Sunday, July 14, 2013

SBG: Philosophy and Logistics

Teaching is always the best way to learn. Yesterday, Andy (SuperFly) Rundquist and I gave a workshop on standards-based grading at the AAPT summer national meeting in Portland. While preparing the workshop, I did several things. Watching all of Portlandia was valuable, but preparing the agenda and having conversations in the workshop were terrific.

Many of these teachers were on the cusp of their first year of SBG implementation, and itching for advice. One of the things that folks are always interested in is the logistics - grading scaling, calculating overall grades, mechanisms for reassessment, etc. The more important part, though, is the philosophy, and everything else is just implementation. If you're not sure what your purposes for assessment are, how that relates to feedback and what the students do next, then the potential benefits will be lost. This is an interesting contrast to traditional grading - because everyone's familiar with traditional grading, you don't actually need to consider why you're doing it, what you want out of it, exactly what the expectations are for the students, etc. That doesn't mean that any particular teacher doesn't, but think about it - do you really need to have a consistent philosophy of assessment to conduct your class and assessments that way? You really don't!

There are as many implementations of SBG as there are teachers, but there are, as I see it, two non-negotiable tenets of SBG:
  1. To the best of your understanding, student understanding and the grade should be interchangeable, equivalent, homeomorphic, or whatever you want to call it.
  2. Understanding changes over time (therefore... so should grades, by application of #1)
A corollary of #1 is that the grades have to be related to the content, rather than the assignments. That's where the standards-based part comes in. How you accomplish these, by grainy or coarse standards, student-initiated or teacher-initiated reassessments, with binary or other rubrics, etc. is highly dependent on your students (age, preparation, numbers), your school (time, culture, schedule), and you (personality, experience, class rapport). As long as you keep #1 and #2 in mind, communicate them to the students often, and everyone's clear that the students and teacher are a team working towards understanding, the implementation details aren't the main thing.

Basically, that's how you survive your first year of SBG. With that under your belt, start worrying about reducing paperwork, streamlining reassessment sign-up and administration, making reporting better, and all of that.

One big discussion that we had involved the inclusion of time as a variable in the grading. This is the default in traditional grading - there's not much reward for learning material after the test, so two students that both learn all of the material and score the same on the final could, because of the speed at which they learned it, get vastly different overall grades. The philosophy of SBG definitely tries to remove time as a variable, and I think that the improvement of grades to reflect improved understanding and the lowering of grades to reflect eroded understanding puts a very clear message out that enduring understanding is all that I care about, not how fast you learn or whether you can cram.

There was a little bit of pushback on that, and a good discussion followed. One idea thrown out was about employers - don't they want to know which person can learn the skill in a day instead of three? Probably they do, but I don't think that the traditional system actually communicates that clearly. Before I get to that, I don't think that it's appropriate to make that sort of thing an issue for novices; we're talking about kids in their first or second class here, not grad students ready to go into the workforce as physicists. 

The more important thing for me is the collateral damage that an attempt to include speed of acquisition by way of not allowing grades to change over time. The argument seems like it's about differentiating between these two kids:
...but in reality, it ends up being these two kids:
Without the incentive structure, support, and learning from assessments (when they're not final, they're easier to really take as indicators for improvement, rather than scarlet "D"s to be ashamed of and thrown away), a good number of those students simply fall of the the back of the pack, having a shaky foundation that they can't build upon. What I'm saying is that, with SBG, the
blue line" kid from the second graph can become the "blue line" kid from the first graph!

I've seen some criticism from others than SBG can allow higher grades than traditional grading. When applied correctly, that's a feature, not a bug.

My grade distribution is about the same as it was before, but each grade represents a higher level of understanding than before. When there's a mechanism to improve, the bar can be higher!

Interestingly, we heard from some local teachers that the state of Oregon is implementing SBG across the board in the near future. That seemed to have driven some of the high attendance in our workshop. I did a little searching, but couldn't find the details on the plan, so corrections/additions/clarifications are welcome in the comments. I'm certainly all for SBG, but it's really dangerous to make big top-down changes to these things. There must be a lot of teacher education and buy-in to make it work, or it'll be another passed ed fad, which would be a tragedy. Philosophy first, logistics second.

OK, tonight a little sushi to talk over the panel discussion on SBG that Aaron Titus, Stephen Collins, SuperFly, and I are leading tomorrow (8-10 in Broadway I/II) and then a day checking out Eugenia Etkina's new text at noon (Pavilion West) and the Demo/Lab (Galleria II) and Modeling instruction (Ballroom II/III) sessions from 4-6.


  1. I was glad to see this post. I just came off my first year implementing SBG in my honors physics class and loved it. It really drove the students to achieve. Have you implemented SBG with the "slow learner" type you indicated above.

    I ask because I am looking to implement SBG in my lower level chemistry class. The classes are composed students who are eager to learn but more of them are on the unmotivated and rather not side. I would be interested in your input and experience with these types of students.

    1. I use SBG in all of my classes (all juniors/seniors: two levels of the intro physics and an AP C second-year class), so there's a pretty wide range there, though in the graph I'm looking at gradations within a single room. There will always be kids at each end of the spectrum, but the gap can be narrowed by removing time as a variable and incentivizing that improvement; even if those still end up as lower grades, they know more than they would have without the extra work and backwards-looking remediation that they get from SBG. It definitely moves some kids upwards grade-wise, which I like, and moves some fire-and-forget cramming types downward (unless they change their approach to learning), which I also like: I don't want to be an accessory to a view of learning as a disposable commodity exchangeable for points.

    2. Thank you very much for your input. I totally agree with your observations and will begin the process of switching my college prep students over to SBG. Although I live in Massachusetts, it will help that Oregon made it the law.

  2. The Oregon bill was It's scary for those of us in districts that have not started grading this way. Philosophically, I'm on board, but I'm concerned about the paradigm shift for parents and kids. It should be an interesting year. Thanks for a helpful post. I'd love recommendations on ways to share the philosophies of SBG with students.

    1. Thanks for the reference! I read through a bit, and I think that it can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, but the allowing room for improvement is very cool. I share an Evernote notebook about some of the mindset and SBG education that I roll out during the first term. Go slowly and don't dump everything on them at once - motivate the need, then keep reminding them, teach them what to do when they get an assessment back, etc. You can't say it once and expect understanding or buy in. The notebook's here: