Skills Based Grading Seminar

On Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to attend a professional development seminar on Skills Based Grading at SUNY Geneseo as part of the NYS Master Teacher Program.  Below are some of my musings / quick notes as I participated in the seminar.  I very much enjoyed hearing about how others have utilized SBG and comparing to my program.

Goal for the session is for the presenters, George Reuter and Amy to provide a snippet of what Standards Based Grading is and how it can be implemented, coupled with a work session in which a structure is implemented with a SBG philosophy.

Use SBG as a communication tool — highlight strengths as well as opportunities for improvement.

SBG as a process.  Learn a new skill, practice that skill, test that skill, receive feedback, practice needed skills, etc.

Analogy — just like runners have multiple opportunities to practice and show their skill, so will students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning.

Work on progressions toward mastery — set up rubric to support your end-goal.

Ways of determining scores — average all scores, decaying average, most recent, other?  (I keep the two most recent).

Presenter spends hours and hours grading assessments — I mentioned Remark OMR and opportunities to automate that work, specifically how I’ve significantly reduced my workload using SBG.  Presenter also spent many hours in parent presentations about the grading system.  I side-stepped that by creating a flipped classroom video explaining my grading system.

After a bit more discussion, we split into various groups to talk about various ramifications, issues, concerns, and successes using SBG.  Overall, a valuable evening!

SBG Reflections 3/4 Through the School Year #physicsed #SBG #flipclass

What I’ve learned by implementing Skills Based Grading (SBG) in my physics classroom this year…

  1. The skills required for success on the end-of-year state Regents Physics exam are but a small subset of the skills I teach in my class. I had hoped this was the case — every teacher wants to think they teach beyond the minimum requirements of the curriculum, but having it in front of me in black and white reinforced this, and also allowed me to pick a topic or two for a “deep dive,” without fear of shorting the students on material they need to be successful on their final exams.
  2. Students who take the time to “shore up their learning” and reassess in an ongoing manner quickly learn how to learn in my class, and rarely need the opportunities for continued reassessment. After a few weeks of the SBG program, those who “drink the SBG Kool-Aid” learn exactly what they need to study and execute on their assessments, and therefore are better prepared for the initial assessments with no need to undertake reassessments.
  3. Students who slack during the first part of the year and dig themselves a hole have considerably less success in reassessing a multitude of skills later in the year… at this point the SBG system becomes an exercise in grade improvement instead of learning.  Next year, I plan on putting a two-week limit on reassessments to both save my sanity in grading as well as encouraging students to avoid this situation.
  4. Grades hg clrNot all assignments need to be graded. Many of our labs and hands-on projects serve to build understanding, but a full rigorous assessment of these multi-faceted projects is complicated in an SBG system.  After struggling with this the first half of the year, I realized that I could assess these projects based on a single skill, or at times, not at all.  It’s important to keep in mind the ultimate goal is student learning and understanding, NOT grading.  The more I embrace this fundamental change in thinking, the more freedom I enjoy in designing activities to allow students to build their own understanding.  Grades are NOT the goal, learning is.
  5. Automated scoring / feedback systems for exams is a huge timesaver. Last year I invested in Remark OMR software, which allows me to set up exams and have the results automatically scanned and tabulated, providing separate feedback on any number of skills from the same written assessment.  Without spending hours and hours grading, I take the time to set up a quality assessment up front, program the software to give me the information I need, and the actual grading takes minutes.  Further, by taking the time to set up these assessments now, I’m building a library of assessments I can pull off the shelf in the future.
  6. The flipped classroom videos I created to help students who missed class for various reasons provide an excellent introduction to topics. Toward the second half of the year I began assigning students to watch the videos as homework to introduce and / or reinforce the basic problem solving skills required for the topic under study.  Since I began this practice, activities and labs have gone more smoothly, students have become more independent in their problem solving, and the quality of questions and discussion in the classroom has gone up tremendously.  I would surmise that because students feel more comfortable in the “standardized problem solving” after having watched these videos, they feel more open to taking the next step and pushing their understanding to the next level.
  7. Students who didn’t do their work in the old system didn’t do their work in the new system. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but the SBG system is not a silver bullet.  Regardless of assessments, classroom styles, etc., I can’t force students to learn.  Only by active engagement and hard work is anything worthwhile undertaken successfully, and my physics classroom is no exception.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.
  8. My time allotment with students needs more thought. In the words of a colleague of mine, you can take the horse to the water, then hold its head under the water until the liquid soaks through its pours and it ingests the water forcefully.  I’ve tried this brute force method with a few students who I just couldn’t seem to engage this year.  I’ve pulled them in for (in)voluntary extra sessions, hounded them both in class and out, and all but pushed the hand holding the pencil, with mixed success.  In some cases the students have pulled through and improved, but I’m not certain the effort is being focused on the right students.  When I do this, I spend 80% of my time with the bottom of my class — is this really fair to the remainder of the class, those who are engaging and interested?  Further, am I instilling a total hatred of science and physics and school in the students I’m trying to pull along?  This definitely requires more thought.
  9. There is still a place for the “drill and kill” method of problem solving practice. I love inquiry-based activities, and students building their own understanding, utilization of the modeling cycle, but learning how to solve standardized problems quickly and efficiently is also a requirement in our school system, and there really is no substitute for just diving in and practicing.  I’m not advocating this as a “day after day after day” strategy, but without fail, my students’ assessment scores and understanding levels go up when they’ve had the opportunity to work through problem sets and receive feedback on their work.
  10. I am 100% certain I want to continue utilizing SBG in my Regents Physics classes next year. I feel the methodology has clarified our course objectives, reduced student stress, and helped emphasize learning while de-emphasizing grades in our classroom.  Students get detailed feedback on strengths and weaknesses, and those who utilize the system correctly develop individualized learning plans tailored directly to their needs — individualized self-directed differentiation.  Of course, I see many opportunities for improvement in the classroom, things I want to change next year, and items I’m still not sure how to best attack — but implementation of SBG this year has helped both my students and myself, and it has also emphasized my primary goal for students each year: teaching students to be independent learners.

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.