Published Date

September 10, 2021

Resource Type

For the Classroom


Teaching Methods

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education

By Luke Clossey and Esther Souman

For more information on this course and specifications grading, read “Evaluating without Grading: Encouraging Students to Master Skills with Specifications Grading,” Perspectives on History, October 2021.

In our Introduction to Global History survey course at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in autumn 2020, students earned their grades by “unlocking” different levels of various assignments. We introduced a specifications grading system, evaluating individual assignments on a pass/fail basis, and created multiple pathways for students to move through the assignments and earn a final grade. Our goal was to ensure that every student mastered basic skills, and the more advanced students had opportunities to develop more creative projects. This system was adapted from Linda B. Nilson’s authoritative Specifications Grading (Stylus, 2015).


Assignments and Evaluations

There are no quizzes or examinations. This course uses a “specifications” grading model: Students undertake a number of short assignments, and receive a course grade based on the quantity and difficulty of the assignments successfully completed. Each assignment will involve options, so students can work on something relevant to their own lives. Each course grade also requires a specified minimal level of attendance and participation. To earn a grade, you must meet both the participation-score minimum and the minimum number/level of assignments. This approach has been shown to minimize stress and maximize long-term learning. Overall course grading will be on a curve that can only benefit students. If necessary, final grades will be increased to coincide with departmental averages.

GradeParticipation Score MinimumMinimum Number/Level of Assignments
A+95L1 L2 L3 L4
A90L1 L2 L3 L4
A-80L1 L2 L3 L4
B+95L1 L2 L3
B85L1 L2 L3
B-75L1 L2 L3
C+80L1 L2
C70L1 L2
C-60L1 L2


Due Dates

You may submit one assignment (upload to Canvas) for each Intake, with the following deadlines:

First Intake: Oct. 7, 11:59 p.m.

Second Intake: Oct. 21, 11:59 p.m.

Third Intake: Nov. 11, 11:59 p.m.

Fourth Intake: Dec. 2, 11:59 p.m.

For the first Intake, everyone is invited to submit an L1 assignment. In subsequent Intakes, to submit an assignment of a specific level, you must have previously passed an assignment at the level beneath it. That is, to submit an L3 assignment, you must have already successfully completed an L2 assignment. To earn an A grade, you would submit a successful assignment for L1 at the first Intake, for L2 at the second, etc. To earn a C grade, you would pass an L1 and an L2 assignment, and would have no obligation to submit any others.

An assignment can be submitted late, with a participation-score penalty of 3 points per 24-hour-period, or fraction thereof, after the deadline. The teaching staff is happy to discuss assignment requirements, and to discuss how you might go about completing them, but cannot confirm in advance that a draft assignment fulfills the requirements.  The teaching staff is not expert in the skills needed for the various assignments, so, depending on your choice, you may have to work with a significant degree of independence.  You are encouraged to take advantage of the SFU Student Learning Commons for assistance with writing and study skills.

Requirements for All Assignments

  • Completeness (all required items submitted)
  • Professionalism in writing quality and presentation: clear organization, no sentence fragments or run-ons, no more than two errors per 250 words (including citations in Chicago style)
  • Course relevance: must cite one or more podcasts, and one or more of the assigned sources
  • No plagiarism (see “Academic Policies” below)
  • All papers should be written according to the instructor’s “How to Write” and the Chicago Manual of Style or Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers.

Level 1:  Summarize!

Summarize the podcast(s) and sources from a single week of your choice. Do not include external information or analysis.

  • Use prose, with paragraphs, as if in an essay (i.e., not in list-form)
  • Between 500 and 750 words (include a word count)
  • Organization should be clear, with transitions between paragraphs
  • Information should be presented as a coherent whole
  • Include citations for the podcast(s) and sources

Level 2: Analyze!

Analyze a source or a collection of sources. Make an explicit argument that demonstrates insight. The argument should be original, significant and interesting. (You should make clear to the reader the originality, significance, and interest.) The argument should not be a fact—if all scholars would agree with it, it is probably not an argument.

  • Use prose, with paragraphs, as if in an essay
  • Between 750 and 1,000 words (include a word count)
  • You may include external information, properly cited, if it helps your argument
  • Include a literature review, which you might use as a tool to demonstrate your originality
  • Include a citation for the source(s) you analyze


Sample sources
Sample approaches
• podcast
• assigned source
• digital museum collection item (example)
• image
• sound recording (e.g., from
• dataset (e.g., list of constitutions (example),,
• computer game
• lectio dificilior potius (to identify which of two versions of a text is older; we'll learn about this in Week 5)
• global perspective: show the regional assumptions and motivations behind the source
• find patterns in time and space


Some project ideas
  • Take a source of uncertain origins, and argue for a specific region or time of origin
  • Choose 20 tracks from, and find patterns across time or space (Is music in 1920s Africa more complex than music in 1930s Asia? Why?)
  • Look at your diet for a week. How modern/premodern is it? How traditional/global? Write an essay about the history of one food you’ve eaten or about one quality found in several of your foods. How are other peoples’ dietary practices different from your own?
  • Choose one of these texts. Make a list of all the assumptions it makes. Analyze each assumption from a global or premodern perspective.

Level 3:  Create!

Your creation should demonstrate its clear, significant value, and have a professional appearance. Your creation should be accompanied by a commentary (300 to 500 words) explaining your goals for the project and how you sought to meet them (unless you are doing a proposal).

Personal Applications
  • Create a global-history timeline, with events chosen for relevance to your own life.
  • Create a global-history map, with places chosen for relevance to your own life.
  • Choose things important to you (in categories such as technology, biology, ideas, recreation, food…) and then historicize and globalize them.
  • Choose the most important events in global history.  Justify your choice.  Create chains of causality between them. Analyze the results.
  • Identify an identity and trace it through space/time (e.g., your family, vegans, or whatever).
  • Describe a particular world-perspective (e.g., Buddhism ca. 200 BC), and apply it to a modern problem.
Pedagogy Tools
  • Create a infographic/visualization (example 1, example 2)
  • Create a textbook section
  • Create a historical roleplaying session
  • Create a map (e.g., Google map or a Carto map)
  • Create pedagogical materials (with an instructor’s permission)
  • Identify 4 to 6 learning objectives for HIST 130 and connect them to details in the course
  • Design a final exam for HIST 130
Research Tools
  • Write a research-paper proposal
  • Compile an annotated bibliography of at least 25 items
  • Create an annotated dataset of at least 25 items
  • Write a Teaching and Learning Development Grant proposal

Level 4:  Synthesize!

Your synthesis should demonstrate a clear, significant value, and have a professional appearance.

  • Write a research paper (750 to 1,500 words). Explain the research question, why it is important, the state of the scholarship, and what sources or approached your paper uses to answer it.
  • Write a policy proposal for the federal government (750-word limit).
  • Sum up the history of the world in a single minute (video/audio) or in a 500-word-maximum essay. Include an essay (750 to 1,000 words) justifying the choices informing it.
  • Write a small SSHRC grant. (Ignore Sections VI and VIII; you can fabricate any answers for Section I.)

Final Grades

This table shows the distribution of grades in the course, slightly randomized to preserve privacy.


This table shows the distribution of grades in the course, slightly randomized to preserve privacy

This table shows the distribution of grades in the course, slightly randomized to preserve privacy.