SBG Implementation Part 1: Early Thrills and Chills #sbar #physicsed

So, almost two months in to my first experience with Skills Based Grading (SBG) and I’m simultaneously thrilled and disappointed.

I’m thrilled to have such terrific information on my students. It’s easy to see where they’re improving, where they’re struggling, and where I need to spend more time and adjust my instruction. My whole school district is watching to see how my classroom experiment with SBG works out, and the philosophy, the strategy, and even the technology are all aligned to provide students multiple pathways to success.

In my class, we work all year to build student independence. We spend time reading a technical text, writing for learning, working our way up Bloom’s Taxonomy in the Cognitive Domain, building, modeling, reflecting, and learning how to teach ourselves. Each topic is supported by in-class lessons, laboratory activities, inquiry activities, simulation activities, large group practice, small group practice, and individual practice. But in all cases, the responsibility for learning resides with the student.

It’s disappointing to see how few are taking advantage of all the opportunities and resources to fill in the gaps in their knowledge and push ahead to mastery. A recent reflection in which students wrote about what they liked about class, what they hated, and what they would change opened my eyes. Wide. Eight weeks into the year and I have had a grand total of four students undertake reassessments. And of those four, only two have made a habit of cleaning up their misunderstandings. Not surprisingly, these two have demonstrated very high levels of improvement, and are now regularly among the top scorers in any assessment.

Many stated they liked physics, they understood why we did what we did, and offered constructive suggestions such as more/less hands-on labs, more/less practice work in groups, more/less simulations, etc. Many stated the grading policy was new and uncomfortable, and they were getting used to it. Quite a few stated that they enjoyed the fact that they were graded on their performance, not effort, and they felt in control of their grades. I even expected the comments sharing students’ frustration that I answer most questions with questions.

More troubling, however, were the comments stating that students wanted homework to be graded, otherwise they didn’t see the point in doing it. Or the comments surrounding their strong desire to have an effort grade (“it’s not fair that you grade us only on our ability to meet the standards.”) Or the comments reflecting student dismay that I don’t hand out note packets at the end of every unit (even though class notes from each day’s class are posted on the web ~ 5 minutes after each class, and can even be subscribed to with an RSS feed, in addition to the entire general curriculum online). And I remain absolutely dismayed by the four comments stating it was unfair that I posted the solutions to review problems online, requiring students to check their own work.

I’m sensing a trend that my kids want me to hand out the information they need to solve test-type problems, and follow a more traditional “drill and kill” strategy. What I need to impress upon them, however, is I expect more than correct answers… I want understanding, I want transfer, I want exploration – and I want it for their sakes.  I realize they’ll forget most of what they learned in physics a few years down the road, but the underlying skills we seek to develop are so much more important: how to learn independently; how to communicate effectively; how to build your own understanding; and most importantly, how to attack a problem you don’t know the answer to.

So I’m torn. I love the SBG philosophy, and I absolutely believe that what I’m doing is what should be done in classrooms. I don’t grade homework — I shouldn’t have to (it does receive feedback, just not a grade). But I also understand that I’m under the magnifying glass in my district as I pilot SBG, and one of the metrics I will be judged on is year-end student performance on a standardized physics exam. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in a great district where administration truly understands the “bigger picture” and focuses on what’s best for the student.  Nonetheless, we have goals and targets for student performance, and it would be hard to justify expanding SBG with decreasing student performance.

Based on student participation and engagement without “points” as a motivator at this early stage, I’m concerned my class scores will be down this year. Are they learning a more important life lesson? I truly think so. But is it my job to teach life skills, or to teach physics? I like to think both, and I’d even go so far as to say the life skills are more important.  However, my success, the success of our SBG experiment, and the success of my students, at least in the short term, are measured in part by students’ ability to correctly solve physics problems, and that requires them to engage and practice.

I had a heart-to-heart with my classes today, and we’re changing up a few things. I’m providing more hands-on help; I agreed to work more whole-class sample problems; I’m going to sound like a broken record pointing out the many resources available to students; but I am also requiring them to demonstrate more responsibility, independence, and professionalism.  I’m hopeful our discussion leads to changes in and out of the classroom, but realize, of course, that it won’t be that easy.

I have the best job in the world, and I love what I do, for reasons too numerous to name. But several of these reasons are both blessing and a curse… each day, each class, each student is different, and it’s my challenge to find a way to help each and every one of them grow. Some days, though, I sure wish I had a little student Miracle Gro and Weed-B-Gone.

Non-Standard Skills Based Grading (SBG) in a Physics Classroom #sbar

Instead of discussing SBG during our 10-minute sessions with parents at open house last night, I demonstrated how we also use video summaries by putting together an overview of our SBG program in Regents Physics.

SBG policy adapted from the tremendous work of Frank Noschese, John Burk, Mr. Rhodewalt, and others too numerous to name. Thanks to all for your contributions.

APlusPhysics Regents Course Tutorials Completed!

Whew!  It’s been a long and challenging project, but I am absolutely thrilled to announce that the Regents Physics course tutorial has been completed (well, at least the first revision). I’ve been done with the tutorial less than 20 minutes, and already I’m making notes on additions, modifications, and enhancements, but I think it’s worth taking a moment to step back and look at everything that’s been accomplished.image

A year ago I had never created a web page, and didn’t know the difference between HTML and ELMO. But, with a vision to create a resource specific to the needs of the students I see every day, and with the support of friends and family, I started picking up books, reading web articles, and making many, many designs on paper to script out what I wanted to build.

As of this morning, with the upload of a question bank of more than 500 Regents Physics questions from past years, I’m amazed at how much has been created. The APlusPhysics Regents Tutorials include objectives, explanations, sample problems, FLASH animations, integrated quizzes, videos… just about everything you could ask for in an online resource tailored to a specific course. Further, as the projected progressed, I began to see potential for this resource being used outside my classroom and even outside the scope of NY’s Regents curriculum, and have begun building in further topics of interest to many introductory physics students. Even better, I learned the Regents Physics material better than I could have ever imagined (there’s nothing like digging through 10 years of old exams to help you really learn a course inside and out).

image I wanted this website to be an original work, so not only did I learn webpage design, I also had to learn vector and bitmap graphics, flash animation, basic flash programming, and even a little bit of PHP to make everything work in the background. For an artistically-challenged science guy, I’m pretty amazed with the quality of illustrations I was able to create after reading a few books on the modern tools available!

In support of the static web tutorials, the site also features a discussion forum based on the latest version of vBulletin, integrated student and educator blogs, course notes, calendars, project activities, and even hosting for old episodes of the Physics in Action Podcast.  So what’s next?

I’ve said from the beginning I want to follow up the Regents Physics tutorials with the AP-1 and AP-2 curricula, but with delays from the College Board, we’re all still waiting to find out exactly what those courses will entail (and to what depth).  I have been considering creating a tutorial for AP-C physics, but I’m not certain I see as great a need for such a site, as the AP-C course mirrors many introductory university physics courses, and that material is already widely available throughout the web. With these challenges in mind, I think I’m on hold for creating static tutorial pages for the time being.

This feels like a blessing in disguise, however, as I’ve been quite excited to dive into several other projects. First, I want to expand the build out the Semiconductor Technology Enrichment Program (STEP), a program designed to take the weeks in class after the AP Physics exams and introduce students to basic semiconductor physics and micro/nano technology. Second, I need to spend time planning on the details of the Skills Based Grading (SBG) program I’m planning on implementing in my Regents Physics courses next year. Third, I’d like to continue my work to pre-record video lessons of all the major topics in the Regents Physics course, with the ultimate goal of spending in-class time working on hands-on lab activities, as well as supporting students individually and in small groups, and minimizing the less-effective entire-class-instruction time. Finally, several students have inquired as to whether I might take the course content material on APlusPhysics and expand it into a written mini-book / synopsis for the Regents Physics course. Though initially hesitant, the more I think about it, the more I find value in creation of the written “APlusPhysics’s Guide to Regents Physics.” And oh, by the way, did I mention the list of website enhancements I’ve already started on?

The question, then, is where to start. I oftentimes prioritize items both by “bang for the buck” as well as cost to implement. SBG work will largely occur in late spring and early summer due to some outside interests and external timing constraints. The STEP program may find some external funding in a month or so, and if I can get paid to work on something, why not wait until there’s a bit of income for my time? That really leaves the printed physics guidebook, video mini-lessons, and website revisions. As much as I try to deny it, I know I’ll be working on website revisions by tonight, in tandem with my next project.  So which to tackle next, the video mini-lessons, or the printed guidebook?  Or both? Would love to hear your feedback and thoughts!

And, as with any endeavor of such scale, allow me to again thank all my supporters, colleagues, family members and contributors. This is a huge milestone for APlusPhysics and the culmination of hundreds of hours of frustration and effort, which has already paid for itself in learning and confidence. I’ve come out all the better for it, and I hope this resource helps others say the same.

A Better Feedback and Assessment System?

I’ve been reading Robert J. Marzano’s “Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading,” and though I’m nowhere near done with the book, it has sparked a bunch of ideas which I’m not done digesting. Chief among my concerns is making sure that I build a system that works for me in my classroom, meeting my goals and helping my students be successful, regardless of what name, if any, is applied to the system.  SBG, SBAR, formative assessment, skills-based grading – the name isn’t what matters, and perhaps what I end up with isn’t truly any of these, or maybe it’s part of all of these. What matters is that the system meets my goals.

So then, what are my goals?  That’s taken quite a bit of thought to understand what I truly want out of an assessment system.  Following several days of contemplation, here are my initial goals:

  1. A system that easily illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of each student.
  2. A system that allows me to differentiate instruction and activities across individual needs.
  3. A system that provides students a greater sense of ownership over their learning.
  4. A system that promotes responsible independence.
  5. A system that provides me with improved data for planning future instruction.

Sounds simple enough, but when considering all the implementation costs and struggles, I definitely have some concerns and worries.  In principle, a skills-based system where I assess students on individual skills developed from course, district, and state standards, broken down to a fine enough level that students can see exactly where they need to focus their efforts, could be assessment nirvana. Not only would such a system provide terrific insight into individual strengths and weaknesses, but this system would lay the foundation for a more freely structured classroom, with lessons, activities, challenges and further assessments pre-defined and available for students to work through at their own pace based on their own needs!  Think of it – in theory, every individual student in the classroom could be focusing their efforts on the activities that will make them most successful – personalized self instruction with ongoing support and direction from the instructor!

Could it actually work, though?  Are high school students mature enough to handle this responsibility?  I realize, of course, that a vast majority would require ongoing assistance and direction, but this recipe for my idealized classroom could be a recipe for disaster if not implemented very carefully with extremely well-defined boundaries and expectations. And is my idealized classroom truly what’s best for students, or just what I think would be best for students? Am I delusional in considering such a massive change in an already successful classroom?

On the other hand, if I don’t keep pushing forward, taking risks, and attempting change, in many ways I may be neglecting my job as an educator to do everything I can to help my students be successful. My administration has consistently allowed me to take educated risks, knowing I have weighed the costs, potential benefits, and done a reasonable risk assessment.  But this is a big one – high reward potential, absolutely!  Huge investment of time to prepare for such a paradigm shift… and risks which are substantial, and therefore must be carefully considered and mitigated to the best of my ability.

Even after thinking through the downside if my utopian vision of a physics classroom begins to resemble a thermodynamics experiment gone wrong, I think this is a move I have to make. I have colleagues in the teaching community who have implemented or are implementing similar changes… maybe not with quite the same vision, but certainly considerable potential synergies. I have supervisors and administrators in my school willing to support my risk-taking. And most importantly, I have the drive to become the best teacher I can be, to help my students become the best they can be. The moment I’m no longer true to that goal is the moment I should look for a career change.

So, I continue to explore, research, and develop guidelines for next year’s classroom. I have a long way to go toward alleviating my three main concerns at this point, and would appreciate any feedback or thoughts those of you who have already jumped into the SBG/SBAR pool could provide. The current top 3 concerns:

  1. How to efficiently implement varied assessments to streamline data collection across multiple skills with more than 100 students I see each day.
  2. Communicating the system and its advantages to students and parents clearly and precisely.
  3. Fitting my assessment system into the school’s automated grading portal system.

Like I said, a lot more work to be done, so I’d best put down the computer and do some more research.  Thanks for your comments and thoughts!