Friday, May 10, 2013

SBG: what worked well

I’ve been lax all spring in blogging (other things, too, but that’s beside the point here), and now that the end of the semester has arrived, it’s time I settled down with a cup of coffee to share some of my thoughts on how standards-based grading went. I keep reading blog posts by other teachers and acquiring such cool ideas thereby (this blog brims with excitement about the possibilities for improvement SBG brings to both instruction and assessment; hat tip to Dan Meyer, who recently linked to it), but it is still the case that few teachers at the college/university level are writing about SBG in that context, so hopefully this will be a productive exercise. It’s a good thing qualifications aren’t a prerequisite for blogging, ’cause I ain’t got ’em. Which means this is at least as much about benefitting from the community as trying to contribute to it.

To make this a little more manageable, I’m going to deal with three topics in three (or more) separate posts: what worked well, what worked not so well, and how I plan to move forward.

The Backstory: When last we saw our intrepid blogger, he was heading off into the spring semester to teach multivariable calculus at a small liberal arts college in New England. Having spent several weeks thinking about how he might structure SBG in this class, he had settled on a 4-point system (where 0 represents “complete unfamiliarity” and 4 represents “complete mastery”) with 24 standards: 7 common standards and 17 content-specific standards (an early version of this list was posted here).

What came next: When I met with my class, I explained the system and why I was using it. Assessment should be about giving students the chance to demonstrate what they’ve learned, I said, and providing sufficient opportunity for them to show they’ve mastered the material during the course, even if it doesn’t happen in time for the first test on the material. A point-based system confounds this process. How many students really know what they got each “point” for? (How many of us teachers do?) And a point, once lost, cannot be regained, unless some system of “extra credit” is established, which just creates more work for everyone. I explained that the homework and tests would both create opportunities for them to demonstrate their understanding, and that there was no “weighting” of grades, just regularly-updated scores for the standards. A few expressed surprise, but overall they were accepting that this was how things would work. I explained that the process required honesty from all involved. For my part, I would give scores that I believed accurately reflected each student’s prowess with the various skills they were to learn. For theirs, since I was going to be assessing homework using the same system as the tests, they needed to present their own work each week. (From what I saw, this worked. Students worked together to tackle the problems, but they did not turn in assignments copied from each other. Had I not been at a private liberal arts college with a stringent honor code, I would definitely have had to find another way to handle this. Fortunately, my academic setting allowed me to try SBG this way without worrying about cheating.)

During the semester: We had weekly homework sets and two mid-semester exams. The students have just taken the final exam, and I’ll grade it over the weekend. The homework exercises were primarily taken from the textbook, Michael Corral’s Vector Calculus—available for free download here—and I also wrote some additional exercises to cover other material. (Side note, tangentially related: I chose this textbook because it seemed ridiculous to me to pay $150 for a book that covers material which is available for free almost everywhere. This book basically has the outline I wanted to use, and it has the additional benefit that the exercises are on the whole quite straightforward. I’m realizing that lots of books, and lots of instructors, like “clever” exercises that seem to students only distantly related to the material they’re learning. I’m often tempted that way myself. But if I’m going to assess standards rather than cleverness, a collection of direct applications is invaluable. More on this another time.) The tests were open-book and open-notes. While memorizing definitions, formulas, and theorems is an important step towards forming a coherent picture of the subject, I wanted to emphasize that in the Information Age one can use myriad tools to recall these facts, so that what’s really important is using them intelligently. (Tip: students are afraid of open-book tests, because they assume they’ll be harder. Does “more conceptual” equal “harder”? Possibly in their minds. They did well on the tests, however.)

In addition to the seven “common” standards, each homework covered between three and six other standards, so that many were assessed multiple times. None of the content-specific standards appeared on every assignment; most showed up 2–5 times, although some only once, and some only on the exams. Once a standard had been tested (not just appeared on homework), students could schedule appointments with me to reassess specific standards, up to two per week. To emphasize the importance of mastery, I told the students that I would guarantee an A for anyone who reached (and maintained) 4s in 80% of the standards, with no scores below 3; a B for anyone who reached 3s in 80% of the standards, with no scores below 2, and so on. Scores could be revised up or down, but to alleviate concerns that a fluke of a bad performance at the end of the semester would ruin their scores, I would average their highest and their latest score at the end of the semester.

Student response: When elicited, this was generally positive, which is the most important measure from my perspective. Several students said SBG reduced the stress of test-taking. Others liked how it affirmed their understanding in certain areas while pointing to areas that needed work. A handful took it as a personal challenge to reach all 4s by the end, even though having a couple of 3s wouldn’t change their grade. In the middle of the semester I used an online poll to get anonymous feedback. A couple complained that they didn’t know how their performance was compared with the rest of the class; I view this as part of the purpose of SBG (albeit a minor part)—the striving is against self, not in competition. One said she worked harder to master the material, but appreciated not having to worry about a single bad performance wrecking her grade. The consensus of more than half the students who responded was that SBG reflected their progress and communicated my expectations very well; other responses were at worst neutral. (I wish I had a comparison poll from my non-SBG classes to see if my expectations were being clearly communicated. But if I had done that, I probably would have been using standards anyway.) Even at this level (third-semester calculus), when one might think students’ feelings towards mathematics are firmly set, several students told me that they either had thought they were bad at math or didn’t like it, and now they’ve changed their minds.

My impressions: Mostly I have the sense that standards-based grading was freeing for the students. Far fewer worried about their grades than seems typical (though a few still did), knowing that the way to improve their final grade was the only sensible way: improving their understanding. I was glad to target my feedback, which was the main reason I started considering SBG to begin with. For example, most of the students were adept with algebra, but not all. Some had trouble moving between formulas and visual representations of graphs or objects. Some couldn’t quite grasp how to come up with parametrizations. No student, however, could come out saying “I’m not good at calculus.” They almost always knew which areas they struggled with, and by separating out the different skills, this method of assessment provided confirmation and encouragement at the same time. Each student could look at her scores and say, “Hey, I’m pretty good at a lot of this. I see an area where I’m having trouble, so I guess I’ll work on that.”

In the end, I have tried to be guided by the principle that it is not what I do, but what the students do that contributes the most to their learning. (I picked this up from somewhere, probably several places, and I’ll try at some point to elaborate on how else I applied it.) From that perspective, I would call SBG a success in this class. The participation and performance throughout the class was more uniform across all topics than I have ever seen before. By which I mean, each student knew she was responsible for a certain collection of skills, not just for an accumulation of points or a certain average letter grade, and so they all stepped up to learn all the skills. (Of course, this work ethic is characteristic of students at my school.)

Those are the upsides. In my next post (probably next week, after I’m done grading), I’ll discuss what didn’t go quite so well and why.


Bret Benesh said...

Hi Joshua,

Could students schedule an appointment to reassess a common standard? If so, how did that work?

Joshua Bowman said...


No, the common standards were not reassessed by appointment. They came up so often and were so based in the execution of the skills rather than being content themselves that it didn’t make sense to me to reassess them. This was rarely a problem. As I mentioned, for a student whose algebra background was weak, she could recognize that that was where she needed to put extra effort, and see that it wasn't hurting her understanding of the other standards. I suppose “modeling” or “estimation” could in principle have been reassessed separately, but usually issues with those standards arose in conjunction with issues in content standards.

I think, in part for the reasons above, for future classes I will trim the list of common standards to four or five. Algebra has to be there, as does presentation, but the rest are somewhat malleable.