them involve multiple years studying with a private teacher. (I myself was self-taught on bass and didn't get lessons until college.) The problem comes when universities and conservatories, in an effort to increase enrollment and collect more tuition, widen their acceptance rates without providing proper resources to support these "non-traditional" musicians. So ultimately it's up to the first-semester theory instructor to create a curriculum that best-serves an increasingly diverse pool of students.

About a year ago I had an enlightening conversation with my friend and colleague in the neuroscience department at ASU, Shannon Eaton, who teaches similarly large lecture courses on the reg. She recommended I read the book Specifications Grading by Linda Nilson. Among other things, Shannon noted that since adopting the model that she's experienced increased retention, easier grading, and less grade grubbing. I've since implemented select aspects of the "specs" grading model for Theory 1, and saw echoes of this effectiveness, but have yet to fully put them into practice. Our new Theory 4 class for popular-music majors offered a great opportunity to do so.

What are the basics of specs grading?

Here's a modified version of what I put on my syllabus:

Specs grading implements adult-based learning theory or "andragogy." Andragogy maintains that adults learn best when they have a flexible but challenging learning environment. Instead of formal tests, students complete a variety of assignments from which they can choose how much to do in order to get the grades they wish. This allows students to direct their own learning in the manner that best suits their own professional objectives, while also aligning class experiences with learning objectives.

Instructors have some flexibility with which aspects of specs grading they implement, but I chose the following features for Theory 4, which all align with the "safe grading" model.

  • open-ended projects whose criterion can be satisfied in a way that is relevant to a student's professional expertise and goals

  • relatively few deadlines

  • pass/fail grading system

  • grade "tracks"

  • a "token" system

I'll discuss each of these in the next blog post!

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