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My grading sales pitch

August 25, 2011
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Today, I filmed me discussing the grading guidleines for my physics course with my students, in case anyone was interested in seeing how I sell SBG, and in particular, how I went about explaining the purpose of Capstones to them.

Here’s the video:

Overall, I think it went well, but I probably went on for too long, and definitely used too many sports analogies. This is actually a real opportunity to revisit some of the understandings of my students and draw out their skills to help them relate to this approach.

The fun part of this is I think my students helped me to clarify a number of ideas about this policy in our discussion—particularly how capstones should behave when you haven’t mastered all of the standards. We came up with what I think is a very fair approach. Anytime you haven’t mastered all of the standards, Capstones are instantly reduced in value to 1pt each on a student’s pre-exam average. Once a student masters all of the concepts again, capstones are restored to the previous values (max of 3pts/each). So this gives students the proper incentives to focus on shoring up the fundamentals, rather than getting too distracted by flashy projects that they might not fully understand.

The slides are a bit hard to see, so here they are as well:

As always, if you are kind enough to watch this, I would appreciate any feedback you might have.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 26, 2011 8:13 am

    I intend to watch you video John because I like some aspects of your approach and want to learn more. In reviewing your slides, I have a few questions. (1) Why do you define an assessment as having to be “written.” Why couldn’t an assessment be oral, be performance-oriented, or be something other than written. Seems to me that you are already giving an advantage to students who can take their mental understanding and “write” about it–do a problem with it. (2) Why is their grade only dependent on understanding physics and nothing else? Take our FAAR process. We don’t say for teachers that the only criteria for determining whether you are a good teacher is “can you a deliver an excellent content-oriented lecture. We assess faculty based on many criteria, of which only a few are related to their mastery of content. (3) Why should homework, which is practice, not count towards my performance? If sports analogies are important, practicing on the field and an athletes performance there does determine whether they may or may not appear in the game. In the real world, practice counts it seems to me. It isn’t only about the “game day.”

    I love your ideas about not making learning a race to the finish line. This is so important it seems to me. In addition, all assessments should be able to guide a student towards mastery. That is their true purpose in my estimation.

    OK, so these are merely questions for reflection. I like the approach and love the way you are engaging students in the conversation. They need to take ownership.


    • August 27, 2011 6:29 am

      These are great questions. In the past, I think I’ve allowed much more range in the form of assessment, including oral assessment. The problem is that in a number of instances, I’ve found myself offering help to the student as they work through the assessment, and consequently at the end, I’ve had a hard time deciding just how much the student understood on his/her own. Under the approach of asking students to demonstrate mastery of concepts on written assessments, both the student and I get a better sense of what he/she understands.

      As for why their physics grade should only be determined by physics understanding, I think that’s certainly a point that teachers could discuss about what a grade means, but I think the most clearly unambiguous definition of what a grade should mean is how much content in a particular course a student understood at the very end of the course. I think this is very much like the FAAR process, and the grade might be the equivalent of a teacher’s AP score average. Ultimately, the grade is a very small piece of information, just like an AP average, or in many ways, a game score. This is something I also hope to communicate, that the extensive feedback and ongoing conversation I am having with my students is a much more helpful way to learn and grow than any grades they are receiving in the class.

  2. August 26, 2011 10:08 am

    Thank you for posting this. I am starting SBG this year in my chemistry class and appreciate any ideas about how to hook students into this grading style. I really like how your explanation caters toward uncovering student preconceptions on what grades are for and what they mean. I will be recording a lot of my lessons this year also because I’m working on becoming nationally board certified. My one suggestion is to praise student responses more. For example, “Great idea!” , “Brilliant!”, “I like where you’re going”. Also, it is difficult to hear student responses, so repeating a student response can also work as praise. That may be just a recording issue though. Thanks for the ideas.

    • August 27, 2011 6:32 am

      Thanks, I’m going to be solving the recording issue very soon with a new classroom recording setup, which I will blog about once I get it going.

      As for the praise issue, I think there’s a fine line here—I’m a huge believer in Dwek’s mindset work, and I’m working to offer praise for specific behaviors students demonstrate that contribute to their learning or that of the class. Part of Dwek’s advice also is to avoid generic prasie like “good job” or “excellent”, particularly for a student’s intellect, because this can lead students toward more of fixed mindset, and make them less willing to take risks. But with a bit more effort on my part, I do think I could offer specific praise during conversations that would encourage growth mindset thinking.

  3. August 26, 2011 7:02 pm

    Thanks for the video. Some great gems in there. “We need to separate ourselves from this idea that you have a grade all the time.” Perfect. I work with a very grade motivated cohort and this is one of the biggest challenges I foresee as I introduce SBG this year, the constant “what is my grade?”

    I think the sports metaphors are apt. When a classroom leans heavily towards inquiry one could just as easily think of being a physics coach as a physics teacher. Now that I think on it this could simplify my job description. “I coach physics and weight training.”

    (How do you record your class sessions?)

    • August 27, 2011 6:41 am

      Thanks—the idea of “your grade doesn’t exist yet” is something I wrote about previously, and I think it’s a pretty essential tenant of SBG. On the very first assessment I gave my students, many of them had numbers in their calculations without units. We call these Naked Numbers, and make a big deal of them.It takes a lot of practice to train oneself not to write Naked Numbers, and I’ve decided that you can’t show understanding until you get yourself in the habit of putting a unit on every number in every step of the calculation. The reason I’m so harsh with this is that I think it takes a lot of effort to train oneself to not write naked numbers, and it’s a bit of an annoying detail to master, so I’m withholding the ‘2’-understanding until students demonstrate they’ve got this idea. But critical to this process is that students don’t freak out and suddenly think that because on the very first assessment they got a 1 on an ‘A-level’ concept, they are somehow failing the course. It’s simply like getting up to batting practice and missing the first pitch, or putting down a drop of paint on a blank canvas ine wrong location—easily fixed with practice.

      As for recording, right now, i simply film using the Kodak Zi-8, which is a wonderful flip-like camera, with two major advantages. It uses SDHC cards,so you can pop out the cards for easy transfer to your computer, and always add an extra card for more memory (my 16GB card gets 4 hours of continuous recording), and it has a mic input. I’m in the process of setting up a new recording setup so that I can get a much better recording of the audio, and i’m going to be blogging about that very soon.


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