things I want in a course design

Just thinking out loud here…

I want a course design that communicates very clearly to students, in every aspect of its framing and detail, that learning is something they must willfully pursue, not something that just “happens” if they’re obedient hoop-jumpers.

I want a course design that communicates very clearly to students what specific actions they can be taking to learn the course content — including the “cognitive actions” that make things like “textbook reading” effective.

I want a course design that gives students clear feedback on whether they’re really “getting” the things they’re supposed to be learning, and at a level adequate to build subsequent learning upon. This feedback should come “automatically” through engagement with the learning tasks, not only when I deliberately assess (formatively or summatively).

I want a course design that helps students really learn what thorough “understanding” feels like, so that they’ll know when they don’t yet really understand something.

Is there a problem-based learning or project-based learning design that accomplishes these things? Because telling students that “you should be reading the book, and working through the accompanying workbook, and doing the homework, and seeking help from me or other students when you need it” doesn’t seem to be adequate for a distressingly large fraction of my current class — even with the best in-class clicker-supported “active learning” that I can manage. And with standards-based grading.

(In fact, SBG may be hurting: The notion of reassessment seems to have been widely interpreted as “It doesn’t really matter how abysmally I’m doing, because I’ll be able to reassess everything eventually.” To the point that in this morning’s class, as I introduced the impulse-momentum theorem with a worksheet motivating impulse, a student asked me “What is the relationship between acceleration and velocity?” <face-palm/>)

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SBG is gonna kill me…

… because I keep promising students that they’ll have a chance to reassess — somehow, sometime — without any real idea of how that’s going to happen. The hole gets deeper and deeper!

Maybe I need to just stop introducing anything new?

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more thoughts on SBG and grading exams

Yes, I should definitely use fewer, larger-grained standards. No question about it.

I have to break my habit of putting sneaky bits into exam questions (which I do out of an urge to “stretch” even the best students to their limits, hoping they will [a] come to learn where their limits are, and [b] learn from them). Or at least, figure out a better way to do it. As is, it tends to obscure my understanding of whether students get the basic idea, which is what I need to know to assign standard-mastery levels. I should get in the mind-set of wanting them to master standards (so I can stop worrying about re-assessing) them!

I need to get better at “factoring” problems by standard. Grading is a pain when scores for standards depend on multiple problems, and problems combine multiple standards. (I also need a way to check/motivate “putting it all together”, though.)

I’m finding it difficult to include the “Yes, but can they think?” style of questions I’m fond of. Should I have a standard for “I can think my way out of a paper bag”?

In the spirit of Understanding by Design’s “backward design”, I need to do more iterative development of standards and assessment questions: Brainstorm some standards, try to write assessment questions for them, use what I’ve learned about assess-ability and factorization and “Whoops, they’ll also need that” to revise the standards, iterate again on the questions, etc. I’m finding that locking in my standards, and then starting to think about assessment questions is decidedly non-optimal.

A rapid pace through standards, with little time to revisit and develop, sends the “You really need to get this the first time” message that SBG is supposed to avoid. Instead of communicating “Learning is a process of reflecting, identifying what you need to work on, and spending time on that”, all I’m really saying is “This is learning as usual, except that if you’re lucky you might get a second crack at a few topics.”

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the SBG exam-grading experience

Just a quick update on my SBG experiment: I’m partway through grading the first midterm exam (of four or five) — a two-hour evening affair — and I must say that I’m somewhat enjoying the experience, at least compared to traditional points-per-question grading. It’s going slowly, but I like the fact that the scoring system focuses me on asking “How well has this student demonstrated that they get XXX or YYY”, rather than on “How many points should I take off for this blunder?” The scoring seems much better aligned with the questions I want to be pondering while looking at student work, and with the feedback I actually want to give them.

(I still think I’ve got too many fine-grained and overlapping standards, though. That does cause headaches.)

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SBG update: learning as I go

Tonight I get some serious information about how well this experiment in teaching a 60-student calc-based intro physics course with SBG is going. Tonight… is the first midterm exam.

One thing I’ve realized while developing assessments for this first “unit” of the course — kinematics and vectors — is that my choice of standards can make assessment harder or easier. Some specific realizations:

  • Too many standards makes it hard for me to adequately assess, and re-assess, them all. Fewer is better (though too few loses the laser-sharp-feedback quality of SBG).

  • Standards that are too “basic”, and which are necessary steps towards the harder ones, aren’t necessary to articulate as standards on their own; students must learn to do them anyway in order to do the higher-level ones. Having them in the list simply clogs up assessments. Example: I can draw or interpret motion diagrams (strobe diagrams).

  • Standards that don’t “factor” cleanly are difficult to assess and give separate mastery ratings for. Example: I can use 2D/3D constant-acceleration kinematics (graphical analysis and/or formulae) to analyze an object’s motion, working with numbers or variables and it’s too-close cousin, I can use the projectile motion model to analyze physical situations. I can articulate a distinction between these two — make the second be about recognizing the independence of the two coordinates and the acceleration in each, and the first be about “doing” the subsequent kinematics — but it’s awkward and unclear.

  • Some really seem to belong as part of a larger standard, not hanging out on their own. Example: I can determine or reason about an object’s instantaneous acceleration.

So now I’m rewriting my unit 2 standards. (With fewer standards in later units, I’ll have to add some weighting factors to avoid overly-counting kinematics in the final grade.)

Posted in Learning & Teaching, Pedagogy, standards-based grading | 9 Comments