Baby-stepping toward Standards-Based Grading

I have been interested in trying out a Standards-Based Grading implementation in my own classroom. I have been keeping my eye on Andy Rundquist’s implementation in his classical/mathematical physics course all term (and chatting him up about it quite a bit). My own third-year Quantum Mechanics 1 course this coming fall seemed like my own best candidate to SBG-ify. A lot of the things that Andy did would translate easily. After giving it a bit more thought, I have decided to back off a fall implementation and instead try to get as much as possible in place during this fall’s Quantum Mechanics 1 course, beyond the actual shift from traditional grading to Standards-Based Grading. So this will be some sort of a giant baby-step toward a full SBG implementation.

What I’m going to do this coming term

This is what my course will look like in general

  • Flipping it: screencasts with pre-lecture assignments (for marks!). The pre-lecture assignments will probably be worth 10% of their final grade, which is about where I have set it in introductory level courses and had roughly 80% completion. Last time I ran this course, I had optional reading assignments, but I’m coming into this one with a fully flipped mentality where there is some initial level of learning that they need to take responsibility for before showing up in class. This will be my first experience with screencasting.
  • Mondays and Wednesdays will be mostly clicker questions and whiteboarding, which is how I run most of my courses. Straight-forward examples and derivations will be part of the screencasts and pre-lecture assignments. Examples and derivations that are less straight-forward will be worked through in class: being clicker-facilitated, done by the groups on whiteboards, or a mish-mash of the two.
  • Friday will be mostly an assessment day. Homework is due first thing, class will start with a quiz, and a couple of students each week will have an oral assessment of some sort. These oral assessments will be somewhat modeled after Andy’s oral assessments, but in addition to on-the-spot questions (with a bit of time to prepare a whiteboard), I will sometimes ask them, a week ahead of time, to they present a homework-style problem that wasn’t on their weekly homework. I will use an SBG-style rubric (a 5 or 10-point scale that focuses on level of mastery) and will probably get the whole class involved with determining level of mastery.
  • Questions on the homework and quizzes that deal only with or mainly with a single learning goal will have the relevant learning goal explicitly stated with the question (so it is similar to how in SBG you usually tell them which standard is being assessed). I currently have a set of approximately 75  learning goals for this course, but want to trim this number done. Always making the learning goals front and center on the homework and quizzes will help me figure out how to make them more coarsely grained and assessment-driven to get down to 40-50 standards at most. 40-50 standards would work out to 3-4 standards per week over the term which seems like the upper limit.
  • Questions on the homework and quizzes that deal with many learning goals will not have the relevant learning goals explicitly. To my mind, students need to be able to take their toolbox that they are building in a course and figure out which tools are best for the job, so there also needs to be some amount of not making the learning goals explicit.
  • I will do my usual thing where I have a term test near the end of the course so that the studying for that also serves as formative assessment for preparing for the final. For these I will probably not make the learning goals explicit on the test that they are writing.

Why not jump all the way in?

I am still lacking in experience in teaching this course. This will only be my second time teaching the Quantum Mechanics 1 course and it is still the only upper-year course that I have taught that is not a lab. The rest of my teaching has been a second-year electronics lab, a third-year standalone lab course (a.k.a. Advanced Lab) and a handful of intro courses. And last time I taught this course I received my worst set of student evaluations thus far. I learned a lot last time, but I still feel that I have a lot to learn about teaching this course.

It’s also a lot of work. As I mentioned above, this will be my first time that I use screencasting as part of the pre-lecture assignments. I am expecting the screencasting process to chew up quite a bit more preparation time than my standard reading assignments have. Adding trying to work through all the hiccups of a first SBG implementation could be a potentially overwhelming amount of work and not leave me with enough time to do as good a job as I can with the course.

I’m playing it safe. SBG would be new to both me and the students. And I’m still working on generating student buy-in with the upper-year students; many of whom have never previously taken a course with me. So far I have found that I am able to generate much more buy-in from the students for reform-minded instructional strategies that I have some experience with. It has been a little harder to sell them on these strategies when it was my first time trying to implement them. So screencasting and the oral assessments will be the major new things in this course and the rest of the changes will be mostly tweaks.

Summary of the baby-steps toward SBG

Here’s the list of the things that I will be doing that will hopefully make my transition to a Standards-Based Grading system the next time (after this fall) that I teach the course much easier.

  • Making my learning goals front and center on most assessments.
  • Paying careful attention throughout this upcoming version of the course to how I can get from my 75ish learning goals to 40-50 assessment-driven standards.
  • Trying out some new types of assessments (short oral exams and homework problem presentations) with a Standards-Based Grading “marking” scheme.
  • Trying to generate quiz questions which would be suitable as SBG assessments. I typically use a lot of conceptual questions, but many of them are too short to be able to reasonably judge level of mastery.

Well that’s about it. I think that this should give me some experience with many of the things which underlie SBG and allow me to reflect on what other changes will need to be made so that my eventual first SBG implementation will be a less overwhelming.

4 Comments on “Baby-stepping toward Standards-Based Grading”

  1. bwfrank says:

    I like your initial focus on articulating your goals (to yourself and to students). I think having a variety of assessments in which you are keeping those goals in mind is really important. At the end of the day, SBG is just one framework for helping us think about and carry out the many of the things you have listed. While you might think of this as baby steps, I believe there could be many ways to “dive full in” to SBG that wouldn’t involve so much thoughtfulness and reflection as you are obviously putting in. I’m not so much in love with “SBG”, but I am in love with how it mobilizes people to think about a range of issues related to assessment and importantly how assessment can and should relate to learning and participation.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Thanks for the comments Brian. I think I have hit a point where I need to (eventually) try a full SBG implementation so that I can sort out some model beyond SBG that will best meet the needs of both me and my students.

  2. bretbenesh says:

    Hi Joss,

    It sounds like you have a good plan in place (although it is a lot to do).

    I would love to hear more on how you are approaching flipping the classroom. I will be joining you with the head-first flipping next semester, and I want to steal ideas from you.

    Keep us posted on how you are thinking about this.

    • Joss Ives says:


      I was going to type up my flip plan here in the comments, but instead I will make a quick blog post. It should be up at some point tomorrow.

      Also, I admit that my plan is a lot to do, but I think I would be doing some version of most of it even if I weren’t baby-stepping toward SBG. So far in my courses I have found the second time around to be more effort than the first. The first time I basically am trying to keep my head above water and a lot of decisions that I make are a but short-term or short-sighted. The second time through I have the experience of the first time and can reflect and make much better decisions and try to improve on what went down the first time. Baby-stepping toward SBG is just giving me some specific end-goals to keep in mind with all the little decisions that I will make along the way.

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