SBG with voice update

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.

Content Changes

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.

Policy changes

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.

Timely assessments

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!

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in glodal physics department, physics, sbar, sbg. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to SBG with voice update

  1. “I’ve noticed there’s a big difference between reading some notes aloud and really explaining things and the scores have shown that distinction. ”

    How do your scores reflect that? Have two students ever confronted you for giving different grades for “identical” work?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      The difference is usually between a 3 (meets) and a 4 (exceeds expectations). The frustration I mention at the end of the post was in part about that difference. That’s actually why I want them to listen to each other more often.

      I will give a 3 if it’s technically sound but no extra insight is given. I’ll give a 2 (approaches) if the written stuff is correct but they don’t explain every step.

      One big problem I have is the students who say “yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant” when I point out errors. For those students I encourage them to listen to themselves but, based on how often I get scasts with malfunctioning audio, I don’t think they do that very often.

  2. Bret Benesh says:

    Hi Andy,

    I have questions on two of your quotes:

    “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.”

    This means that you suggest things (like listening to other students’ screencasts), but many students just don’t do it. Is that right?

    “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.”

    In what way is it weird? Do the students think it is weird? Are they complaining about the lack of points?

    Thanks for the post.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks for the comment, Bret. You’re right on about the first quote. I see ways that could improve student learning but I don’t have the same “weapon” (said tongue in cheek, of course) that I used to use to make them do it. Of course, in the past, if they just did it for points I’m not sure how that attitude affected their learning, but now I know it doesn’t work if they don’t do it.

      I think the weirdness of not getting points for work in class is about me and my expectations. I used to say “if you want students to do something, give it points.” That’s related to the previous point, I guess. I really like how they dive into things in class. One day we definitively proved that you can’t fly by throwing little pebbles downward as often as possible. It’s just in the past that I always felt I only got that buy in by giving some sort of points for the work. Don’t get me wrong, though, I like this way a lot better.

  3. Brian says:

    Thanks for sharing this post. I really like the brutal honesty about what’s going well and what has become difficult.

    I wonder if, next time, you could require some # of assessments turned in by each student by a certain date mid way through, to be fair to yourself, not having a flood of assessments in the last week. This would also benefit them, of course. Not sure how you enforce this, but maybe make it so that they can’t reassess everything if they didn’t make some early effort? Not sure.

    I also wonder how much this semester’s experience will lead you to better articulate what you mean by a 3 and a 4, both to yourself and to students. SBG seems to be about refinement over time.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, Brian. I’ve thought a lot about how to get assessments in earlier with some policy changes. One thing I’ve thought about is to say the first assessment can’t be the final one for a given standard. That actually helps address retention. I’ve mentioned that a few times this semester as a pseudo-threat but it seems that the students who think they can do all the work in the last few weeks just think they can also do double the work in the last few weeks. Another idea is essentially what you say about putting a time limit on an assessment. I was thinking along the lines of saying that the first assessment for a given standard has to come within two weeks of when that standard is covered in class or else . . . and here I don’t know how to finish that sentence. Maybe “or else your max possible is no longer a 4” or “or else you have to take a zero on it.” I don’t like either of those much (especially the last one) because the weapon feels so comfortable in my hands when I say it. Keep the suggestions coming!

      As for refining my scale, I really like how that’s happening quite a bit this semester. We’ve taken to a short hand notation for a “4” called “would you brag about it?” We’ve often gone back to the Frank’s awesome description of 1-4 when we’re waffling between two. I say “we” because these things happen most often during the oral in-class assessments. One thing the students have commented on that bothers them is that the expectations for old standards have risen over the course of the class. Our first standard, “I can derive the Euler equation,” has been seen so many times now that I ask very subtle questions. We’re still fighting about the question “but that would have been a 4 on the first day of class?!”

      • AMulry says:

        I think motivation is a huge factor here. Let’s face it, some of your students aren’t interested in retaining this information. Some of them just want to get the minimum grade so they can graduate. However, some (perhaps most) of your students really do care about getting a good grade, but are procrastinators/really busy/haven’t made time/whatever. For them, the lack of structure could be hindering them.

        The “first assessment must be turned in within two weeks” rule seems like a good way to add structure for your students, but I agree there must be a consequence. Maybe a “first assessment must be turned in within two weeks ‘or else’ the student can’t initiate reassessments” would be appropriate. I would also go further. I would say that each reassessment must come within two weeks of the previous one or else the student can’t initiate another reassessment. This way, the students who care enough about their grade could reassess every two weeks until they’re satisfied with their grade (or when they reach a 4, whichever you choose is appropriate), at which time they choose to stop and tell you, “I’m satisfied for now,” and you can make a note in your gradebook. At this point, if you reassess in class and they’re not satisfied with the grade they received earned, they can choose to start their reassessment process every two weeks until they’re satisfied/reach a 4 again. This way, they would have to retain their “tested-out” standards, or else risk having to start the reassessment process all over again.

        Those students who choose only to do one assessment (those who wait longer than two weeks to do their first assessment) will be stuck with the first grade they get (most likely a 2 or a 3, based on your reports). Then, the only way they can improve their grade is if they do better on your in-class reassessments. After a series of poor grades, they might (hopefully) wise-up and see they need to start turning in their assessments or risk failing the class.

        Does any of this make sense?

        Also, from a student perspective, I agree that it doesn’t seem fair that the standards get more difficult as the semester has progressed. However, from a (future) teacher’s perspective: It’s for their own good. Your grading rubric does state that an “Exceeds Expectations” would be able to find connections between this standard and others, and that the response demonstrates in-depth understanding of main ideas and related details. The more your students use Euler’s equation, the more “related details” are brought to light, so the more they would need to know about it.

  4. Joss Ives says:


    You are struggling with a lot of my own foreseeable SBG issues. I’m thrilled that you are doing such a great job of facilitating these discussions. I know I am going to have a crazy-hard time giving up the “give em points so that they will do it” system. My greatest concern in any “don’t give em too much rope” situation are those students in the bottom two quartiles. I want whatever system I set up to give them the best possible chance of success and that often means a lot of scaffolding and hand-holding. And at this point I’m not sure what that scaffolding and hand-holding looks like in SBG. I look forward to this week’s global physics department meeting to discuss this further with some folks that have plenty of SBG experience.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      The bottom quartiles are exactly my problem now too. In the old days I’d find ways to motivate them by offering easy points to let them see the light at the end of the tunnel. Now I just keep saying “turn in some assessments and I’ll let you see how to improve them.” I’m still convinced this method has a chance at causing more authentic learning but I’m worried that more people will fail this year than in the past, from a strict grade perspective.

      • Joss Ives says:

        I think that the first-order solution is to simply have enough weekly in-class assessments (perhaps a written quiz question and a few random students are orally assessed) that encourage them to stay on top on a weekly basis?

  5. Brian says:

    I’d double down on Joss’ suggestion for in-class assessments. They would not only encourage them to stay on top, but give formative feedback for those students who think, “I understand everything, so I’m not worried about doing everything in the last week.” Basically, those who aren’t assessing now aren’t getting as much feedback.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      But here is where my insistence on voice gets me in trouble. I have to find a way to incorporate non-voice assessments to be able to address exactly the students you “quote.”

  6. bretbenesh says:

    Okay, here is my summary of the situation: you want your students to be responsible in doing assignments for your class, but they aren’t being as responsible as you like.

    I see three possible solutions:

    Give them the responsibility and hope for the best (e.g. “give them enough rope to hang themselves, but hope that they don’t).
    Take as much of the responsibility as you can away from them by bribing/coercing/less-pejorative-verb-that-I-cannot-think-of-right-now-because-my-son-woke-up-at-1:30-and-I-have-not-been-back-to-sleep-and-likely-won’t them (e.g. give them points if they do it, which is equivalent to taking away points if they don’t).
    Find a middle ground where you give them the responsibility, but you do a lot of coaching.

    I really think that the last option is the best, although I admittedly tend to do the first option in my classes. Here are some ideas for what the option would look like:

    Just tell them where assessments are due. If they hand them in late, accept them. This is similar to the points situation, except there are no points—it is kind of an empty threat. Be honest about it, though—it students as what happens if they hand it in late, you say, “Nothing.”
    Giving them timelines, as AMulrey suggests, could be useful. You could do this in a very reasonable way. You can explain that you are a busy man, and—although you will happily spend time to help them learn—there are limits to what you can do. So the reality is that you only have so much time to devote to assessments, and you do this by allotting a certain amount of time to assessments and reassessments each week. If they fail to hand in an assessment, then they miss an opportunity to improve their grade.

    This is still punitive in the sense that students need to do what you say, otherwise their grade suffers. But it is a much more realistic consequence to not doing an assignment than points. Points are artificially scarce; your time is actually scarce.

    The main drawback is that students might think that you are lazy. However, I have had some success when I have used this explanation in the past.

    You could work with the students at the beginning of the semester to formulate a plan. Have them decide when they will do assessments, and have them decide what happens if they miss a self-imposed deadline. After all, we want them to do this sort of planning on their own—why not coach them through this?

    Ideally, I would do both of these in a class. In actuality, I only do the former (although, because of this discussion, I am going to do it next semester) . But I think that you, Andy, are the type of professor who would actually do this.

    What am I missing? What I am getting wrong?

  7. Joss Ives says:

    Some SBG folks limit the number of student-initiated assessments/reassessments per student each week.

  8. Pingback: SBG with voice revisions | SuperFly Physics

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