Why I am doing standards based grading

Why am I leaping into the deep end? Because I cannot resist. My student teaching experience was very enlightening. There were some good things (my awesome students) and some tiresome things (class sizes ranging from 39 to 46 in a room built for 25, no lab benches, 07:30 school starting time). For a variety of reasons, I felt compelled to stick to the same instructional and grading approach used by my coop, partly because they were pretty much exactly what I’d experienced throughout my own education. “Teaching” physics meant a lot of lecture, some gee-whiz demos, and some cookbook labs. Assessment meant homework, pop quizzes (which I think I hated more than my students did), lab worksheets, and unit tests.

And it all felt like a giant farce. The emperor’s new clothes. We all knew there wasn’t much learning going on, but nobody seemed to know an easy way to fix it, so we all just pretended we were doing the best we could. I felt dirty about it, but I didn’t know what to do. I was trapped under a mountain of grading (I had 205 students total), the textbook came with these handy powerpoint files, and it was just so easy to keep doing it the old way.

In a lot of ways, it was an excellent learning experience for me as a novice teacher. I yammered at my students, who sat there quiet as lambs, actually taking notes (for the most part). They did the homework (more or less), they bumbled their way through the labs, and then a disturbing percentage of them failed the unit test. Obviously I’m generalizing, and I certainly had students who cut class and talked during class and didn’t take notes, and I had others who got 110% on each test. But it was pretty clear to me that they were doing about the most I could expect from them in the situation, and it still wasn’t working. It wasn’t even close to working.

Luckily, I am a Knowles Science Teaching Fellow. This means I get to be a part of a community of outstanding new teachers who are really committed to improving and transforming the profession of teaching. Over this summer, I started talking to other fellows about how to teach, and how to assess, and I got exposed to some new ideas and excited about ideas I’d already heard about. I started reading a bunch of blogs about standards based grading, especially Jason Buell, Matt Townsley, Frank Noschese, and Shawn Cornally. I attended a 3 week workshop on the modeling approach to teaching physics where I got to rub elbows with some inspiring physics teachers, some of whom were using sbg. And I kept talking to other Knowles Fellows.


I want a grading system that helps students learn to help themselves. I am a big fan of learning to help ourselves and learning to set and achieve goals. These are self-awareness skills that people need to be taught. Some lucky folks learn these by osmosis, at home growing up, but in my experience most of us need to be explicitly taught, at some point, how to become aware of our own progress, and how to articulate a goal and then break that goal down into manageable steps. I learned this twice; once while writing my master’s thesis and again while doing my doctorate. Now I’m really, really good at staring down huge beastly tasks, then taking them apart brick by brick.

By explicitly articulating what I want students to learn (my learning targets), and then assessing them against those, I am scaffolding their ability to set and achieve their own goals in life. As a bonus, by explicitly articulating my learning targets, I’m also improving my own instruction. Everybody knows what we’re doing, and I get to have some checks and balances to ensure that the activities I’m choosing for the class actually help us achieve the learning goals. It’s awfully easy to just fill the time with stuff (I do love the sound of my own voice…) and lose track of why I’m doing it. The entire point of teaching a class is so that my students learn something, so by making the metric of their learning (the standards) the centerpiece or anchor of the class, it makes it a lot easier to keep my eyes on the prize (student learning) rather than the medium (“my” teaching).

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About Andrea Grant

I do nerdy things.
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One Response to Why I am doing standards based grading

  1. Jason Buell says:

    “As a bonus, by explicitly articulating my learning targets, I’m also improving my own instruction…..It’s awfully easy to fill the time with stuff…”

    Bingo. That’s one of my big arguments for SBG. It’s really focused my teaching and helped me cut out the fluff. I think we all are guilty at some point of filling time with junk that doesn’t actually help teach anything. For science teachers especially, we’re often guilty of finding fun stuff to do (or blow up) that doesn’t actually add any value. One of the things people always ask is about finding time for remediation in class. The amount of junk I’ve cut from my curriculum has more than made up for the remediation time.

    PS – I’m hosting a carnival on assessment at my blog, you should submit something.

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