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Undergraduate Education

C&EN talks with Joshua Ring, organic chemistry educator

Professor adopted alternative grading strategy to ensure his students master the essentials of organic chemistry

by Celia Henry Arnaud
October 24, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 42

Credit: Andy Steele
Credit: Andy Steele

A few years after he started teaching in 2008, Joshua Ring, an organic chemistry professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, began asking himself what he could say with certainty about every student who passed his class. Could he be sure that students had learned the essentials just because they received a particular grade? Or, did his use of partial credit obscure the fact that they might have partially grasped everything while fully mastering nothing?


Hometown: Ellicott City, Md.

Position: associate professor of chemistry, Lenoir-Rhyne University

Education: B.S. in chemistry, Georgia Tech; Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science, University of Kentucky

Favorite part of organic chemistry: the puzzle-solving of structure elucidation (especially by NMR)

Hobbies: camping, playing Legos with his daughters and board games with his colleagues

Then, a couple of years ago Ring learned of a possible way to answer those questions. It was a grading strategy called specifications grading, developed by Linda Nilson, a faculty development expert now retired from Clemson University. The system involves a course built around specific, assessable concepts or skills students must learn or be able to do. A teacher assesses students on each of these so-called learning outcomes, and their grade depends on how many outcomes they pass.

Ring first learned about specifications grading when Robert Talbert, a blogger and mathematics professor at Grand Valley State University, gave a presentation at a Lenoir-Rhyne faculty development workday. Talbert was there to talk about “flipping” the classroom, a strategy in which students are introduced to content via short videos outside of class whereas class time is used to work problems. Ring was already doing that. He wanted to know how Talbert graded in such a setting. Talbert told Ring about specifications grading and how it allowed him to stop giving partial credit.

This intrigued Ring. “I was giving a lot of partial credit,” he says. “I spent a lot of time making sure it was fair between students. But there was always this element of no one’s getting this completely right. It was irritating.”

To apply specifications grading to his organic chemistry classes, Ring divided the course material into “essential” and “general” learning outcomes. The essential outcomes involve skills related to understanding Lewis dot structures, naming and drawing structures, identifying and explaining charge stability, drawing reaction mechanisms, and predicting reactive sites. Meanwhile, the general outcomes include skills such as classifying and comparing bonds and angles, identifying and designating chirality, and predicting products of various reactions.

The essentials

Students in Ring’s Organic Chemistry I class must master these six essential outcomes:

Drawing Lewis dot structures

Interconverting Lewis dot structures, condensed formulas, and line-angle structures

Using basic nomenclature

Identifying and explaining charge stability

Drawing reaction mechanisms (acid-base, substitution, addition, elimination)

Predicting reactive sites

Ring tests students on each of the outcomes in five-question tests that take 10 or 12 minutes. An answer is either right or wrong, with no chance for partial credit. To pass an outcome, a student must answer four out of five questions correctly.

No student can pass the class without passing all six essential outcomes, no matter how many general outcomes the student passes. (They’re called essential for a reason.) From there, Ring determines students’ grades by the number of general outcomes passed. Passing three earns a D−. Each outcome beyond that raises a student’s grade by one-third of a letter grade.

In his first iteration in fall 2015, Ring had 22 outcomes—six essential and 16 general. “I think that was too many,” he says. “For this fall, I lowered it to 20, consolidated things, and moved some around.” For example, he moved one general outcome—on the application of intermolecular forces—out of the class and into an associated laboratory class. He still has six essential outcomes, but now he includes only 14 general outcomes.

“By dividing this up into the essential and general outcomes, I know that every single student who passes Organic I understands and has mastered the topics that are baseline to move on to the second semester,” Ring says. “In past years, I had students who ended up with Cs or Ds and moved on to Organic II. It turns out that the subjects they did well enough to pass were not really the most important things.”

Because Ring flips his class, students are first introduced to material online. After a brief introduction and enumeration of learning goals for a specific outcome, students watch a video and work practice problems. Then, in class, they work more problems in groups with Ring’s guidance. Each outcome takes one or two class periods. Students take the test for a given outcome at the beginning of the next class period after the end of a unit. So students end up taking these short tests every second or third class period.

Ring no longer gives traditional midterm exams. Instead, those periods are reserved for retaking exams for outcomes students might not have passed the first time. For an hour-long exam period, students can retake up to six tests.

Ring divides the two hours allotted for the final exam in half. For the first hour, everybody takes a cumulative test. In the second hour, students again have the chance to retake any outcomes they have not yet passed. As with the outcome tests, Ring gives no partial credit on the final. For most students, they leave the final exam with the same grade they earned based on the number of outcomes they passed during the term. For students who do particularly well, or particularly poorly, the cumulative test can raise or lower their final grades by up to the equivalent of two outcomes.

When Ring first used specifications grading last fall, he was disappointed that the average grade on the final was about the same as the year before. But then he regraded the 2014 exams without assigning partial credit and found that the students in 2015 did significantly better.

“This is probably what I would have expected if I had guessed,” Ring says. The earlier students had gotten 40% right and another 20% on partial credit. Ring says the new method allows him to know exactly what his students have learned completely.

Students have responded positively to the new grading scheme, Ring says. “One of the most common things I heard was students complaining about why other professors gave them big tests that covered so much material,” he says. “That’s what I did forever, and that’s the standard way to do it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just different.”

Students benefit in other ways too, Ring says. Because the tests are more frequent but more focused, much of students’ test anxiety seems to be eliminated, he says. Plus, the frequent tests encourage students to keep on top of the work. And the opportunity to retake outcome tests allows students to learn from their mistakes. In that way, a failed test takes on less of a sign of failure and more of a sense of “you haven’t mastered this yet,” Ring says.

Ring wonders whether specifications grading could be implemented across the chemistry program at the school. “I wish there were things that students for sure had mastered coming out of gen chem,” before taking organic chemistry, he says. “I think it would be cool to do it programmatically, but I’d like to have more evidence of how well it works for long-term learning with a larger sample size before trying to push it.”



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Vinoth Kumar Lakshmanan (October 26, 2016 8:51 PM)
Thank you for such a wonderful strategy and great.
Patricia LiWang (October 26, 2016 11:54 PM)
This sounds like a great idea. Are there examples of these types of questions so that I could try it in my Organic I class?
Joshua Ring (October 31, 2016 8:07 AM)
Hi Patricia,

Sure, I make new quiz/tests every time (since I pass them all back), so I'm happy to share all of my "old" ones.

Please shoot me an email at and I'll respond with some attached.

Alan Shusterman (October 27, 2016 12:59 AM)
Interesting approach to mastery-based instruction. An older, more established mastery system that has been applied to a number of subjects, including organic chemistry, is the Keller Plan (also called the Personalized System of Instruction). Features of the Keller Plan included: instructor specifying expectations in advance (these expectations were laid out in manageable groups called 'units'), assessing student performance on a given unit *when the student felt ready to be assessed* (usually accomplished by taking a short test), demanding mastery of 80 or 90% of the unit's material before allowing the student to move to the next unit, and allowing student's multiple chances to demonstrate mastery (multiple testing). The Keller Plan caught on big in the 70's and 80's, and articles about it appeared in J.Chem.Ed. (and elsewhere). It is a shame that it has fallen out of view.
Joshua Ring (October 31, 2016 8:27 AM)
Hi Alan,

I admit that I had never heard of the Keller Plan before, and I will certainly read more about it. The self-paced aspect of it seems perfect for online courses, especially.

Thank you for bringing this to my (and our) attention!

Erin Wilson (October 27, 2016 9:31 AM)
I have also been moving toward a specifications-based grading scheme in our one-semester General Chemistry course. All of the homework and lab grades are pass/fail, with a certain number of passes required for certain letter grades. This has tremendously improved the quality of lab reports and the homework performance. I haven't yet figured out how to reduce this very content-heavy course to a manageable number of learning outcomes to do specifications-based exams. This idea of essential and general outcomes is very interesting.

Do you have concerns about retention of material? Are there requirements for students to demonstrate mastery of material more than once in an assessment setting?
Joshua Ring (October 31, 2016 8:16 AM)
Hi Erin,

I am absolutely concerned about retention, but I'll admit that I was when using a standard grading system as well. The data from last fall's cumulative final exam show that the students evaluated under this system performed better than the previous year, but I don't have very many students in total, and I didn't give the exact same final exam, so I can't say that it's conclusive.

Also, students are only required to pass each outcome once. I had tinkered with the idea of requiring them to pass each essential outcome twice, but decided instead to intentionally make many of the later outcome evaluations cumulative (e.g. give them reaction problems with names instead of structures).

Stephen Chamberland (October 27, 2016 3:36 PM)
I also have been searching for years for a way to grade students on whether they fully mastered topics. The concept of critical outcome mastery was introduced to me by a former colleague. Partial credit is a way to grade them on partial understanding. For example, when grading I could say "at least they knew that HBr is an electrophile that adds to a nucleophilic alkene" if they wrote the incorrect regiochemistry or failed to recognize the creation of a chiral center. But I like the method of holding students to a higher standard of complete mastery and giving them chances to retake the tests to show they've mastered the specs for each essential and general skill. I would ask the author how many students are in his classes and how much grading help he has. Does this style of grading reduce or exacerbate drama amongst those who struggle to demonstrate mastery? Are the exams structured in multiple choice format, or can the students still demonstrate mastery by drawing mechanisms, writing essays, and providing detailed analysis?
Joshua Ring (November 1, 2016 9:12 AM)
Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your thoughts and comments! I have two sections of about 20 students each, but no grading help. Grading without partial credit is pretty fast, and I only give them broad/nonspecific feedback(because they can retake it, so I want them to try to find/fix their own mistakes).

There are students who get grumpy at first about no partial credit, but it's not hard to sell them on the importance of doing it right... and the fact that they get retakes seems to help them both focus on learning it all-the-way-right, and stress less when they fail a first attempt.

I don't give any multiple choice quizzes, and depending on the outcome, I give "explain" questions, or mechanism questions, etc. If you'd like to email me at, I'd be happy to share some of the outcome evaluations I've used.

Ser Hagopian (October 31, 2016 5:31 PM)
Is there an improvement in the MCAT scores of your premed students that you are aware of?
Thank you.
Joshua Ring (November 1, 2016 2:31 PM)
Hello Ser,

The broader question about retention of knowledge is incredibly important, and certainly a higher retention of knowledge, understanding, and skills should lead to better scores on the MCAT/PCAT/OAT/DAT, etc.

That being said, last year was my first with Specs Grading, and therefore I don't have any data about MCAT scores. Furthermore, with about 40 students a year in class, and maybe 5 per year taking the MCAT, my sample size is much too small to draw any conclusions yet.

Melissa (November 1, 2016 11:19 PM)
Have you considered doing something like this for lab?
Cheng Zhang (November 3, 2016 8:10 PM)

Thank you for sharing with us the idea and your experience. It is a great way to ensure students master the essentials. Our org chem I class has around 300 students, and no grading help is provided. Do you have any thoughts about how to do spec grading in a big class? How about peer grading? (it is allowed. see



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