My First Crack at SBG/SBL (With a Star Wars Theme)

star wars1
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars

A couple of weeks ago, our first trimester ended. It was the first time I had implemented a Standards-Based system in one of my classes, my Sports & Entertainment Marketing class. After taking some time to analyze how it went, I decided it’s time to put those thoughts in print for future reference.

Because I love Star Wars, and Star Wars seems to be all the rage right now, I’m going to use a Star Wars theme for my reflection.

LIKE THE FORCE, STANDARDS-BASED LEARNING AND GRADING IS HARD.

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Image Credit: https://www.geocaching.com/seek/cache_details.aspx?wp=GC5QJ04&title=star-wars-2-master-yoda&guid=d010c820-ab14-4b6a-8967-038c2fe29e83

Just as young Luke Skywalker when learning the force, I discovered early on that trying to implement this system is very difficult to do well. I didn’t get the results I had hoped for, and I attribute that to the difficulty of taking this on. It certainly is much easier to be teacher-focused, developing lessons from a content perspective and not a student learning perspective: lecture, do some activities (some of which probably don’t really contribute to learning), review, take a quiz, take a test. Such a method is much easier to implement, but likely does not result in actual learning for many students, or in evidence of the SPECIFIC SKILLS OR CONCEPTS that students are supposed to now know.

SO WHAT IS SO HARD? MOSTLY, I AM NOT AS GOOD AS YODA.

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Image Credit: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/yoda/37971/yoda-the-empire-strikes-backs-big-gamble

Finding ways for students to TRULY demonstrate a FULLY DEVELOPED UNDERSTANDING of the standards is very difficult. Yoda knew all the right techniques and strategies (physical and mental) to help Luke learn the force. I have discovered that I am not nearly on Yoda’s level with my implementation of  Standards-Based Grading and Learning. Along the way, I found that there just wasn’t enough time for students to really show me a well-developed understanding of the course concepts, and that was even after eliminating a significant amount of content from previous years in hopes of avoiding that very problem. The course format was basically like this:

  1. Start with a short lecture on the topic to give them a base understanding of the concept
  2. Let them work through applications of the concept, devising solutions to questions or scenarios. They would do this in teams.
  3. Review the solutions as a class, leading to discussions about the solutions.
  4. Students put their knowledge to the test in a more comprehensive scenario, done individually.

Here’s where it went wrong:

  • Even after the short lecture, which included many examples of the concept put into practice, students struggled mightily to come up with reasonable solutions to the questions and scenarios presented. Often their answers seemed to demonstrate no more knowledge of the concept than if they just walked in out of the hallway and tried to devise a solution. This was very frustrating. At least Luke sort of “got” the techniques Yoda was teaching him pretty much right away.
  • The class discussions of the different solutions presented quickly led to boredom and therefore lack of attention and participation. I own this completely. I really need to get better at having such discussions which can be so valuable for the students. Hearing the ideas of their classmates truly can help students develop their own thought process on the concept.
  • The products that were presented by the students for their individual assignments, the ones that would be demonstrations of their proficiency with the concepts, just as often showed very little understanding of the concepts. I was frequently disappointed with the quality of the work I received. Because I stuck to the very important feature of Standards-Based Learning and Grading, I provided very detailed feedback to the students and allowed them to revise their answers. But because their answers were so frequently way off the mark, it seemed more like the students just took a shot in the dark on their first attempt and then waited for my feedback to develop a more correct solution.

YODA FULLY TRAINED LUKE IN TIME FOR HIM TO DESTROY THE DEATH STAR. IN MY TIME WITH THE STUDENTS, THEY ONLY REALLY KNEW ENOUGH TO DISTRACT DARTH VADER AND BUY SOME MORE TIME.

death star
Image Credit: http://giphy.com/gifs/someone-brain-pregnant-EPPvrXLVm6Axy

Once again, I was not on Yoda’s level of teaching prowess. Even though I recognized early on that the students were really struggling to show me even a basic understanding of the course concepts, I had to keep moving or they would not have been exposed to nearly enough of the important concepts of Sports & Entertainment Marketing. It would be like if Luke only learned how to fight with his lightsaber but did not master the art of controlling his mind and those of others. Sure he’d be able to hang with Vader in a lightsaber battle, but he never would have been able to use the force to shoot the lasers just at the right time to blow up the death star.

So what would happen if Luke had only a mediocre understanding of using his lightsaber and mind control? He probably would do poorly at both, and the Rebel Alliance would have been defeated. So what am I to do? I know I need to do better, but I am struggling to figure out how.

A NEW HOPE

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Image Credit: http://lucasfilm.com/star-wars-episode-4-a-new-hope

In case it’s not obvious, I’m hard on myself. I demand excellence from myself so that my students can be excellent. But I can also recognize the positives in my transition. The top 3 positive things I experienced in this first iteration of Standards-Based Grading and Learning are:

  • THINKING! If nothing else, my students definitely had to THINK. I forced them to think at all times. I gave no multiple-choice or similar assessments. Literally every task I gave them required them to think. And they often didn’t like it, but they were better for it. Many of them eventually admitted that, while thinking was hard, it was still better than taking multiple-choice tests all the time.
  • give it a tryPERSISTENCE. My Standards-Based Grading strategy was to give either a 0, 1, or 2 rating on each individual concept. A 0 meant the student didn’t get it or didn’t try. A 1 meant the student showed an acceptable level of understanding. A 2 meant the student showed a deeper level of understanding (with clear guidelines about what that meant). I gave A LOT of 0’s on the first submissions from students. But I was very impressed with how many students were not satisfied and revised and resubmitted until they at least earned a 1 rating.

Image Credit: https://www.tumblr.com/search/r:%20there%20is%20no%20try

  • EVIDENCE. Because I now evaluated on each individual skill, it was very evident which skills needed more attention and which did not. This was extremely helpful. I now could tell a student, parent, administrator, or any other stakeholder EXACTLY what skills any student was lacking. Some parents with whom I discussed this appreciated that as well.

FINDING MY PERSONAL OBI-WAN  AND YODA

obi wan and yoda1Image Credit: http://www.moviefone.com/2015/12/21/obi-wan-yoda-the-force-awakens/

I won’t be attempting to implement a full Standards-Based system again this year. It will just be too stressful. I will continue to use some Standards-Based principles, however (lots of descriptive feedback, unlimited resubmissions, more task-based grading). When the summer hits, I will be using Twitter to find my own personal Yodas and Obi-Wans that can help me get better. Luke continued to seek guidance from his mentors. I will as well.

 

Diving into SBG/SBL

As week 2 of our school year comes to a close, it’s time to start reflecting on the beginning of my SBG/SBL journey. I decided late last school year after reading and watching some of the great stuff from Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli2) that it is time to start putting the emphasis on student learning and not on point chasing. I had put some SBG/SBL practices in place already (multiple attempts allowed, no due dates and therefore no penalties for late work), but it was time to dive in completely instead of just getting my feet wet.

First, a little background on my implementation of SBG/SBL. Here are the basics:

  • I identified all of the necessary concepts (standards) that the students would need to learn about. Then, after seeing what Danielle Bendt (@mrsbendt66) did with her science classes, I honed in on 4 key skills the students would have to master for each topic. These became the learning targets.
  • I created a rubric that would be used for each of the assignments. It clearly shows the students what they have to do for each of the 4 skills to get a particular “rating” as I call them (NOT scores!). After a lot of reading about different rubric methods I decided I really like the idea of only 3 levels: 0, 1, and 2. A zero means the student has not attempted the skill or has not demonstrated an understanding of the concept. A one means the student has successfully demonstrated proficiency with that skill. I equate this to a B. A two means the student as demonstrate a deeper level of mastery of the skill, often requiring the students to apply the skill in a unique way. I equate this to an A.
  • Students work through the course independently. Megan Moran (@MeganCMoMo) introduced me to this and I think it’s a great idea to let kids work at their own pace to ensure they are given enough opportunity to demonstrate proficiency. It was  A LOT of work to create all the materials, but I’m liking it so far.
  • There are no due dates, and students can resubmit as often as they like to either get to a 1 or a 2.
  • I provide A LOT of very descriptive feedback so that students are clear about what they need to fix/modify to earn a higher rating.
  • Students are allowed to demonstrate proficiency or mastery using whatever method they feel is best for them. I setup all of the assignments to require writing, but I make it very clear everyday that they are free to share their answers with me verbally if they prefer.

 
Below is the skills rubric I’m using for my Sports & Entertainment Marketing class

 
I’ve read about the experiences of other teachers who had students who were skeptical of such a drastically different system of evaluation, but I was pleasantly surprised that my students just rolled with it. After explaining how it would work and the reasons for the change, many students were visibly intrigued, and it appears that, so far, most are happy with this different setup. I have high standards for their work, especially since they are allowed to resubmit as often as they need to, and some students have gotten frustrated with all the zeroes they get on the first try. But they are getting more familiar with my expectations for their answers, and I’m already starting to see less zeroes on that first attempt.

“In here, you don’t get the choice to be mediocre.”

I am a strong advocate for the 2 level rubric system. I know many teachers use a rubric with 4 levels, but I dislike that setup for 2 main reasons. First, it gets messy, and becomes hard to decide what rating to give, and, I think, starts to become as arbitrary as assigning percentages. Second, it gives students the choice to not be proficient. Why even list the requirements for being mediocre? I tell my students regularly “in here, you don’t get the choice to be mediocre.” If I want them to be proficient, why validate mediocrity with a description for achieving at that level? I provide plenty of feedback that lets the students know what they need to do to get to that 1 rating.

I am so pleased with the level of engagement and dedication my students have demonstrated so far. They have been accepting of such a “strange” system that they are not used to, and I think that is because they realize they are free to make mistakes along the way, and that it really is about their learning and not collecting points.

I’ve also noticed that because the students work independently, I am able to meet the needs of individual students when they need it, and I am having some wonderful discussions with students about the course topics. They are revealing ways of thinking that I never would have imagined, and I would not have had this same opportunity if I was the one leading class each day and ensuring the kids are all working on the same task.

I also have a great success story to share. I have noticed the last few days that a girl in my class (we’ll call her Susie) has not really been working much and her body language has suggested she isn’t sure how to move forward. I noticed in my records that one one assignment she had received a 0 rating on all 4 of the skills. So today I made a point to meet with her to get her back on track. All this girl needed was to be able to talk it out. We had a great discussion about her answers and where she went wrong. After some prompting from me and rephrasing the questions, she was able to successfully earn that 1 rating on all 4 of the skills. Her body language had suddenly changed to that of someone experiencing success rather than failure. She told me she isn’t very good with writing, especially on the computer. She said she prefers pencil and paper. When I told her she is welcome to hand write all assignments or give me her answers verbally, her relief was apparent. She now has a renewed confidence, and her attentiveness and focus were much better after that point. She was even quite excited to share with me an idea she had later in the class. It felt really good.

I was so thrilled yesterday when I was reviewing some answers with a group of 3 students. Eventually one of them said “you should tell all the teachers in the school to do this.” When I asked him why, he said, “because it’s not about doing good on a test. I feel like in here I’m actually supposed to learn.” Then one of other boys added, “yeah, we get to keep trying even if we do bad the first time.”

Such empowering words to hear from students. I can’t wait to see where we’re at in another 2 weeks.

My 3 Keys To Helping Students Build Resilience

On Twitter I keep seeing posts from edu-people I follow that deal with the topics of grit, growth mindset, and resilience, among other topics that pop up in the summer when we can’t share our battle stories and lessons learned from the trenches once the school year starts.

Resilience was the topic of this blog post by Tom James that I recently read, and the author asked for others to share their thoughts on resilience (and grading). I left a fairly lengthy comment with my reply, and because I started my blog as a way to reflect on such issues, I thought I should turn my comment into my own blog post. Here it is, with a couple of additional nuggets added on:

I don’t have any formal research on this, but I m a high school teacher who has provided opportunities for retakes and redos for a few years I certainly have some anecdotal evidence to share.

Resilience literally means to recover quickly from difficulty, so a critical practice for developing resilience in students is to provide quality feedback on what went wrong. How can we expect students to recover quickly from the difficulty of failing at a task if they are unsure where they went wrong? After all, if they knew where they went wrong, wouldn’t they have fixed it before submitting for review?

Another key practice that I have found to be important is to let the students know what they did right. Rarely have I had students consistently miss the mark so badly that they did nothing correctly on their assignments. But I found that my time-saving grading practice of only pointing out what needed to be fixed led to students feeling only like failures. Students became less resilient, because what students want to be resilient when they know they will only be told how wrong they were the next time? Once I started pointing out what the students did well they were noticeably more likely to have a desire to fix the things that needed fixing.

Finally, a strategy that I will be implementing this school year is one that is a vital component of standards based grading: ditching the letter grades and, more importantly I think, the percentages. Letter grades and percentages give students an out. They give them the choice of accepting inadequate performance. They do this because they are considered a final evaluation of performance because that’s how they have been used for so long. Once students see a letter grade or percentage, they believe that’s it, that’s the end of the learning of that topic, that’s the end of my opportunity to master the topic. Some teachers use rubrics to show students exactly what they need to do to earn high marks, but the standard 3-5 point rubric still gives the students the opportunity to choose a poor, but “passing” level of performance. If we want students to reach a certain level of proficiency, why not make that the only choice? The 1 point rubric helps develop resilience by not letting students choose otherwise – they either get 0 or they are proficient, with unlimited attempts to get to proficient. I personally prefer the 2 point rubric. This allows for a proficient level of understanding and a mastery level. Every student should be expected to reach the proficient level, but students who go above and beyond the proficient level and demonstrate an unusually deep understanding of the topic should be rewarded for doing so.

I’m nervous about implementing this new grading system. I find the same questions running through my mind:

  • How many attempts will most students need to reach proficiency?
  • What will I do if a student tries over and over again but can’t seem to ‘get it’? Do they cut their losses and move on? Will they be OK with that since they will essentially get a 0 for that topic?
  • Do I have enough supplemental and enriching content and activities for students who reach proficiency on all the topics before the term is over?

Though I’m nervous, I know that such a system will really force the students to show me that they know the material at an acceptable level of understanding.

The Case For Re-Do’s and Retakes (HINT: It’s about the LEARNING)

I was perusing my twitter feed and came across this post from @Jason_appel:

   

Because I’ve been studying Standards-Based Learning and Grading heavily since late spring, I thought I would share my thoughts on these questions that Jason raised about allowing re-do’s and retakes. If you already viewed the Google Doc linked in this tweet:

 

feel free to disregard the following text, which is exactly what appeared in the Google Doc. However, I would really appreciate your thoughts about my responses to Jason in the form of a comment at the end of this post. That’s one of my main goals for this blog – to get feedback from others.

If you did not see the Google Doc, read on, and please share your thoughts in a comment at the end of this post.

 

“I want to hold students accountable for preparing ahead of time.”

There is only one problem with this statement, and that is the word “accountable.” We should only hold students accountable for demonstrating of learning, not soft skills. Are soft skills important? Absolutely, but that is not what we are assessing. Things like preparation, attendance, and staying on task are all behaviors that LEAD to successful learning, but are not things for which we need to hold students “accountable.” What if I don’t even need to prepare ahead of time? What if I can successfully demonstrate mastery without preparing ahead of time? Should there be an asterisk next to my performance indicator because I didn’t effectively prepare ahead of time? Students who NEED to prepare ahead of time will see the VALUE in doing so when they perform better after better preparation on subsequent assessments.

 

“Will students take a test to see questions, then prepare to retake for a better grade? (Answer is yes)”

Actually, the answer is only ‘yes’ if the retake is the exact same test and only requires them to regurgitate facts or processes they have been ‘programmed’ to do. If students can simply memorize answers for the retake, maybe the problem is that the assessment is not an effective demonstration of LEARNING but is rather a demonstration of MEMORIZING. Consider making the assessment questions more authentic, ones that require real understanding of the concepts and putting the concepts into real situations. Is this more work for the teacher? Absolutely. Is creating multiple versions of the assessment for retake purposes more work for the teacher? Absolutely. But as teachers, we are to serve students, not necessarily make our lives more convenient or less stressful. Work with your department to share the load of creating these authentic assessments so that each teacher does not bear the burden alone.

 

“How does grading factor in? Should a student who shows mastery only after multiple attempts be able to get the same grade as a student who shows mastery on first attempt? My students and parents will see this as unfair.”

Yes, they should get the same grade, because they have both reached the goal set for all students: mastery of the content. Why does the path make a difference? Why should students who show mastery after only one attempt be made to do it over and over again? Or, if you want to consider fairness, how fair is it to only let students attempt mastery one time? Remember that the goal is to show mastery, not to show mastery in one try. Rick Wormeli, who you responded to in your tweet has used this example many times…think of all the professional tests required to gain certification: the bar exam, the driver’s license exam, grad school entrance exams, CPA exams, heck, even the Praxis exams to become a teacher. All of these allow the test takers to take them more than once, and only their most recent score is considered for certification. Why do we hold teenage high school students to a much stricter standard? I would also recommend that you check out Rick’s “Fair Isn’t Always Equal.”

 

“What is a student’s mindset if they go into an assessment expecting to retake it? This happens all the time in my class. 10 minutes in: ‘Can I retake this?’”

It seems like you are assuming each student’s mindset who is expecting to retake it is one of ‘I’m totally gaming this system – I don’t really need to know anything, I’ll just eventually memorize all the answers and get a 100%.’

Maybe a student would treat the initial attempt as a trial run, so they know exactly what they are expected to know and be able to do. Maybe when that student asks ‘Can I retake this?’ they want to know that, even if they fail, they will get to try again, to persevere and eventually show you that they can do it. Is that unacceptable? How less intimidating would it be if students could go into a test of some sort and not have to really worry about scoring well, but be able to just focus on actually knowing the test material? Wouldn’t that be a better reflection of what the student learned? The bottom line is that in standards-based grading, you must show mastery or you don’t get credit, so being allowed to retake a test or other type of assessment is crucial. Students are no longer allowed to accept a 60% (which tells the student what, exactly, anyway?) – they will master the content or be given an incomplete. When you shift to such a philosophy, students will generally not approach retakes as ‘gaming the system’ but rather as another chance to show they’ve learned the material and can demonstrate mastery. And regardless, if students want to put themselves in a position to do EXTRA work by putting in EXTRA time to do a retake, doesn’t that tell you that they are interested in performing well? Why should they be denied that chance?

 

“Does allowing retakes of assessments prepare students for college? I don’t think colleges are allowing retakes at all.”

My personal response to this is that we are not preparing all students for college. Not all will go to college, and not all will go to the same types of colleges – some may go to colleges that do allow retakes and some might go to colleges that don’t. Unless we analyze the retake policies of every college available we won’t know that, but yes, I would agree that generally colleges do not allow retakes. However, by allowing students in high school to retake assessments, we are putting emphasis on the LEARNING rather than the assessment, which is just the vehicle for demonstrating learning. By allowing retakes in high school, students are free to explore the best way for them to learn, to try different methods or strategies, because they will be allowed to test out those strategies without fear of failure because they know they will be able to try again. By doing so, they will figure out their personal best methods for preparing for exams in college, putting themselves in a much better position to succeed on the first try.

I would also point out that in college, students have MUCH more time during the day to focus on their studies and prepare, and have many more resources for getting help than they do in high school. I would imagine you would be hard-pressed to find an undergraduate student who goes from one class to the next, with maybe 5-10 minutes in between, from 8:00-3:00, Monday through Friday, like most high school students generally do. That alone makes it much more feasible for students to be able to prepare for their one attempt at college exams.

 

To conclude, the point of retakes is to allow our students to actually LEARN, not prepare for some test. By relieving the stress of having to perform on one attempt at an assessment, students are free to learn without risk of failure. Failure becomes a natural part of the process, not a shameful conclusion.