So I’m committed: I’ve begun teaching Physics 291 (Intro Physics I w/Calculus) using a pure standards-based grading (SBG) approach. I still lay awake at night wondering what kind of train wreck this might be headed for, but it’s too late to turn back now. The fact that my enrollment is far higher than in past years for this course — full, at 60 students — doesn’t help. I still haven’t figured out quite how I’m going to handle reassessment…
Some initial thoughts about my experiences with and realizations about SBG:
Choice of specific standards is absolutely critical, and one key choice is “grain size”. I could identify a few larger, more general capacities to assess (extreme example: “I can use work and energy ideas to analyze situations and solve problems”). Alternatively, I could unpack those into a plethora of highly targeted standards (“I can draw velocity vs. time graphs for constant-acceleration problems based on a motion diagram”, “I can draw acceleration vs. time graphs for constant-acceleration problems based on a motion diagram”, “I can draw acceleration vs. time graphs for constant-acceleration problems based on a velocity vs. time graph”, etc. etc. etc.). Somewhere in between these extremes is a sweet spot that optimally balances specificity of feedback to the student with practicality of assessment and tracking.
I seem to be on track to have a bit over a hundred standards in this course, at a rate of about 6-8 per chapter. That’s 3-4 per class meeting, more or less. That seems like a lot, and more than many other SBG practitioners seem to have — but I’m having a great deal of difficulty combining them into more coarsely-grained standards without doing violence to my sense of what the “things” to be learned really are. To put it another way: The topics seem to naturally cleave along certain lines, and allowing that gets me to where I am.
Despite that last sentence, standards can be divided along various lines, and different ways of grouping sub-elements can align more or less well with the organization of my textbook and accompanying workbook, easier ways of assessing, etc. I initially brainstormed a list of standards, but have been doing some refactoring as I went through and correlated them with textbook sections and daily class plans.
SBG drives me to assess (and reassess) EVERYTHING I want students to seriously try to learn, rather than allowing me to sample a subset of the learning goals. I suppose I could simply not assess some of the standards and let them drop out of the grading scheme, but I currently feel that if it’s on the standards list, I ought to assess it. And that’s a lot! Which leads to my next realization:
Articulating learning standards makes me much more aware of what I’m actually asking students to learn (more than I would be with a traditional by-topics list), and there’s a freaking lot of stuff for intro physics students to learn. Wow. No wonder physics is hard!
If I want a relatively simple grade calculation — each student gets a 0-4 mastery rating on each standard, and the final grade calculations consists of averaging all those ratings and then mapping to a letter grade — then the number of standards per general topic had better be proportional to the topic’s importance, since that determines its weight in the overall grade. I find it tempting to split early chapters into many fine-grained standards (e.g., specific kinematics graphing skills, specific types of motion, etc.), but leave later chapters as more holistic standards (use the Impulse-Momentum principle to analyze collisions). Unfortunately, that overly weights the early stuff. I can either weight different standards differently, or unpack the later standards into finer-grained components… which is probably beneficial to both me and the students, but darn, it’s hard work!
Unless I want to box myself into having to assess each standard multiple times, in different ways (for different levels of mastery), or having different mastery scales for different standards, I’d better construct my standards such that only one assessment probe is necessary for each. That can mean peeling “advanced” mastery levels off of the top end of the mastery rubric and creating new standards specifically targeting those. For example: Instead of having the top mastery rating be reserved for “Can recognize need to apply this within a complex scenario and figure out how to connect to other principles” (which takes a different exam question than “Can apply to a straightforward situation when prompted”), I can have a separate standard for “Identify which principle(s) apply to a complex situation” and “Combine multiple principles to solve a problem”. Put another way: If every standard has an “above and beyond” level, I need to assess every student for that level of mastery on every standard, and that’s probably unrealistic. Better to have a few explicit “above and beyond” standards.
Reassessment is the heart of SBG — it’s what makes assessment formative, and lets students learn from their mistakes and keep making progress — but it’s also looking like the hardest part to implement, at least in my context (60 students, three 50-minute classes per week, the fact that giving up my free afternoons/days to a stream of reassessing students would kill my research efforts). I’ve been very cagey about not promising anything specific about reassessment yet in this course, but I can’t keep that up much longer.
The other big question, of course, is whether students really will do the work –reading, workbook, homework, etc. — without having those be graded. Most students do end up in the trap of running from deadline to deadline, only focusing on whatever is “due” next and prioritizing tasks by grade impact.
Stay tuned. This is very much a work in progress.