Skip to content

Raising the bar for an ‘A’—Capstones

August 9, 2011

The new school is right around the corner, and it wouldn’t be a new school year if I didn’t try to make some modifications to how I grade. The thing I love about the blog-o-sphere is that if you wait long enough, almost every good idea will get written for your. So let’s start by reading Kelly O’Shea’s awesome description of how she implements Conjunctive Standards Based Grading.

Kelly’s ideas are phenomenal, and they perfectly describe my ideal for a physics course. Kelly is particularly on the money about requiring students to apply for assessments and limiting them to only one day each week—I think this is going to do a lot to help reduce the chaos that my room becomes as grade reporting time approaches. However, I don’t have the luxury she does of using the final exam as one more point of evidence for mastery and an opportunity to show synthesis on goalless problems. For me, the exam must be averaged as 20% of the student’s grade (or 25% in the spring). So I’ve got to come up with something slightly less awesome to fit within my school’s grading guidelines.

I clearly need something new to allow for students to show mastery and synthesis, while still conforming to the grading requirements of my school. But first, let me describe what led me to this new idea. A while ago, a colleague, Peyten Dobbs, wrote about how powerful it was for her students to write for a real audience. This led me to write the following comment:

This is awesome, and I’ve been thinking about something similar a lot. There was a great TEDxNYED by Alan November, where he mentioned a girl who had developed a huge following on the internet by writing Harry Potter fan fiction, but was failing English, mainly because she wasn’t doing the work. When Alan asked her about this, she said something like “every time I get up in the morning, I have to decide if I’m going to write for my teacher or write for the world.” I also remember reading something on a blog about a student who decided in high school to start posting everything he wrote on a blog, because he decided that he didn’t want to just write for his teacher.

Your post and these ideas have me thinking that maybe we need to reform our courses a bit so that students don’t have to make these choices. I’ve been meaning to write a post about an idea I had to add an element to my grading system so that if a student wants to earn an ‘A’, s/he must produce a work of lasting quality that is seen by/commented on/affects more than just me. Thanks for pushing me to dig that post out of my drafts folder and do some more writing.

What a simple idea. If you earn the highest possible grade in a class, shouldn’t you produce something of lasting value that is read by and has impact beyond your class?

This lead me to the idea of the Capstone, which after much discussion with awesome teachers like Frank Noschese, which I have now written up in my grading handout as follows:


The deepest levels of physics understanding, those that correspond to grades of ‘A’, cannot be assessed with a single question or one step problem. In order to show this mastery you will be asked to complete small projects, called capstones. Capstones must do the following:

  • Show synthesis of multiple concepts and models in unfamiliar situations. A capstone requires you to use more than one idea to solve a problem, and it isn’t just a rehashing of work you’ve already done.
  • Show initiative. A capstone isn’t just your teacher telling you what to do. It is you unleashing your curiosity to discover what you want to do.
  • Are open ended. Capstones don’t have ends. You should always feel like you could dig deeper and discover more if you had more time.
  • Are public. Capstones are not private projects you share only with your teacher. They are public endeavors that you share with the class and the world at large. Successful capstones require you to collaborate with classmates, and even with physics teachers and students from beyond our class (this is easier than you think).
  • Involve significant revision. No one gets it right the first time, no first draft is perfect, and you must plan accordingly. A capstone will not be eligible for grading by me until it has undergone at least one revision.

So what does this look like in reality? Here are some Capstone starters I wrote for the constant velocity unit (CVPM):

  • Write a VPython program that models the colliding buggy program. Start with the program you used and add additional code to create a second object. Make a screencast explaining the additions to the code you made using
  • Write up a 1 page report on your blog describing how your solution to the colliding buggy practica. Be sure that your solution shows how you can solve this problem at least 3 ways, using 3 different tools. Explain how you came to estimate the uncertainty on your answer.
  • Write up a 1 page report on your blog explaining how you determined the speed of an airplane in  using expedia. Be sure to describe the assumptions you made and how you determined an appropriate uncertainty for your answer.
  • Place a camera on a buggy, and analyze the subsequent motion it records. Use this footage to determine the speed of the buggy and write up your methods in a 1 page report in on your blog.
  • Watch this video of a car traveling in the opposite lane on a highway, and use it to determine the as much as you can about the vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. Write up your methods in a 1 page report on your blog.

Another possibility for a capstone can be completing a goal-less problem using a livescribe pen or screencast, making use of many of the great ideas that Andy blogged about in his post, SBG with voice feedback. I really love the idea of students scanning a pdf of their work and then narrating the solution to a screencast.

Here’s a rough idea of how I think this will work:

  • Student writes up an initial draft capstone thoughts on blog.
  • Other class members, visitors from the interwebs and I add comments to the blog.
  • Student makes revisions (in a subsequent post), while people continue to comment and offer suggestions.
  • Eventually, when grades must be assigned, I make a final determination of the credit earned for the capstone.

How does all of this factor into the student’s grade? Like Kelly’s class, my students must show sustained mastery on all of the Core (A-level) to reach a 70, then sustained mastery of all of the intermediate (B-Level) standards to reach a grade of 90, and the finally, completion of capstones determines grades above 90. For now, I’ve decided that each capstone can ear up to 3 points in the 90-100 range. So a student aiming for a 96 would need to complete two of these projects in a semester.

One of the most critical pieces of this project is going to be soliciting feedback from outside our class—how will this work? Well, that’s where you come in. Over the past year, I think I’ve built up a pretty awesome network of other physics teachers around the world, and I’m hoping that at least a few of you might be willing to take a few minutes to engage a promising young scientist. I will certainly do the same for you. What do you think?

If you are interested in a bit more detail, I’ve also embedded my grading guidelines handout below:

View this document on Scribd

This approach seems very similar to an idea Brian just posted today on his shiny new wordpress blog. I would welcome any suggestions or feedback on this approach.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Becca Schutzengel permalink
    August 9, 2011 12:06 pm

    I think this is a great idea. I’m not a physics teacher (yet), but I’d be happy to look at/comment on your students’ work. Will you be posting a link to their blogs once they get set up?

  2. August 9, 2011 11:34 pm

    Brilliant. …thinking about stealing this now! It has super benefits of not being more damned tests for me to write and grade, being homework that kids schedule and create for themselves, and being, you know, learning by applying.

    • August 9, 2011 11:50 pm

      Lots of credit for this idea has to go to Frank, who helped me think of it.

  3. Scott Hertting permalink
    August 10, 2011 2:41 pm

    Hello John, I really like this idea. I teach two levels of physics at my high school, (general and advanced) and I think this would be an excellent addition to the advanced course, maybe even the general course. Advanced kids would have to complete 2 or 3, and general only one or two. I’m looking forward to seeing the student Capstones, and commenting if needed.

    • August 10, 2011 10:22 pm

      Thanks so much. I do think the idea is scaleable to different levels of physics.

  4. August 10, 2011 3:29 pm


    I very much like your idea of the capstone. I may have misunderstood, but why are only students who are “getting an A” required or encouraged to do the capstone. The idea is extremely interesting and will require students to apply what they are learning in physics. Why doesn’t every student do a capstone project at least once a semester? Thoughts?

    Bob Ryshke

    • August 10, 2011 10:28 pm

      Thanks for the good question. I don’t think I’m excluding non-A students from doing this (they certainly can, and probably will), but I want to make sure that if you get an A, it really is you demonstrating mastery of every one of the A and B level standards I’ve set out, on your own, in a test like environment, and then I want to use capstones to distinguish higher levels of achievement. I think if a student demonstrated understanding of a concept they had not previously mastered in a capstone, I’m probably try to call them in to show me they’re really mastered the skill in a student-initiated assessment. The thing I’m trying to avoid is feeling like student showed understanding in the project, but hadn’t quite fully mastered it (they have gotten there with a lot of feedback from me & others), and I want to give them an opportunity to pull everything together for themselves. Does that make sense?

  5. August 11, 2011 5:22 am

    Thanks John! I understand. I think this is a wonderful way to have students apply the principles you’re teaching them and own the work. So often “assessment” is done to students rather than having them own it. Let me know if the CFT can support your efforts to develop the capstone idea. I really would like to watch it unfold.


  6. August 19, 2011 11:53 pm

    Hey, John. I’ve held off on passing out a syllabus so far because I sense a great disturbance in the Force (the set of policies and procedures I’ve followed for about 10 years now) as I read and think about SBG. I’ll want to corner you at school sometime soon and ask some questions as soon as I get unconfused enough to know what they are. I’m intrigued by posts like this one and Kelly’s, but I just can’t completely “see” what SBG might look like in an English classroom. I like the “conjunctive” model you describe, but how do you work out the need to report “current averages” every five weeks? Seems like almost nobody would have mastered all of the “A” level skills by the first couple of reporting periods . . . I can’t imagine, however, that you’d have all of these students failing?

    • August 20, 2011 9:08 pm

      For the past two years, I haven’t counted homework in the grade and I’ve found that nearly every student still does it—it’s pretty essential to understanding physics.

  7. August 20, 2011 12:20 am

    Okay, another question . . . I see from your syllabus that homework “doesn’t count.” I understand the idea that giving grades for homework completion rewards a behavior, not learning, but I wonder about class management implications. Particularly in an English classroom, where students’ reading the text outside of class is critical to our ability to discuss the next day (pretty typical pattern).

    • August 20, 2011 9:10 pm

      I think at first it may seem easier to find standards in math and science, but there are teachers who use SBG in all disciplines. I know Peyten has her own twist that she likes quite a bit.

  8. August 20, 2011 12:25 am

    Last comment, as it’s getting late and my head is reeling . . . it’s funny, but when I think back to helping teach Field Geology I have no problems at all mapping out how we would have used SBG. I’m not sure why it’s such a struggle for me in English . . . I guess we don’t have quite as solid “content” targets as you do in the sciences?

    • August 20, 2011 9:10 pm

      Thanks Bo,
      I’ve vaguely heard of “gradual release of responsibility” but I’m going to check it out now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: