taking the plunge into standards-based grading

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.

About Ian

Physics professor... science education researcher and evangelist... foodie and occasionally-ambitious cook... avid traveler... outdoorsy type (hiking, camping, whitewater kayaking, teaching wilderness survival skills to high school students, etc.)... amateur photographer... computer programmer and amateur web designer... and WAAY too busy!
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14 Responses to taking the plunge into standards-based grading

  1. James Hosler says:

    I’ve just this semester started SBG as well. I teach all levels of Latin at the high school level, but it is amazing how similar the problems you describe are to the ones I have been facing myself. Specific standards vs. general standards? I have never had an issue more difficult to solve as a teacher. At this point, having been sold on the philosophy of SBG, I think all that’s left for us to do is try, learn, and revise our approaches.
    I have a bit to add, though, about specific vs. general standards that may or may not help. It seems to me that specific standards are good because 1) they really do articulate easily-assessable skills, 2) they are more transparent, and 3) they are more readily useful for remediation. On the other hand, general standards have the advantage of being more comprehensive and can be used to keep students accountable for material that was learned a while ago. So, maybe general standards would be ideal for you to use later on in the semester, because they would target both new skills and require retention.

    • Ian says:

      Hi, James.

      One thing I worry about with fine-grained standards is that they slice-and-dice the material up into chunks and in the process lose the bigger-picture, holistic aspects. I’m thinking that perhaps having some whole-game standards as well as fine-grained ones might be optimal.

      I’m actually leaning a bit that way in my current course, with standards like “I can use angular kinematics with the uniform and accelerated circular motion models to analyze physical situations” in addition to “I can relate angular variables (such as period, frequency, arc length, angular position, angular velocity, and angular acceleration) to each other and to linear variables.”

  2. Michal says:

    Ian, I’m excited to hear your thoughts as the semester continues. I think narrowing down a list of meaningful and effective learning goals is one of the hardest parts and I think your point about losing the “bigger-picture holistic aspects” is an important one.

    Since you have some really specific skills necessary to understanding the concepts, I wonder if you can kind of bundle them. You could give students the full list of big goals with each individual skill bundled within them(so they know what small skills they will need to be able to do in order to comprehend the larger picture), but only assess and track the bigger ones. That would cut down on the number of standards in your gradebook and the number of specific reassessments. But, at the same time, if a student is struggling with a big concept, they know which specific skills to focus on.

    I hope you include something in your syllabus about the big picture, even as you give them a detailed skills list, because I think it’s so important that students are reminded of it and know that you value it.

    Thanks for sharing your process Ian!

  3. Chri says:

    Same boat, man. Teaching Calc II (for first time) using SBG (for first time with college students, but I’ve been building up to it, and I pulled it off at middle school a number of years back).
    I’m all about fewer big standards. I’ve got six topics, each with between one and three standards. Twelve standards total. For example, here is one topic and its two standards:

    Topic: Evaluate integrals
    Standard 1: Evaluate challenging definite integrals exactly
    Standard 2: Evaluate challenging definite integrals by approximation

    Embedded in Standard 1 is a whole mess of integration techniques. So in assessing that, I’ll throw parts, partial fractions, etc. at them on different assessments. If they can do some but not all of these, that’ll show up as a 2 somewhere along the way.

    That’s my approach. Hope it provides food for thought.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep us posted, OK?

    Obligatory shout out to Jason Buell here.

    • Ian says:

      At what point does SBG with such broad standards simply become “topic grades”? Chapter grade, chapter 2, grade, etc. (Or am I setting up a false distinction? Quite possibly…)

      • Sorry for the truncated name before.

        What a lovely question you pose. I would say the difference isn’t size but language. “Chapter 1″ is of course the worst possible language because it communicates nothing of substance (and displays robotic planning on the part of the instructor). That would be “Chapter-based grading,” which surely goes on in some classrooms.

        Something such as “Evaluate integrals” is better, but still awfully non-specific. That’s a topic (I think).

        I have settled on breaking that into two pieces and specifying (admittedly in a vagueish sort of way) “challenging” integrals. Prerequisite to that is being able to evaluate simple integrals.

        The next step would be to break everything out into the various integration techniques. “Evaluate integrals by u-substitution”, “Evalutate integrals by partial fraction decomposition”, etc. Lots of math folks go that route, and they end up with 80 or so standards. For me, that’s too fragmented. I’m thinking I can manage a dozen or so.

        So for me there’s a big difference in the language. A standard ought to tell students what they can DO. A topic tells them the domain in which they are studying. Calc I has three topics-limits, derivatives and integrals. But that doesn’t tell students anything about what they’re supposed to be able to do.

        • Ian says:

          I strongly agree — standards should be about what students can *do*. I think that helps us connect to assessments, as well as helping students get past the “I understand the concepts but can’t do the problems” trap.

          It seems to me that the more fine-grained the standards, the more helpful they are to students in directing their attention to what specifically they should be trying to learn. (Granted, we’d also probably need “integrative” standards like “I can choose an appropriate integration technique for a given integral.”) The counterbalance to that is that assessment and reassessment can become impractical for us.

          (It probably won’t surprise too many experienced SBGers that I am, at this very moment, starting to regret having committed myself to as many standards as I have…)

  4. Joss Ives says:

    Hi Ian,

    I really like your point about the number of standards reflecting the importance of a topic. If I look at the learning goals I have developed for my own courses, there is a definite slow transition from the beginning of the course, where each little idea or skill gets its own, to the end of the course, where the standards become (as you say) more holistic. Unpacking those standards or learning goals for the later topics into the same granularity as the earlier ones does seem like an effortful task.

    I also like the idea of having a healthy number of “above and beyond” standards because it allows for a system where students can get full marks on a regular standard for being correct, and there doesn’t always have to be room for them to get that “4″ by going above and beyond.

  5. Simon Bates says:


    Thanks for sharing this and future updates. I’ll watch your progress with great interest. Like you, I sat in Andy R’s PERC talk last summer, and felt the light bulb go on listening to what he was talking about in his dynamics class.

    Our intro physics course contains ~200 students and a mix of majors and non-majors (but all with calculus) in the same cohort. Even without taking the plunge to use standards for grading, I am finding it’s a really useful way to look closely at what we as instructors feel is important for students to master in a course. And you’re right about there being a lot of it in Physics 1!

  6. Brad Martsberger says:


    I’m also teaching Physics I this semester and using SBG. I taught Physics I last semester with traditional grading and was disappointed in two things: 1) students didn’t connect getting a question/problem wrong with what physics topic they weren’t understanding, 2) Students improved after the test and there was no good way to re-assess.

    I also had a tough time making a good list of standards. When I wound up with a gigantic list, I realized there was no way I could manage with that many (and my class has a max 24 students). Eventually I decided to make two lists, essentially “formative grading categories” and “summative grading categories”.

    The formative list has everything on it and borders on obnoxiously long and detailed. This list allows me to focus a student on a detailed task that they either do or do not get. So students will sometimes get feedback on a formative category even though they never get a grade for it.

    The summative list contains everything they will get a score for that affects their final grade. It is essentially a subset of the formative list, but the topics are of the broader variety and there are only about 48 categories.

    For example, vectors only show up in the formative list, not the summative list. They need to know, understand, and have skills in vectors in order to do many of the things they will get grades for, but their final grade does not directly reflect vectors.

    To give a basic idea, the summative categories that I chose are based on what’s in Serway’s book. There are 12 “analysis models” (his term for an abstract model that can be applied to solve concrete problems), 17 “physical models” (these are things like free-fall, Hooke’s law springs, friction, etc), 5 “Physical Laws” (Newton’s laws, Conservation laws), 12 lab categories, and 2 “whole semester” categories (units, written/oral communication).

    The Rubric requires being able to recognize when a particular model is applicable to a given physical situation and make connections between different categories in order to get a score of “Exceeds Expectations” or “Exceptional Performance”.

    That’s my stab at SBG for Physics I. I’ll be interested to keep up with how it goes for you.

    • Ian says:

      Sounds cogently conceived. How are you planning on assessing and reassessing: written exams only? Quizzes too? In-person oral exams? Something else?


  7. Brad Martsberger says:

    The class schedule here is out of the ordinary. The meeting times are MW 1pm -4pm. I have the lab room on Mondays and a lecture room on Wednesdays. Assessment (and reassessment) will be done with weekly written quizzes, ~20-25 mins. These can be done twice a week if we need the time. Additionally there is optional oral assessment that takes place outside of class, either directly before or after. The student has to choose a problem and submit a written solution before they can do an oral assessment.

    Orals are optional, but will be necessary for anyone who wants to do a large number of reassessment or wants to get a large number of “Exceptional Performance” scores (i.e., get an “A”, or for some a “B” in the class). I think it will be possible for an average student to get a “C” in the class without doing oral assessments. I think every student would be foolish not to at least give them a shot, and I will counsel them about this.

  8. Michael George says:

    I’ve been using SBG in my own high school physics classroom for four years now, and I ran into many of the issues you are dealing with right now. In my course, I’ve boiled each of my units down to no more than six goals. We also only cover about seven units throughout the entire year. This makes for a total of about forty goals (give or take) for my entire course. Because of this, I can implement a system where I test each goal multiple times and adjust my instruction accordingly. I am aware that the pace of a university level class is, by necessity, faster than a freshman level high school course. This can be justified to a certain extent by the fact that your students are likely entering a science-related field while mine constitute a cross section of the entire student body. The danger, in my mind, is when the “weed out” philosophy becomes an easy justification for bad teaching, which it most certainly did for the survey courses I suffered through while I was in college. In other words, if you cant absorb three or four major learning goals per class session, you should go change majors.

    • Ian says:

      Hi, Michael.

      The faster pace is one difference for us postsecondary folks; the fact that we’ve got a smaller ratio of in-class time to (expected) out-of-class time is also big. It means that class time is very precious, and giving up any to assessment is difficult. I really struggle to assess enough to carry off SBG.

      And I despise the weed-out mentality. Yeah, some of the students who come my way aren’t ready for physics (yet?), but many who would normally be “weeded out” can in fact be helped to learn and adjust and not just survive the course, but end up as much stronger learners in the future. I see it as part of my job to figure out *why* they “can’t do physics”, and then to help them change that.

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