My Love/Hate relationship with SBG

This is my second year using standards based grading as part of my classes. Standards based grading (SBG) can an incredibly useful framework. However a mastery approach to SBG can be an incredibly complicated prospect. I’ve found standards based grading to be challenging at times, but it has changed the feedback loop in my classes. It only accounts for 30% of the students overall grade. The other parts are summative tests (30%), labs (30%) and a participation component (10%). The number one driving force behind adopting it, was the problem with homework. In my past experiences with assigning graded homework assignments, I’ve found there to be numerous problems with providing timely and relevant feedback.

First, there is the trouble of providing meaningful feedback on what can be 100+ papers in a timely fashion. My first years of teaching, I had around 150 students and it would take me a week to get papers back. At that point students did not take the feedback seriously because we had already moved on to the next concept. On the worst days, I wasn’t able to keep up at all and would not return papers for much longer. The students then wondered why they even did them in the first place and those students who worked hard felt disillusioned.

Second, there is the problem that homework does not sometimes represent what the students knows or understands. There is a very large grey area when it comes to homework. What does it mean to help someone with home work? What percentage of a students homework represents what they understand? Were they working with a tutor, parent or friend? Did the they do it for them? Did they step them through the process without letting the student try it on their own? How can I encourage students to work together but not take the easy way out? Where does one cross the line for learning to violating academic integrity. It think the recent Harvard case exemplifies the problems with holding students accountable for take home work. Now, I have been using programing to occasionally send home assignments that are different for every single student. The program also provides me with answer keys so that grading is pretty efficient. I’ve found this to be a better correlation of student scores to understanding. Though it is still not perfect.

Third, there is continuous discussion about how much homework is appropriate. With a diversity of skills and knowledge among students, no two students will ever need the same amount of practice to master a concept. As such, it’s difficult to say that students should spend some arbitrary amount of time a week for each subject.

These and other frustrations were weighing on me as I was looking to change my syllabus one year. This sent me out in search of the edublogosphere. While I can’t nail down where I first came across standards based grading. I liked the concept of taking time each week for students to demonstrate their current mastery of the material and providing feed back on each objective. For me this would then eliminate almost all homework grades. And today, daily homework plays almost not part of my final grades.

I quiz about two learning objectives a week, with about 10 min of class time to quiz for each learning objective. I can grade these quizzes quickly and can get them back to the students at the start of the next class with good feedback. Because these are done under testing conditions and without calculators, these quizzes are the most accurate view of a students current understanding.

If a student wants to retake a learning objective they must use an online secure form to register for one of the designated retake times. Which usually take place during two lunch periods each week. They can retake 3 learning objectives a week and I update their scores each weekend online. If a student wants to retake an objective again, they must meet with me to go over their first retake. This does limit the number of multiple retakes and makes the majority of students take their first retake seriously. But it does let me know where every student is at and allows me to intervene and provide feedback to students and their advisors if there is a precipitous drop in scores.

So there have been a number of adjustments I have made to make sbg manageable. First students must sign up for them using a secure online form. This form records their student id, makes them choose an established retake time, and makes them choose the three learning objectives ahead of time. On the designated retake days, I look at the reservations, print the appropriate standards and have them ready to go when the students appear. If students do not appear, they will automatically receive ones on the learning objectives they signed up for. This keeps students from trivializing retakes and has been very successful when they suddenly see their mastery grades drop. They can reschedule, but they have lost that weeks opportunity to retake. If a student wants to cancel or reschedule a retake, they must contact me by email or still show up to the retake.

Because I’m on a trimester schedule, students can only retake objectives from the current trimester. This often means that many students will wait till the last minute to schedule retakes. But the limit on 3 retakes a week and only designated times preempts that from getting to hectic for me. In addition, I usually do not allow retakes in the last week of the trimester. I want to encourage mastery not epic procrastination. This does lead to some frustration from students, but is an important lesson in planning and personal responsibility. For students who struggle with planning, I encourage them to sit down with their advisor or with our learning team to develop strategies.

The online grading component is also important, since I have a limit on the versions of a quiz I will make. I do not hand back retakes, but the online grades allow me to show their current scores. Often students who do poorly on retakes, need some sort of intervention. So students who do poorly on a retake, have a short meeting with me to look over their retake and identify any conceptual issues before scheduling another.

My logistics have helped to minimize the messiness that standards based grading can create, while keeping the core rewards. But I still believe that to prepare students for college, they need to be prepared for summative assessments. Each trimester, I have two tests that cannot be retaken or corrected. With this sort of set up there will always be a spectrum of students. This is true all the teachers that use SBG that I’ve talked do. Some students will take retakes diligently and be well prepared for tests, others may procrastinate. Ultimately, we are here to help students grow and I believe that a hybrid approach to SBG helps students to adopt a growth mindset while preparing them to be independent learners for the college environment.

Appendix:
Here is how my syllabus outlines the quiz process in my classes:

Since chemistry is by nature a cumulative subject, students must master material in one unit before moving on to the next. Almost every week, students will take a quiz that covers one or more learning objectives. As opposed to receiving a percentage grade, a student will receive a mastery score between one and four for each learning objective assessed on the quiz.

4 – Mastery – Complete Understanding of the Material – No errors
3 – Acceptable – Clear understanding of the Material – Minor Conceptual Errors
2 – Basic – Basic and Simplistic Understanding of the Material – Significant Conceptual Errors
1 – Incomplete – Little Understanding of the Material – Major Conceptual Errors

To receive an A quiz score, a student must maintain a 3.5 average with no objective below a 3. To receive an B quiz score, a student must maintain a 3 average with no objective below a 2.5. To receive an C quiz score, a student must maintain a 2.5 average with no objective below a 2. To receive an D quiz score, a student must maintain a 2 average with no objective below a 1.5. If a student meets the average requirement for a grade but has one objective below the lower limit, they will be dropped a letter grade. For example a 3.6 average with one 2.5 would receive a B.

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