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An 8-Step Transition from Points-Based Grading to Standards-Based Grading

posted Apr 14, 2017, 10:13 AM by Mark Schober   [ updated Jun 11, 2017, 7:44 PM ]

Even if you're sold on standards-based grading, the transition can be daunting. Here is a roadmap for sequentially implementing key aspects of SBG, improving a points-based grading system in the interim, and setting yourself up for a successful transition to SBG. Join Manjula Nair and me
 in NYC for a three-day workshop July 5-7, 2017 in which we will flesh out the elements below for making the shift to SBG. Register now!

There are excellent articles about why SBG is a less-imperfect system of assessing student performance than points-based systems. (No system is perfect!) I'm assuming that you are interested in SBG and are ready to give it a try.

1. Build your allies and identify your resources. The best laid plans can be frustratingly thwarted without a support base beyond your classroom. Communicating to various constituencies is an ongoing project. SBG is different than what people are used to, and it will take time to win some people over. But as you grow in your understanding of SBG, you will also find more effective ways to communicate why you are doing what you are doing to parents, students, colleagues, and administrators.

2. Write learning objectives. No matter what kind of grading system you use, clearly define what you expect students to be able to do after instruction and practice. Express the objectives in terms that the students can understand and share them with the students so that they know what is expected of them. Writing good objectives that are clear, useful, non-trivial, and concise is a difficult task. 
  • Start with objectives others have created and adjust them to fit your needs.
  • Keep the number of objectives small, perhaps 10-40 for the year.
  • Many objectives will be assessed repeatedly throughout the year, providing the students opportunities to demonstrate growth.
  • Write objectives for the skills and traits you value. (I don't have a homework objective, but next year I will add an "organized notebook" objective for freshman physics.)
3. Design assessments and performance tasks that assess your objectives. Discard question content that isn’t relevant to your objectives or assessment tasks that don’t use the skills your objectives value. Also, use your assessments to rethink your objectives. If there is something in your assessment that you find is really key, modify your objectives to accommodate that concept or skill.
  • Assessments can take many forms: from tests and quizzes to performances, debates, lab reports, papers, projects, discussions, interviews, and team challenges.
  • Keep assessments short - assess just a few objectives at a time. (This gets around the conundrum of designing percentage-graded tests that need to be short enough that students can finish in the allotted time, yet have enough items that failure on one test item won't result in a failing grade on the assessment.)
  • Assessments should have high expectations but low stakes. Ask sophisticated questions and require demonstration of skills that push the students. Students not yet able to succeed are encouraged to practice and try again.
4. Provide feedback in terms of the learning objectives. Rather than rating student performance on a quiz or test in terms of points or a percentage, let students know how well their work met the objectives. Give students metacognitive opportunities to consider for themselves how well their work met the the objectives.
  • Keep the rating system simple, especially when starting out. (Three level scale: proficient, learning, unable to assess. Four level scale: exceeds target, meets target, partially meets target, unable to assess.)
  • If a student is absent for an assessment or unable to attempt an answer, the rating is “unable to assess”. This does not count against a student as a score of zero would in a points based system where scores are combined by averaging. Instead, no proficiency is earned, and the student prepares to assess again in order to demonstrate their understanding.
  • Students can mark up their own assessments, recording feedback that is useful to them and getting instant feedback on their work. When students finish their quizzes, I have them leave their pencil behind and I give them a blue pen to make corrections on their quiz. In this way, I spend a lot less time writing corrections (that the students don't really read) because they have already made meaningful notes to themselves. They should also self-rate how they think they did in terms of the learning objectives. The teacher then adds any comments that the students may have missed and provides their rating of the student work. 
  • Homework can become more self-directed: students practice the concepts and skills they need to demonstrate success in. They don’t need to practice what they’ve already mastered.
5. Record student progress according to the objectives. Instead of a gradebook consisting of a grid of students vs. assessments, each student gets a page with a grid of objectives vs. assessments. Paper versions can be given to students so that they can track their own progress. Electronic gradebooks, such as the one built into Haiku, are designed for standards-based grading and can be configured so that students can monitor their progress online.
  • Again -- keep things simple. Your number of students times the number of assessments and reassessments times the number of objectives per assessment means a lot of information to keep track of. Don’t bury yourself in bookkeeping -- spend your time teaching!
  • With the focus on objectives, the discussion around grades completely changes. Instead of a student coming back to you after a poor test and asking how they can raise their grade, they instead ask how they can show their understanding of a particular objective.
  • Allow online access to grades cautiously. You want students to focus on the content and skills they need to explore, practice, and master, not the grade.
6. Foster a growth mindset in your students. Learning complex tasks can’t be mastered in a short period of time. However, with focused, appropriate practice, a student can grow in their mastery of complex ideas and skills. 
  • Too often, students see assessment as a battle between teacher and student. They see themselves as perfect, starting at 100% until the teacher acts as gatekeeper and "takes off" points. In SBG, it is clear that the teacher has high expectations for the students and will give students the instruction, resources, practice, and opportunities to keep practicing until mastery is achieved.
  • In standards-based grading. The students start at zero and build up their proficiencies on the objectives cumulatively over the course of the year. The teacher helps the students to acquire the skills and knowledge to demonstrate mastery, how ever long it takes.
7. Provide opportunities to learn from mistakes, practice, and reassess. The important thing is that students learn the content and skills of the course, not if they learn the content and skills at the same pace as their classmates. Of course, students need to keep up in a cumulative subject and getting behind
  • Ask students to show the written practice they have done to prepare for an extra assessment before allowing them to reassess. I require proof of practice before students reassess, and that will look different for different students.
  • Build up a library of assessments so that you have many extra assessments.
  • Feel free to reuse the same assessment when looking for mastery of core skills.
8. Gather feedback from students. Students are pretty perceptive. They find that this system makes the learning objectives clear, they are less stressed by assessments, they feel empowered to determine their level of content mastery (and their resultant grade) as a result of their practice and effort, they realize the importance of not procrastinating -- and they also have great suggestions about how to make the system work better.

There are, of course, a lot more details to be worked through to apply these ideas in the classroom. All the more reason to join me this summer for a 3-day workshop in which we can work together in order to help you develop a standards-based grading system that fits you and your teaching. I hope to see you there!

True Story

posted Mar 22, 2016, 9:33 PM by Mark Schober

This year's Chapel theme at Trinity School has centered on truth and truthfulness. Members of various departments explored aspects of truth in their disciplines and personal lives. I joined forces with my colleague Tammy Gwara to talk about truth in science. A link to Tammy's talk is below.

We introduced the chapel with two readings:

[excerpted from] The Value of Science
by Physics Nobel Prize Laureate Richard Feynman

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

Deep in the sea
all molecules repeat
the patterns of one another
till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves
and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity
living things
masses of atoms
DNA, protein
dancing a pattern ever more intricate.
Out of the cradle
onto dry land
here it is
atoms with consciousness;
matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea
Wonders at wondering: I
a universe of atoms
an atom in the universe.


“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. ... In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportmen the cover for the game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.” 
― John Lubbock, The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live in


Many of the year’s top movies were "based on actual events.” The “based on” disclaimer is important, because even with actual events, can a story ever completely capture the truth about what happened? 

Waves crash on the shore, salt scents the air, and the sun warms our face. Emotion and curiosity are stoked, and we dig deeper. Scientific storytelling is a never-finished draft of a great novel, overrun by editors who obsessively revise and rewrite — trying to get the story just right — striving to be true to nature, working towards a "true story.” Historians work in the same way towards true stories, but with human actions at the heart of their subject matter. Inevitably, the stories from all disciplines cross, moving us closer to a true story. 
It’s hard work to write scientific stories — but it’s deeply satisfying. Richard Feynman, the "atoms with consciousness; matter with curiosity" guy, said “Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it.” For Feynman, the profound spiritual experience of the story of science should be exclaimed through poetry, art, and music, not left to textbooks and lectures. When Albert Einstein found that his theory of gravity exactly predicted the anomalies of Mercury’s orbit, he was overcome with such a deep joy that he couldn’t work for days. True story. 

So I have a story for you — a mix of science and history — about why the sun shines.  

In the late 1800’s, scientists began recognizing that the earth is really, really old, and that was a problem. Keeping the sun hot enough to shine for that long was impossible by the known processes of chemical burning or gravitational contraction. A string of discoveries from all areas of science would eventually come to the rescue. In 1905 Einstein discovered that mass could be converted to energy. In 1911 Rutherford discovered that the mass of the atom is highly concentrated in a tiny nucleus. In 1920, Arthur Eddington proposed that atomic nuclei might fuse together and release energy, but also found that the temperatures inside the sun were too small to fuse positively charged protons to one another. In 1927, quantum tunneling was discovered, meaning that the impossible binding of protons could actually happen — like walking into a wall billions of times, and then suddenly finding yourself on the other side of the wall. Cool! Unfortunately, these diprotons immediately fall apart. The fusion doesn’t stick and the book of science needs further revision. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered neutrons and Eugene Wigner proposed the nuclear strong force — the glue that holds protons together. In 1938 Hans Bethe attended a conference on the dynamics of the sun — which was not his area of expertise — but working in collaboration with Charles Critchfield, they solved the problem of proton-proton fusion before the conference was over. Their results were crazy. On average, once in every billion billion billion proton-proton collisions, the protons stick just as one proton decays into a neutron. As improbable as that is, every second, 8 billion kilograms of mass is converted solar energy according to E = mc^2 and the sun shines. True story. 

Six weeks later, Hans Bethe worked out a different fusion cycle on his own that explained the formation of heavier elements in stars. That night, during a late-night stroll, his fiancee, Rose remarked on how beautiful the stars looked. He responded: "Yes, darling, and I'm the only one on Earth who knows how they do it.” Perhaps the hottest date in the history of science. 

Bethe submitted his paper for publication and then, in need of money, withdrew it. He entered and won a contest by the New York Academy of Sciences and used the prize money to secure his mother’s belongings. His mother had recently fled Germany in fear after Kristallnacht. For adding a page to the story of science, Hans Bethe won the Nobel Prize in 1967. He said that he found the answer by "looking through the periodic table [of elements] step by step. So you see, this was a discovery by persistence, not by brains.”

True Story.

Wait — Really? — Think about it. This story is of a place that we have not and will never go, involving particles only indirectly detected or not detected in Bethe’s time, occurring at a time and size scale that dwarfs us and our short lives. Yet this story allows predictions about supermassive stars and tiny dwarf stars, exploding stars, and dying stars, that match our observations to a ridiculous degree of precision. The predictions match the data — true story. But is our story about why stars shine true? Will future editors need to clean up some details or account for new observations? Look up what’s called the solar neutrino problem and you’ll see that the story has been edited very recently — and that’s why science is reluctant to deem our models “true”.

Albert Einstein is quoted, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike -- and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” 

We could have cut the story short:  Why does the sun shine? Because it’s hot — because of fusion. But that isn’t a story at all: It’s like only reading the title and the last page of a novel. Any belief in the truthfulness of such a story becomes a matter of faith. Scientific belief is rooted in unbroken chains of reasoning carefully edited and revised by the intersecting work of thousands of scientists. And beliefs change with the data. It’s the tool we use to separate sense from nonsense, astronomy from astrology, archaeology from ancient aliens. 

Science also has fictional stories where theory has raced far ahead of observations. We even hold onto some false stories, such as imagining electrons making neat loops around the nucleus of an atom, because, just as Coach Schmidt's fantastic, fabricated story of his past demonstrated, false stories can point us toward great truths.

There are unfinished pages in the book of science as well — about ten years ago, I met astronomer Vera Rubin. After graduating from Vassar in the late 40’s she tried to enroll at Princeton for graduate school but never received their course catalog — Princeton wouldn’t admit women to their graduate astronomy program until 1975. Instead Ms. Rubin went to Cornell and worked with both Richard Feynman (who wrote the opening poem as well as the rules of quantum electrodynamics) and Hans Bethe (who figured out how the stars shine). True story. She earned her PhD, raised four children who all earned science or math PhD’s, and measured the rotation of galaxies that, surprisingly, do not rotate according to Newton’s Laws. Dr. Rubin tried everything to salvage a Newtonian explanation, and to her dismay, she couldn’t. She was forced to the conclusion that there is a lot of unseen matter, unlike the atoms we are used to, that exert gravitational influences on galaxies. Her data became the basis for speculation on dark matter. Based on gravitational behaviors, we know that there is five times more dark matter than regular matter, and even crazier, all of this matter isn’t collapsing together, it’s exploding away from itself — at an increasing rate. In sum, the explosive energy and the dark matter is 95% of our universe — and we don’t know what it is. True story.
What we do with the science story matters.  Lead is toxic in our water supply. Burning fossil fuels increases gases that hold heat to our planet. Buzzing bugs are an important part of the food chain. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation over spring break increases the incidence of skin cancer. Evolution happens. The science story is as close as we can get to “True Story”, though any good scientist with a sense of history knows that we have so often thought we had it right, only to find that we had missed some detail that requires a line edit, new paragraphs, or even whole new chapters to be written.  

Let me close by returning to Richard Feynman:
"The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, comes again and again when we look at any question deeply enough. With more knowledge comes a deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one to penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove disappointing, with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries—certainly a grand adventure!”

True story.

Tammy Gwara's thoughts about science and truth completed the chapel. It's a must-read:

Insider Information on STEMteachersNYC 2016 Summer Modeling Workshops

posted Feb 14, 2016, 9:56 PM by Mark Schober   [ updated Feb 15, 2016, 10:04 AM ]
Here are some of the neat features of the nine workshops offered by STEMteachersNYC this summer that you won't find in the official workshop descriptions (the official stuff is here). And it's all in New York City -- a pretty cool place to hang out for a few weeks while engaging in great professional development. Even better, bring a friend. Click on the image of the flyer and share the pdf with your colleagues. Our summer lineup is loaded with great opportunities, and we would love to have you join us!

Physics/ Mechanics Modeling Workshop
July 18 – August 5, 2016
Led by Paul Bianchi & Zhanna Glazenburg
I had a great experience in graduate school at Miami University. Working with Dr. James Poth, I was trained to co-teach draft versions of Physics by Inquiry and Tutorials in Introductory Physics, both developed by the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington. In my lunchtime training sessions, Dr. Poth and I discussed the curricular flow and instructional strategies line-by-line. I learned a lot about the design of physics-education informed curriculum materials, socratic questioning, strategies for redirecting incorrect understandings, and the world of pedagogical content knowledge. But when I got my first teaching job, I found that I didn't have curriculum materials that fit my students and could be used with the skills I acquired in grad school. My teaching struggled for a couple of years until I participated in the Modeling Physics Workshop. I very quickly saw how the Modeling teaching framework provided me with the additional tools I needed to implement the other skills I had learned along the way. I was hooked. 

So this is why the workshop is three weeks long -- yes, participants are introduced to a sample curriculum, but, more importantly, it's designed to help teachers learn many of the things I learned in grad school, providing a framework for understanding why things are as they are in an effective curriculum and how to adapt it to your own students' needs. The workshops are designed to help you understand an approach to teaching that's the metaphorical equivalent of teaching you how to fish rather than handing you a fish.  Paul and Zhanna are experts in their own classroom practice as well as experienced workshop leaders. They bring a wonderful mix of expertise that allows them to step to the foreground when needed or to pull back and let participants develop their teaching skills through practicing various elements of Modeling Instruction. And, if you're open to it, I predict that this workshop will transform your teaching like it did mine.

Chemistry I Modeling Workshop
July 18 – August 5, 2016
Led by Donghong Sun & Rachel Ward
When I took chemistry for the first time, the first unit was a completely out-of-context barrage of scientific method, significant figures, and dimensional analysis. The second unit was the quantum model of the atom, and the rest of the year was one random thing after another to the point that the chapter numbering didn't even matter. I'm thankful for my interesting and engaging professor, but this pretty standard chemistry course was filled with endless rules and exceptions to the rules. Therefore . . . I majored in physics, where I never felt that I had to memorize things, but could figure things out from fundamental principles and scientific thinking. When I took the Chemistry Modeling workshop I was so excited to see chemistry instruction built upon observation, fundamental principles, and scientific inquiry instead of the game of Memory. Starting from what we can observe about matter, we make inferences about matter at size scales smaller than we can see. The inferences constitute testable particle models of matter that suggest followup observations and subsequent revisions to the model. I found I could again use my intuition for pattens, electrical forces, and energy to predict what should and often does happen at the atomic level. I sure felt a lot better about teaching chemistry the following school year, and a few years later, my workshop leader, Tammy Gwara, accepted a teaching position at my school and became an integral member of STEMteachersNYC. Donghong has been leading the chemistry modeling workshop since we began offering it in NYC, and Rachel has recently joined the ranks of modeling workshop leaders by apprentice leading last year's chemistry workshop and participating in the leadership workshop. Donghong and Rachel will help you to see chemistry in a new way that you'll love.

Middle School Science Modeling Workshop
July 11 – July 29, 2016
Led by Erin Conrardy & Kathryn Bauer
I taught middle school astronomy and meteorology for a dozen years and found that there are lots of wonderful resources out there (mixed in with some truly awful stuff) but almost all of it lacked larger-scale coherence. Lessons were self-contained and did not build upon one another, representations tended to be largely word-based, and the generally low-level questions were unengaging. I had to work very hard in my own class to develop materials and approaches that engaged the kids' minds and curiosity to produce deep learning. (Check out my meteorology materials if you're interested.) The middle school modeling workshop addresses these issues across a variety of content areas through an infusion of modeling principles: use of the modeling cycle, emphasis on multiple representations, facilitation of student discourse, and structuring course content around key models in science. Through the workshop, we want to move you from being an end-user of curriculum to someone who feels empowered to modify materials in a pedagogically sound manner. Erin and Kathryn have been involved from the start of AMTA's work with middle school science and have seen it grow and develop. They are eager to work with you: helping you think about what do what you do in your classes and how to make your teaching even better. 

Chemistry II Modeling Workshop
July 5 – July 15, 2016
Led by Larry Dukerich & Donghong Sun
There's only so much that can be done in a three-week workshop, so once you've taken the Chemistry I workshop, you'll want to continue on to Chemistry II to see the ongoing model development through modern models of the atom, periodicity and bonding, a particle view of heating and temperature, intermolecular forces in biological contexts, chemical equilibrium, and acids and bases. With the particulate and energy representations of matter developed in Chemistry I, students (and teachers) have much more robust tools to reason through and predict what should happen in these sophisticated chemistry topics. If all of the good chemistry isn't enough reason to come, working with Larry and Donghong for a couple of weeks certainly is. In addition to being our STEMteachersNYC chemistry advocate and chair-elect, Donghong is perhaps the most cheerful person on the planet. Larry has been with Modeling Instruction from the very beginning, and the style and tone of the physics and chemistry materials are due to his writing and editing. Come to learn at the feet of the master. You'll also pick up on some of his "Dukerichisms," such as his criticism of the "factino" model of information transmission. Just ask him about it. . . when you don't have anything in your mouth that might fly out as you start laughing.

Introduction to Modeling
July 11 – July 15, 2016
Led by Mark Schober & Craig Buszka
A three-week investment in a Modeling workshop is a remarkable commitment that thousands of science teachers have made. Of course, it is logistically difficult for many teachers. Therefore, we're offering a one-week introduction to the principles of Modeling Instruction. Craig and I will introduce you to several aspects of Modeling Instruction such as facilitating student discourse, the modeling cycle, multiple representations in problem solving, and model-based curriculum design. We will explore these ideas by examining the role of energy, electricity, and light in biological and physical science contexts at middle school and high school levels to provide relevant contexts for all participants.  You'll be able to apply these teaching tools right away, and you'll also have a good sense of what you could gain through one of the three-week workshops. It's like a movie trailer: enough to get the gist of what's going on, but leaving you wanting more.

Graphical Problem Solving in Physics
July 11 – July 15, 2016
Led by Kelly O’Shea
Most physics teachers know that graphical problem solving is possible in kinematics and dynamics, but seldom do we teach it as the centerpiece of our problem-solving techniques. After you’ve spent a week with Kelly, you will. Graphical problem solving gets kids away from “searching for the right equation” and provides them with much more robust tools to solve sophisticated problems. Heck, you could try an experiment. Ask your students to solve this problem or try it yourself: 
A subway train moving at 18 m/s slows uniformly for 8 seconds, and then slows uniformly at a different rate for 12 seconds until coming to rest 210 meters from where braking began. Find the two acceleration rates of the train. 
I’ll bet that students who start by listing knowns and unknowns before searching for an equation will have a much harder time than those that tackle this by drawing a velocity-time graph and solving it graphically. Then see how well your students tackle angled force problems when they forgo the component vectors and use scale vector addition diagrams. I had no idea how much better these approaches would be for my students until I followed Kelly's lead and gave it a try. This workshop is a don’t miss!

Curriculum Development Camp
July 18 – July 22, 2016
Led by Mark Schober
Any time you go to a conference or workshop, it takes at least as much time as you spent in the PD trying to extract the useful ideas and prepare them in a format tuned to you and your students. The opportunity to have a full week to work on anything you want in a low-distraction environment with the opportunity to bounce ideas off of your peers is a great way of getting school-year ready. I call it a camp because it doesn't have a fixed agenda.  Some projects might involve writing or adapting curriculum for your students, testing labs/projects/curriculum, creating videos for "flipped" instruction, developing learning objectives or assessments for standards-based-grading, curating supplemental resources for your class, practicing your programming skills to prepare your students to learn computational modeling, or whatever else is on your "to do" list. I am by no means an expert on all of these things, but I think that I am a good sounding board who can help you to produce your best work. Every day I work with each participant to hear their thought process, see what they have been doing, and then challenge, extend, question, (and sometimes help!) participants in their work. It makes for a great week in which you can leave with something useful for your own classroom to show for your efforts.

 Modeling Leadership Session I Workshop
July 18 – July 22, 2016
Craig Buszka & Ray Howanski
Modeling Leadership Session II Workshop
July 25 – July 29, 2016
Mark Schober & Colleen Megowan-Romanowicz
As the Modeling Instruction movement grows, we have an ever-growing demand for workshop leaders, therefore, the American Modeling Teachers Association made leadership training a priority. Existing workshop leaders contributed their ideas about what should happen during a leadership workshop, and I got the opportunity to work with Art Woodruff to lead the first leadership workshop in 2014. Last year, Craig Buszka and I led two leadership workshops and, in collaboration with our participants, developed an even richer experience with student mode, teacher mode, and leader mode roles. In short, a good leadership workshop offers participants the opportunity to lead and then reflect on their leadership.  Participation in the leadership workshop is by AMTA invitation only. Here is what we are looking for in our leadership candidates: Teachers who have taken two three-week Modeling Workshops; teachers who implement Modeling Instruction thoughtfully and successfully in their classroom practice; teachers who are interested in leading Modeling Workshops and are willing to commit to multiple summers of workshop leadership; and teachers who have been recommended by their workshop leaders.  If you're interested in workshop leadership, work towards meeting AMTA's criteria, ask your workshop leader to refer you, and reach out to AMTA to express your interest.

Pick your favorite workshops, and sign up now
I hope to see you this summer!

And, if you can't make it to NYC, workshops like these are being offered all across the country. Check the AMTA website for the complete summer 2016 workshop list.

A Simple-ish System for Standards-Based Grading

posted Feb 5, 2016, 12:26 PM by Mark Schober

The best advice for implementing SBG is to keep it simple. A complex system can do more harm than good if it mires you in paperwork and it's too hard for students to understand. After several years of revisions, my system now works smoothly for me and my students and provides the benefits that attracted me to SBG in the first place. So here is an explanation my standards-based grading logistics.

The screenshot below is part of my objectives and grading sheet for my 10th grade introductory physics course. (Clicking the image will open up the full pdf of the objectives and grading sheet.) I've packed all of the key elements for the grading system onto one double-sided sheet of paper. Each student has this sheet in their binder so that they can track their progress, and I keep a sheet like this for each student as my gradebook. So that's one of the simplifications: a paper gradebook. I found that keeping track of all of the individual pieces of data on the computer wasn't worth the effort (I had used ActiveGrade). Before the end of each marking period, I make a copy of my gradesheets and hand them out to the students so that we can rectify any discrepancies.

The learning objectives (standards) I use are listed down the left hand side of the page. I started from objectives that others had written that I keep editing to better fit my course. I try to make each objective sophisticated, clear, and broad so that each can apply in multiple models. For example, when we get to unbalanced forces only two new objectives are added, but objectives from balanced forces and uniform acceleration are also assessed. This helps to keep the number of objectives small and it also helps students to see the connections between units of study. The idea with the objectives is to write objectives for anything that you value and want the students to value. Therefore, I have three laboratory objectives that for assessing lab work (that I describe as take-home quizzes). I've grouped computational accuracy, significant figures, and units into an objective I call "Details" for those situations when students clearly understand the content objective but have slipped on one of these other problem-solving skills. Finally, I have a "Synthesis" objective that requires multiple-model problem solving. Standards-based grading can sometimes become very reductionist, and this helps to address that issue. 

Students complete quizzes about once a week that I announce in terms of the objectives assessed on the quiz. Once students finish their quiz, I give them a colored pen and an answer key to mark their own quizzes with corrections and annotations. This gives them the instant feedback they crave and it also forces them to reflect on their current state of understanding. The relevant objectives are listed at the end of the quiz where I students to self-rate their work on each objective with either a "P" for proficient or an "L" for learning. I then collect the quizzes, add my comments to their work, and make my ratings for each objective. The simplicity of a binary grading system makes record-keeping easier -- it's either good enough or it isn't -- and there are no multi-level rubrics for each objective. There are good arguments for the complexity of more rating levels (see Bob Marzano's work), but with a highly motivated student body that consistently performs well on assessments, the binary system has worked well for us.

The weekly-ish whole-class quizzes are open-ended, a bit hard, and push the students.  Most quizzes look like this: thoroughly represent what is going on in a given problem situation and solve for everything you can to convince me that you understand the concept. Each of the whole-class quizzes are numbered starting from 1, and for multiple class sections I number alternate versions of the quiz 1a, 1b, 1c and so on. The goal is for students to become proficient with every objective, and some students need more practice than others before they can successfully demonstrate their understanding. Therefore, students are welcome to take extra quizzes, after demonstrating their practice, as often as needed. Students can always fill in missing proficiencies from earlier marking periods as well. I've developed an arsenal of extra quizzes that are grouped according to clusters of related objectives. Quizzes are named with a letter for the cluster followed by the quiz number. For example, the cluster of objectives related to quantitative problem solving with unbalanced forces is G, so these extra quizzes are named G1, G2, and so on. The short name for each quiz makes record-keeping easier.

When students are ready to take an extra quiz, I ask them to sign up through a Google form. (Extra Quiz Request Form) Students select which cluster of objectives they want to assess, choose when they want to take the assessment, tell me how they practiced, and reflect on what skills they have improved. The quiz request could be done on paper instead, but I've programmed a Google apps script (with help form John Burke) that takes information from the form submission and sends an email confirmation to the student and to me, and also creates a calendar item including the student name and quiz cluster. This makes it easier for me to print out the set of extra quizzes each morning as I'm preparing for the day. All the quizzes I give have the date auto-inserted into the header, so when I print quizzes out, the date is already there. 

Every bit of assessed student work goes through a double-sided page scanner (Fujitsu's ScanSnap) and is sent to Evernote. I keep an Evernote folder for each student, and sort the scanned files into their folders. The result is a portfolio of each student's work. The students should also have a portfolio of their work in their binder -- as long as they keep things organized. When the students get their quizzes back, for each proficiency they earn on an objective, they record the quiz number in a blue box next to that objective. The number of blue boxes indicate my choices for how many times I want to see a proficient score on each objective. For example, I want to see multiple proficient scores on fundamental ideas and skills such as Newton's third law and using graphical representations to solve accelerated motion problems. Late in the year, when there is less time for reassessment, a single proficiency is sufficient. Even though I want to see many proficiencies on the details objective, the large number is mainly to keep students focused, as these proficiencies are not hard to earn. Proficiencies on the synthesis objective are what distinguish the students who know all of the basic concepts in the course from those who can use those concepts to solve novel problems. Therefore, the number of blue boxes, or scored proficiencies, are chosen in such a way so that the number of earned proficiencies out of the number of expected proficiencies form a percentage that can be converted into a grade. The transparency in how proficiencies translate into a final grade is very comforting to the students. Every quarter grade is a progress report that culminates in the year-end grade -- the only grade our school displays on a student's transcript.

With all of their work scanned, I don't have to immediately record each student's work on my copy of their objectives and grading sheet. When I go through the Evernote folder of their assessments, it's easy to record the quiz numbers into the blue boxes where the kids have earned proficiencies, and it's easy to count up the number of proficiencies earned in order to calculate the grade. Every student ends up taking a different set of quizzes depending on the extra quizzes they take, so I keep a running list of the quizzes taken on the front of the objectives/gradesheet. This also helps me not to give them the same extra quiz twice. 

No grading system is perfect, and this one isn't either, but students see how their work translates into their grades, building up from zero rather than down from 100. Taking risks is encouraged - there's no penalty for wrong answers, and even if a synthesis problem isn't answered perfectly, students demonstrate understanding of many other objectives along the way. Students aren't stressed out by assessments and really do see them as opportunities to show what they know. It helps them to clearly see that I'm on their side as they grow in their skills.

Thanks to the many people that I've learned and gained ideas and advice from! A few in particular: Kelly O'Shea, Seth Gunials-Kupperman, Sammie Smith, and Frank Noschese.

Collaboration When the C is Circled

posted Jan 29, 2016, 11:51 AM by Mark Schober

A number of Modelers have been asked to remove resources from their websites (including me) as this violates AMTA's fair use policy, and this policy has been discussed energetically in Modeling listserves.  The discussion about posting Modeling resources hits close to home for me. As a past president of AMTA, curriculum editor, workshop leader, and extensive poster of Modeling-related resources (but never assessments or answer keys), I’m in this pretty deep.

When I was on the AMTA board, we proposed a dynamic curriculum repository that would allow Modelers to post and tag materials so that members visiting the site could choose from posted materials and customize their course curriculum much like choosing an iTunes playlist. Unfortunately, the programming needs of such a site are far more demanding than we can ask of our volunteer webmasters and more expensive than our budget can support. Years later, the AMTA website still only handles basic functions of the organization.

Our lack of a user-friendly AMTA-endorsed electronic collaboration platform has left a void that has been filled by blogs, twitter feeds, and websites of Modelers who are hungry for that collaboration. Indeed, I would argue that the innovations that have arisen in the past five years have transformed and fulfilled the promise of Modeling Instruction as greatly as the innovations of our first 20 years. AMTA certainly has the right to ask us to pull down materials we have posted, but doing so in the absence of a suitable sharing platform shoots our organization in the foot, suffocates idea sharing, and isolates us from reaching new teachers.

Back in the old days of the internet, I posted my versions of Modeling physics materials for my students and as a resource for other teachers. I think it’s safe to say that a few people found their way to Modeling through that site. Jane Jackson praised it as a “goldmine.” After years of work revising and incorporating my ideas and the ideas of others into the physics materials, my versions became AMTA's "official" copyrighted versions. As a result, keeping my versions posted on my site violated AMTA's copyright for which I was asked to remove my materials. The design of my old site made removing the offending files possible only by deleting the entire ten-thousand-file site, so that’s what I did this week.

Everything I’ve worked on I've christened with "copyright AMTA” so that it points back to the framework in which I work while attempting to protect it from some publisher trying to scoop up our work. But in doing so, I’ve become a sharecropper for AMTA: AMTA gets credit for my work (fine) but prohibits me from sharing that work with others to aid their teaching and to gain feedback that fuels subsequent improvements (I’m not okay with that). Stifled sharing results in stagnation and starvation — the intellectual death of a grassroots community.

As the community of Modelers has grown and expanded in content breadth and school diversity, AMTA's strength as a grassroots organization continues to come from the open exchange of ideas around a common pedagogical philosophy. As we implement the Modeling Instruction approach in our classrooms daily, we engage in testing and revising curriculum materials and teaching approaches -- discovering ever better ways to reach our students in our varied environments. The diversity is essential to our success and relevance as a teaching community — we should encourage curriculum development and sharing under a Creative Commons license for our classroom materials as others have advocated. Teacher notes, assessments, and answer keys should continue to be restricted to members, but AMTA needs to provide a viable secure platform for sharing, collaboration, and innovation here as well. Our Modeling community of bloggers, web developers, and social media experts provide an invaluable service to AMTA and the Modeling Community and bring far more people and their membership dollars to AMTA than a policy of locking the whole shebang behind a paid password. Let’s treat these members of our community as heroes, not pariahs.

I’m now working with the best set of physics materials I’ve ever used — it’s Modeling, of course, but it’s quite different than what I inherited in 1998 or what I shared in the 2013 version.  It now has a heavy influence from Kelly O’Shea’s fantastic ideas. It’s tuned for 10th graders and uses a slightly different sequence, extensive graphical problem solving, goalless problems, multiple-model problem solving, individualized homework, and a transparent and easy-to-manage system of standards-based-grading involving over 100 new assessments. And more than ever, it isn’t even about what is written on the page, it’s about how I shape my daily interaction with students to contextualize physics in their lives. And I’m getting the best FCI scores of my career. 

If only I could share these resources and get some feedback from y’all. . . 

Posted to the AMTA listserve on January 29, 2016

Dis-covering Content

posted Aug 4, 2015, 7:18 PM by Mark Schober   [ updated Aug 4, 2015, 8:18 PM ]
One of the criticisms I hear of Modeling Instruction and other student-centered, inquiry-based teaching approaches is that they’re “slow” and they “don’t cover much content.” It’s true that I don’t “cover” all of the topics for any of the standardized tests. I’m also mindful that “cover” means “to hide or obscure from view”. I would prefer that my students use the tools and techniques of science as a means of dis-covering key science content.

It’s not that the instruction in my class is slowed down, it’s that my students are practicing and learning a lot of non-content skills, such as designing an experiment, interpreting and analyzing data, and defending their conclusions based on the evidence they have gathered. It’s important in Modeling Instruction to advertise these process skills as part of our daily objectives so that our students, parents, and administrators are cued into the intellectual richness at the heart of our classes.

The Next Generation Science Standards includes a list of science and engineering practices that are to be at the heart of STEM education. (I made up the colored chart based off of one made by an Arizona school.) These skills are far more important than memorizing the periodic table or doing plug-and-chug physics problems. The science and engineering practices are non-trivial, aspirational objectives that need to be put in reach for all of our students, and the genuine engagement in the scientific process will go a lot further towards turning kids on to science than another page of notes copied off of a Powerpoint presentation. As the breadth of scientific knowledge grows, it is essential that we equip our students to do science and to know how to learn science.

Teaching approaches that try to touch on every topic in the book do so at the expense of science process, much in the way that reading the Cliff’s Notes on Pride and Prejudice fills you in on plot and themes, but does little to get you excited about Austen’s gift for unveiling personality and motivation through narrative. Yes, students who have “covered” the book may be able to answer all of the multiple choice questions on a standardized science test, but do they know science as merely as a collection of facts and formulas, or as a creative human endeavor to understand the world? Will they be dutiful followers of directions as they enter the workforce, or will they be the innovative leaders who create, anticipate, and make a difference? The Next Generation Science Standards make it clear that students do need to be fluent in key science content, but there is nothing in the NGSS that pushes us to “cover” volumes of material at the expense of the practices.

So what are kids dis-covering in my class? Physics – yes, a bit less breadth than the standardized tests assess, but with enough depth that the students leave really knowing it. Additionally, my students have meaningfully engaged with the science and engineering practices and are working towards developing the really critical skills they need for success in the era of easy access to information. Keep that list of Science and Engineering Practices posted where you can refer to and plan from it frequently, and have fun helping your students to dis-cover science.

Why the Cow? Accidental Classroom Branding Made Intentional

posted Jul 8, 2015, 9:05 PM by Mark Schober   [ updated Jul 11, 2015, 8:15 AM ]

In 1998, when I participated in the Modeling workshops at the University of California at Davis, (the Aggies) our group created a t-shirt based on the projectile motion of a spherical cow. (Although the artwork looked nice, the projectile didn’t follow a parabolic path – oops!) We even went so far as to paint up wooden balls with Holstein spots for everyone.

Initially the spherical cow was just a cute thing for my classroom. I made a rubber stamp of a headless, Holstein-marked circle and used it to indicate completion of homework assignments. I later redrew the cow to add some personality, and a head, and made a corresponding new and improved rubber stamp.
My friend Hal Harris introduced me to the book, “Consider a Spherical Cow, A Course in Environmental Problem Solving,” by John Harte, which I didn’t know existed, and I now highly recommend. (Harte also published a follow-up, “Consider a Cylindrical Cow.”) This led me to think more about justifying the spherical cow as a mascot for the class.

In order to understand the complexities of the world, we use simplifications and approximations to develop a first-order understanding of a given phenomena. A physicist trying to understand a cow's energy consumption, heat radiation, or milk production would not initially worry about the bumpiness of a real cow – a spherical stand-in would be sufficient to get an initial sense of the situation. I made an animation with Flash to try to convey this, but it was insufficiently integrated into my course for my students to really get what I meant. (Not all computers or browsers are Flash-friendly, so the space below may be blank.)

Harte quotes Aristotle who states the idea behind the spherical cow much more eloquently:
It is the mark of an instructed mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject permits and not to seek an exactness where only an approximation of the truth is possible.

Representing the world is at the heart of Modeling Instruction, and representations necessitate discernment of what is relevant and what is irrelevant. Of those things that are relevant, we often simplify or idealize them in order to distill out the fundamental pattern, or underlying model. From that foundation, we can begin to reincorporate more of complexity of the real world, allowing us to increase the precision of our predictions.

Over the years, I’ve become a bit smoother at integrating the spherical cow message in the flow of class activities: In introductory physics, we don’t worry about the complexities of our moving buggies, the accelerating wheel and axle, friction, and air resistance, at least initially. Instead, we simplify the subject of our analysis by using particle models – this works great for introductory kinematics, dynamics, and momentum. Sometimes we encounter problems (Atwood’s machine) or concepts (energy) that can only be analyzed when considering the internal structure of a system, and when we need to account for that complexity, the cow becomes less spherical. 

I now have kids stating in class, “Oh, so we should just spherical cow this problem.” Success!

With standards based grading, I don’t use the spherical cow rubber stamp for marking homework completion anymore. Instead, I’ve used the spherical cow as a stand-in “particle” to illustrate various physics principles, such as these examples from the front of my acceleration, circular motion, and electric circuits curriculum packets:

I didn’t know it while I was doing it, but some have referred to using an image or slogan as a way of developing class identity and unity as “classroom branding.” (See Gary Abud's post about why and how to use branding in your classroom.) Through trial and error I've come to recognize the value of most everything in Gary's list, and it's given me ideas about how I can extract more value out of the spherical cow in my classes.

There it is – more than you ever wanted to know about the spherical cow. Our art department is considering getting a silkscreen printer. Maybe we’ll actually take the plunge and make shirts this year. I’m hankering to add the cow to one of my ties.

The Renewal of Summer

posted Jun 27, 2015, 6:56 AM by Mark Schober   [ updated Jun 27, 2015, 5:56 PM ]

Written for STEMteachersNYC. (I am Chair-elect for the organization)

In early May, Frank Noschese Tweeted, "It's that time of year when you'd rather plan for September than next week.” The deep truth in Frank's statement resonated with me. My physics courses were running well, but there were no shortage of little things nagging at me — desired adjustments to class expectations, possible improvements to lab requirements — things that couldn’t be changed at this point in the year, but if I could, would result in less work for me and more learning for my students. Exhaustion from yet more grading made me much more interested in improving my course than marking the next pile of quizzes. I was highly inspired to plan for September, but only had time to add a few sticky notes to my teaching materials.

During the school year, my curriculum binders become coated with notes I write to myself, often flagged with sticky notes, about how kids responded to various questions, what issues they had, better examples for developing a concept, real-world connections I’d like to include, improved statements of learning objectives, and so on. By the end of the year, my binder is a sunflower radiating petals of sticky notes pointing the way to an improved course for next year. 

Once the school year ends, however, those sticky notes aren’t at the front my mind. The months of neglect my apartment has seen requires deep cleaning, my dog and I both need longer walks, and I finally get to see a few movies. I get out of town to touch base with family and I get a bit more sleep. The renewal of summer begins. 

Summer also lets me think about teaching in more philosophical terms. I tackle some reading about learning and take field trips to indulge my curiosity in science and technology. I also gear up to be a part of summer workshops and conferences in which I am enriched by the ideas of others. It’s the contact with other teachers that improves my reference frame for going back to those sticky notes. As I hear and see what other people are doing in their classes, I’m again inspired to tackle those sticky notes to improve my courses, and I now have the time to do it.

Everyone has their own summer renewal routine, but I hope that yours includes time to reflect on the past year while preparing for the new year with an infusion of ideas from reading, workshops, and teaming up with other teachers. This summer, STEMteachersNYC is offering a range of workshops to help, from three-week Modeling Instruction workshops in middle school science, high school physics, and high school chemistry, to a one-week workshop on graphical problem solving in physics, to a one-week camp to develop curriculum and make exactly the kinds of curricular upgrades I’m talking about. Come join us and let STEMteachersNYC be part of your Summer Renewal!

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