SBG in a points-based world

I jumped into SBG (standards based grading) in high school chemistry with both feet this year. So far it’s been pretty OK. Some grading is taking longer, but I’m pretty happy with the results. Not all of my students get that it’s about learning, not about points.

I could use a little advice, or at least some ideas, if you are reading this. Here’s the setup.  I am currently the only teacher in my building that is using SBG. Our grading software is a percentage based system, so I’ve equated my levels of mastery to point values:

Expert – 100% – Goes beyond what was taught.

Proficient – 94% – can do what was taught without error

Competent – 85% – makes errors in application of concepts

Learning – 75% – shows evidence of a significant conceptual error

Beginning – 60% – shows evidence of multiple conceptual errors

I have prettier words for these things, but this is the general idea. If  anyone is interested, I’ll post more details.

Here’s the dilemma. Some of the assessments I give don’t provide an opportunity for students to go beyond the proficient level. It’s sometimes difficult to come up with questions that go beyond what was taught while still staying in bounds of  the standards. Also, those questions tend to lend themselves to longer format answers, which increases grading time and effort.  Further, putting a question on an assessment that most students can’t answer adds to the length of an assessment for little effect except for the few students who can do it.

On one hand, I like that there is space for students who excel to get credit for that, so I like to differentiate the expert level. On the other hand, my sense of fairness tugs at me when the assessment gives no chance to get the expert level. So what to do? Some ideas are:

  • ignore the problem, and just say not all assessments go beyond proficient;
  • for those assessments, assign expert level if they get it all correct
  • make the mastery level standard out of 94 rather that 100 for those questions
  • what else?


Instead of lecture notes

It takes a bit longer, but sometimes you can have students write their own notes from examples. I used this last week. Rather than lecture about what is in each of the 16 sections of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), I gave students copies of five MSDS, and asked them to write the title of each section, and summarize what kind of information is in each section. I gave them a worksheet with an empty table to structure the activity a bit more. After the table I put some questions that required close reading of the MSDS to answer (like what chemical is the most hazardous, cite evidence from the MSDS to support your claim.

Vocabulary idea

I had students define vocab from one section of our text in their own words, then had them find groups of words and identify the connection among them with hash tags (ala twitter). For example: solid, liquid gas, plasma #statesofmatter. This worked best when I told the students that there were four easy groups, and challenged them to find two more. In review, I asked random studemts for the four easy ones, and volunteers for the more challenging ones.
This is a good way to introduce vocabulary that you’ll be using during a unit.

Cut and sort activity

On Thursday this week, I knew I was going to be out for a couple of periods, so I needed an activity that my students could do with a substitute.  We are working on a unit on Safety, and there are a number of routine safety procedures that I am holding the students responsible for. Among them are: obtaining chemicals safely, cleaning up at the end of lab and lighting and adjusting a Bunsen burner.

I made a list of all the steps for the procedures (21 in all) in random order on one sheet of paper. On another I placed instructions and space for each of the procedures. The students cut the steps apart, separate them by procedure and tape them to the paper in the correct order. Then I had them jot down a line or two next to each step explaining why they put that step there. For some steps, the order doesn’t matter, for others it is hugely important. The idea here is to get their brain juices flowing, because it is easier to remember the order of the steps if it has some meaning.

The students could work in groups of 1, 2, or 3. Sometimes, we force students to work in groups when it is not necessary. Many students are introverts (by which I mean they gain energy through reflection rather than through interaction as extroverts do), and prefer to work on their own. So sometimes I let them. This also avoids the whole “last one picked for a group – nobody likes me” problem. This took about 40 minutes.

I reviewed the exercise by calling on students randomly (I have their names written on wooden coffee stirrers, I’m too cheap for Popsicle sticks :), discussing the important points as we go through each procedure.

Students often don’t know good (efficient) ways to learning, so this was a great opportunity to work on that. Many of the students I have are taking Chemistry because they need a second lab course. To make chemistry worthwhile to them, I’d like them to take away tools they can use in college to help them learn faster. Chemistry is a great place for that because the students who struggle with learning it will see the benefits of learning how to learn. All this is to explain why I asked the students to give suggestions on how they might try to remember all 21 steps. Repetition and rewriting the steps came up a lot, but each class came up with seven or eight ideas. I hope to show them on Monday how to use mental visualization  to help them learn faster. I finished one class by memorizing 23 objects in order in about 6 minutes. Monday, I’ll show them how.