In preparation for this week’s Global Physics Department meeting (Wednesdays at 9:30 ET), which will feature a discussion about Standards Based Grading in physics classes, I thought I’d write down some thoughts/reflections/problems I’ve been having about using SBG in my Theoretical Mechanics course this semester.
I’ve embraced, for the most part, the notion of focusing every part of the class around the standards. The students and I have worked to refine the standards and everything we do is grounded in at least one of them. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that I’ve had to skip some material that I never would have skipped before. The best example is the shape of a hanging chain. It’s a really cool problem that shows some of the power of the calculus of variations. The problem is that it makes use of something called an integral constraint. That’s not a show stopper, it’s just a new type of constraint you have to teach about. In the past I’ve covered that and then given assignments like “for a 10′ chain, plot it’s shape if it’s hung between two points separated by 2′.” The problem is that, later, at the point of the exam students would ask if the chain problem would be covered and I’d usually say “no, that’s too specific/difficult/tangential to be on the exam.” This year I was very careful about my standards for that chapter and this tangential example didn’t seem to match what I really wanted them to know. The big difference is that I tell them the standards up front while in the past I wouldn’t say what was going to on an exam until close to the exam.
Without a point system other than the standards I’ve found I’ve lost my most useful and trustworthy weapon in my fight to get students to do things. Just today I was telling my wife how a couple of students could benefit from watching each other’s screencasts (the most common type of assessment that I get from students). In the past, I’d find some lowly point value to give to such an exercise but I have purposely kept those sorts of things out of the syllabus this year. I feel I can tell them lots of things they can do to improve but they have to be invested in improving, not just willing to try things to get points. Sometimes that makes me feel powerless.
I have mentioned before how I’ve had to adjust group work. I can’t seem to find a way to have them work together for a standard assessment. Essentially we’ve changed class time to group exercises with frequent comments from me like “that’s a good example of how to do that standard” or “we can take a picture of that for you to study from.” They seem to have stayed upbeat about what we do in class but it’s weird that they never get any “points” for that work.
The biggest problem this semester has been getting the students to turn in some assessments. Because of my commitment to hearing their voice on every assessment I can’t just pop a quiz during class. They have to take the ownership and turn stuff in on a semi-regular schedule for the learning to really happen. I’ve got two students as of today who’ve turned in at least one assessment for every standard but I also have students that have done less than half. I spoke with one of the latter today and he said he thought the class was easy and that he wasn’t worried about failing. I warned him that he had a lot of work ahead of him in the next four weeks but he didn’t seem overly concerned. What bothers me about my lack of holding them to deadlines is my inability to really assess retention. For the ones where I have standard assessments spread throughout the semester I feel I have a good handle on retention but if I’ve never seen anything from a student I don’t know where they sit.
I told the students the other day how remarkable it has been not getting crabby about two or three identical homeworks (yes, that’s a word, even though my wife doesn’t agree) for every assignment. In the past I would get pretty worked up about that sort of cheating, while at the same time encouraging them to study together (I know, I asked for it). This year cheating is nonexistent. With the voice piece I always hear them descibing things, even if they’re just copying from a solution manual or a friend’s notes. I’ve noticed there’s a big difference between reading some notes aloud and really explaining things and the scores have shown that distinction. All that is to say I’ve managed to stay pretty upbeat about the course and I’ve already told them that I’m committed to this way of teaching for Advanced Electromagnetism in the fall (which a lot of them will take).
The vibe I’m getting from the students is that they’re frustrated with the lack of a regular schedule, including daily homework, which they’re used to in other classes. A student who’s not in my class reported to me that the students think the course is hard and very different. I guess that’s ok, but I am worried that they haven’t really bought too much into the main concept. A recent example is the arguing I got over some recent oral assessment scores. It seemed to me they cared much more about the score than learning and I (and they) were frustrated.
I’m really excited for Wednesday to hear how others have dealt with some of my issues. Please think about joining us!