I can be prepared for class

The title of this post is written in the style of standards that I use in Standards-Based Grading. This post, though, will be more about how I teach than about how students demonstrate learning.

For a number of years now, I’ve given up lecturing in order to make my classroom as good of a learning community as it can be. You can read about my evolving philosophy at the posts tagged “screencasting.” Why screencasting? Because I took a lot of what used to happen in my “lectures” and put them online in the form of short (<5 minute) screencasts.

I’ve really come to appreciate this approach to teaching, especially for upper-division courses where the material can be dense and new to the students. My classes are now filled with activities designed to get the students to roll up their sleeves and really dig into the material. They now do things in class that I used to hope they’d do outside of class, only now I’m there for those moments that used to lead to beating their heads against the wall.

In my fantasies, students read the book and use the screencast resources I put up so that, when they come to class, they’re ready to engage in the material. My goal isn’t to have them be solid with the material. Rather, I want them to have the vocabulary (in the most general sense of the word) down and to understand the big picture – basically why we’re studying this stuff in the first place. With that as a baseline, the class can tackle the hard problems and issues related to the material together, as a learning community.

In my reality, my scasts are watched a ton, just not often before class. In class, the preparedness of my students is a mixed bag. Some read the material, some watch my scasts, some do both, some do neither.  In the old days (before Standards-Based Grading), I would put some points towards that preparedness. Really, this post is my current thoughts about how to get more out of our learning community in class by pondering changes to the expectations outside of class.

Two major things have gotten me as far down this path as I am right now. The first is my good friend Joss Ives. He’s really done some great thinking (and blogging!) about what he’d like students to do before coming to class. The second is mentioned in his post, a recent Global Physics Department meeting with Noah Podolefsky about the PhET simulations. (By the way, you really should join us in the Global Physics Department, Wednesday nights 9:30ET/8:30CT online)

Ok, here’s my current plan for next semester: For each day of new material (what I used to call a ‘lecture’), students will be given access to a simulation somewhat related to the material. They will be expected to produce a ~1 minute screencast describing, basically, the various buttons of the simulation. The PhET simulation on capacitors, for example, would have been a fantastic thing to use for the day earlier this semester when we covered bound charges and dielectrics. The notion of having them produce the screencast was discussed a little in the meeting with Noah, but really crystalized for me a couple of days later when a chemistry colleague of mine was looking for some technical help on an assignment she wanted to use. She wanted the students to provide the narration for this video about mass spectroscopy. “How cool!” I thought.

How is this useful for the class? Well, as Noah put it, they get to play around with something to get a sense of the physics going on. Then, in class, they can start to explore more of the issues involved. I don’t think my class time will be significantly different, especially considering that the majority of my class don’t watch my current screencasts prior to class anyways. However, I intend to bring the class together in the last few minutes to carefully articulate the issues/derivations/examples that they’d like me to create screencasts about. I’ll still be producing them, just one day later than I have been, and this time, it’ll be in response to the needs of the students, instead of in what I guess their needs will be.

But what about SBG, you ask? It seems like I’ve gone back to requiring (translate: giving points for) something that isn’t directly connected to a standard. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and, as you might guess from the title of this post, I think I can make a standard out of this. Of course, you can turn anything into a standard, like attendance, say. However, I think standards should be things that practitioners in the field would deem appropriate. And here I think I might be ok, since being prepared for things and helping to set the table for a good learning experience are things students should learn to do. I know, I know, I’m reaching, but that’s why I’m typing this up, so you can straighten me out.

How would I assess it, you ask? Easy: Every class day, I’ll randomly call up one of the student-generated screencasts. We’ll watch it (remember, it’s ~1 minute long) and then assess it on a binary scale. Here’s the kicker: that score will supplant any previous score. Since I’ll do it randomly, the students can never sit back and assume they’ve got that standard done. And as long as there are far more students than class days, everyone will have to do it a few times, even if I’m totally random about it.

Things I like about this: I really think having the students “play” with a simulation will get them learning the vocabulary and at least asking about the big picture stuff. I also hope they’ll come to class with some good questions (some of which, of course, I hope we’ll have already started dealing with in our backchannel).

I also like the focusing of my screencasts. Right now, I look at what I think is hard in the book and take a stab at providing further resources to help them. With this plan, they can tell me what they get and what they don’t.

What I’m nervous about: I don’t know if I can come up with a simulation for every class. Certainly I can whip up some of my own with the awesome Manipulate command in Mathematica, but, still, there might be some days that just don’t work. I’m also nervous about having this fit into the SBG philosophy (as noted above).

I’m sure I’m forgetting about all kinds of other issues involved, but I wanted to get this down to help me start focusing on next semester’s class (it’s a mid-level Physical Optics class, by the way).

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
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27 Responses to I can be prepared for class

  1. Joss Ives says:

    Hi Andy, tomorrow morning my second round of simulation-based preclass assignments is due. So far I have really liked the format of asking for them to screencast / screencap / write about 3 things of interest (questions, observations, changes in their thinking) based on the simulation. I will be reporting on it more soon. I have no idea what’s out there for optics sims, but as I discover every time I go looking, there are probably plenty.

    I recently came up with an alternate way to work pre-class assignments into SBG organically and this is the method I am mostly strongly considering whenever the great day of my first SBG implementation finally comes. I think it needs a ladder/level-based system like Mylene’s but I don’t think I need to have the restriction of only opening up subsequent levels of standards once the previous level has been successfully assessed. I will make the lowest-level (level 1) standard for each topic one that can only be initially assessed through some type of pre-class assignment. So these need to be things that the majority (say a target of at least 75%) of my students will be able to properly answer after effortfully watching a screencast/pencast, reading a short section of text or playing with a simulation. Students that miss the initial submission deadline or are incorrect will be given some type of follow-up assessment that asks them to spell out very clearly their current understanding of the standard, and this will probably turn out to look in practice quite similar to my quiz corrections. I expect that after I have a bit more experience with the “3 things of interest” pre-class assignments I should be able to figure out a clever way to work those in as part of a level 1 standard.

    Another thought I have had on using pre-class assignment as part of SBG is to frame them as communication standards. “I can clearly explain my current level of understanding of a new topic,” or something along those lines.

    I think your planned rate of simulation creation is delightfully extreme. Like anything you will probably develop proficiency and efficiency quickly and since you are only asking them to do one minute screencasts, there only needs to be one or two Manipulate sliders to make the simulation of appropriate depth.

  2. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    Thanks for the comment, Joss. I’ve been really thinking about layered/leveled standards. The down-side, as I see it, is logistics and feeling that I might nickle-and-dime the students to death. I like the big standards like “I can explain Griffiths’ triangle (among rho, E, and V)” but staying big like that is hard to motivate the small things that’ll help the students learn.

    I do like the notion of communication standards. I only have one like that this semester that’s about giving good feedback to each other.

    I also really like the phrase “delightfully extreme” when talking about my plan for simulations. I think it’s doable, but it’ll be interesting to see what the students think would work in place of a simulation.

    • Mylène says:

      Andy, I know what you mean about nickle-and-diming students with an assessment scheme that’s too fussy (not to mention the workload for you). That was the reason why I got rid of level 1 and 2 standards this year — everything is either a 3, 4, or 5. That’s all I need to distinguish, anyway (something like Pass, B, and A). Incidentally, to make the logistics easier on myself, I don’t ban students from assessing standards if the lower levels aren’t complete — I just don’t give credit for them (ActiveGrade keeps track of this automatically). That solves the problem of policing who’s entitled to assess what. Plus, sometimes cutting their teeth on a bigger problem helps motivate or shed light on the smaller ones.

      Ultimately I think we’re driving at the same thing here — how to motivate the little things that help people learn. Looking forward to seeing how this turns out.

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        Thanks for the comment, Mylène. I totally agree that we’re driving at the same thing. My problem is, I feel like I want to try lots of different things to see how they work for me, my situation, and my students. Unfortunately, I feel that each “experiment” needs to last a semester and so it’s slow going. I do love that people like you and Joss are so willing to share to help me figure out what’s worth exploring. -Andy

      • Joss Ives says:

        Hi Mylene. I don’t quite get how your new system works with the not giving credit when lower levels aren’t complete. Do you mean that they are assessed and show up in the gradebook but don’t actually get applied to the grade until all the relevant standards below are also complete?

      • Mylene says:

        Joss — that’s right. Any student can submit an assessment for anything they like, anytime. This saves me from having to monitor the logistics of who’s entitled to assess what. If it’s a level 4 in a unit where they haven’t completed level 3, then the assessment gets recorded in the gradebook as usual, but doesn’t count toward their grade until level 3 is finished.

        Advantage 1: the students monitor the logistics themselves. They quickly figure out that there’s no advantage to getting a L4 standard if everything underneath is incomplete. But it also means that their self-direction is not thwarted. If they want to tackle something really tough because they’re excited about it, I’m sure not going to stop them (this improves buy-in). But as Andy writes below, there’s a lesson about self-management that they need to learn the hard way, and it seems like we don’t have time to let them. I set up my first semester mostly to teach that lesson. Second semester is too intense from the get-go for them to have time for that…

        Advantage 2: I think one of the reasons students don’t do “push-ups” (the low-level skill practice that enables higher-level problem-solving) is that they don’t think they need to. Or at least, they underestimate how useful it will be for them (maybe “other people” need that stuff but I don’t). Or they assume that it won’t help (I’m just bad at algebra and practice problems can’t change that). Allowing them to try L4 (or L5) problems early on forces them to reckon with the true level of their skill. If they can’t finish them, and they go back and do some practice, then succeed when they try the L4 again, then it gives them a benchmark to prove that the practice did help.

        Advantage 3: I require everyone to write a 30-min quiz each week (all L3 and L4 questions). This works exactly the same way as Andy’s 2-week rule: you have to write the quiz to have the right to reassess those standards later. I pitch the quiz to the theoretical student who has completed all reasonable preparation. Most people will not succeed on any of the questions. This works great. A: the students who are really prepared get credit for being on top of things. B: everyone else spends half an hour playing with the ideas. They don’t know what they’re doing, but they have to sit there anyway so they might as well explore, write a few things down. Maybe draw some diagrams. That’s when they suddenly discover that they have questions. Then even the chronically unprepared students get to be contributors to a really interesting class discussion, which I think also increases buy-in. Plus, when I collect the quizzes, I get to see where people really are. That gives me ammo for my next conversation with them, which can be about “I see you’re having trouble making sense of negative decibels” rather than “looks like you’re struggling with the math.”

        Advantage 4: way less nagging and repeating myself. I just give them a quiz they’re not ready for. This puts my class back on the radar of students who are rushing from one deadline to another.

        In a way, I’m forcing them to do the before-class prep that they should have done, but probably didn’t. My reasons are exactly what Andy mentions: all of a sudden we have way better class discussions. What I want them to learn here isn’t that they should prepare for class; it’s that you learn more and find things more interesting after you’ve thought about something and tried it yourself (or whatever metacognitive lesson belongs here).

        Disadvantages: it means I can’t really use Andy’s genius voice-assessment system — at least not on that initial assessment.

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        Thanks for those details, Mylène. I think I agree with all the advantages and probably the disadvantages as well. One difference, for me, is that I don’t really have a two course sequence to use the way you are, though, ultimately, we’re still dealing with the same issues.

    • Joss Ives says:

      Andy, I think that your emphasis on oral assessment works really well with the granularity of standards that you use and that the grain size of the layered standards wouldn’t work as well for you.

      I’m going to generalize some things that I think would work for me. I think it is reasonable to make 1 or 2 “level 1” standards for the basic stuff that people are supposed to have tried to learn before coming to each class (I would shoot for 3-4/week). Each of these could be tied to specific regular-level standards or to collections of regular-level standards. So in the case of your 2 SBG classes thus far, you would keep your standards as is, but add some “level 1” standards whose primary purpose is to make sure people come to class prepared. You could add a policy, in the spirit of your 2-week rule, that says that have to assess that “level 1” standard before coming to class or get a perma-zero (or perma-ceiling of half) for that standard, but after they can reassess it at any point if they like.

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        Do you think there should be nearly one level 1 for every regular one?

        Another thing I was thinking about was the notion of a quick test of math skills. You make a regular standard active, but require proof that the students can do the math involved early one (say, in a few days) before they can tackle the whole thing. I’m thinking about this because sometimes it’s the math that trips them up when actually they know the physics quite well. However, if they get frustrated they start to doubt their physics understanding.

      • Joss Ives says:

        In my classes my learning goals are closer to 4-6 per week and the pre-class questions are closer to 3-4 week, but I seem to recall that your standards list is the right length to be able to have roughly one level 1 per regular standard. I think in some cases the level 1 would lead directly to a specific standard and in other cases the 3 level 1 standards would support all the standards related to that topic.

        Examples on my brain because I’m teaching intro mechanics right now: (1) You could have a level 1 standard for 1D completely inelastic collisions and a regular standard for 2D (not necessarily completely) inelastic collisions. (2) You could have individual level 1 standards for finding each of kinetic energy, gravitational potential energy and elastic potential energy and then a regular standard for using conservation of energy to analyze problems where there are only conservative forces present.

        And I this all can make friends with your math skills issues. The level 1 assessments can easily use numbers and simple situations (find the compression in a spring given x). There’s also the possibility of splitting off the skill standards like Bret has done and making sure they assess those early on.

    • pam says:

      Click to access 2007MLRGuidingPrinciples.pdf

      I haven’t graduated in all subjects to what I am in physics. Freshman science with geology and astronomy. Long story short, the questions I have them answer, I give them a clear and effective communicator grade.
      Would send you rubric, if I knew how.

  3. Chris says:

    You can probably use some of the many Wolfram Demonstrations for simulations as well. Great ideas though!


    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Yeah, I like a lot of those. And exposing more students to them will help them develop better Mathematica skills, it would seem.

  4. Ian says:

    What’s the difference between “I can be prepared for class”, and “I am always prepared for class”? It seems you’re articulating the first, but assessing the second.

    I’m not being picky. I think this is a clue as to where I see this departing from (my understanding of) the SBG philosophy. SBG assess competencies, and you’re shoe-horning behavior — conformance, even — into the superficial appearance of a competence. My gut reaction is that you’re pushing more external motivation into SBG, and one of SBG’s strengths is that it tends to focus students on internal motivation (“Look what I can do!”) as opposed to external (“What do I have to do next?”).



  5. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    Thanks for the comment, Ian, you’ve articulated quite well one of my biggest concerns. All of this, for me, stems from the experience of students not necessarily doing what’s best for their learning. If they’re not prepared for class, they don’t get as much out of it, and struggle later on doing the standards assessments. I talk with my students all the time about ways they can better prepare themselves, but sometimes I feel that I can’t wait for them to learn the lesson the hard way.

    You distinguish between general preparedness and daily preparedness. I think that’s a really interesting distinction. You’re right that I’m using the first to motivate why it might be shoehorned into the standards list from a philosophical point of view, and that I’m assessing the latter because I think it’ll lead to better learning for them.

    What concerns me most is “buy-in.” Do the students embrace the SBG philosophy, or not. I would say that I have not been overly successful with that so far and that this proposed change could take me further from that goal. Ugh.

  6. Ian says:

    I figure that anything I do that undermines the messages I’m trying to send about self-investment, internal motivation, focusing on learning rather than points, etc. is a net loss.

    My experience with deadline-free mastery-style courses is that they tend to get the short end of the stick for most of the semester, drowned out by the endless deadlines of other courses. Towards the end, though, as the One True Deadline approaches (the end of the course) — and I send personalized, pointed reminders about their current “grade”, the number of modules/standards/etc. between them and various grade levels they might wish to earn, and the rapidly-decreasing time left to complete them in — most wake up and pull it together. Some don’t. (I’m conflicted about the wisdom of granting incompletes and more time to finish. That seems consistent with the SBG outlook, but undermines the credibility of the course’s one “deadline.” And that deadline isn’t entirely arbitrary; it protects me from having to continually teach every course I’ve ever taught, as additional work dribbles in.)

    Children can’t learn if they’re not given the freedom to make choices and mistakes. (But, we don’t give them every possible choice right from birth, either. *sigh*)

    No easy answers…


    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I think I’m fine with the mastery part having them procrastinate and learn from that mistake. My issue, here, is the notion of a vibrant classroom where they don’t come in as blank slates. I’ve found, on the rare occasions when students really are prepared for class, that class time is much more valuable than days when they come in expecting their heads to be filled up (like that famous Calvin and Hobbes cartoon).

      So what to do? On the mastery side, I don’t think I have as much to improve. Let them learn that keeping on top of it is a good thing. My “Two-week rule” is also helping a lot with that. For the daily class stuff, it’s not as clear, especially if I want to stay close to the SBG philosophy.

      • Ian says:

        One of the things I keep reading in blog posts by SBG-using teachers (typically high school) is that in their experience, students do *more* homework after the switch to SBG and ungraded homework. I gather that making HW a requirement for reassessment, combined with students realizing that “We’ll have to do it anyway”, contributes to this. I would like to believe that the same thing could happen at the university level.

        However, I’m not optimistic. My students seem to feel constantly overwhelmed, running from deadline to deadline; whatever pressure is screaming loudest at the moment is what they respond to. I **REALLY REALLY** don’t like adding my voice to all the screaming, but… *sigh*

        One thing I do is refuse to give in to students who come unprepared. Typically, there’s a spread of students from “completely unprepared” to “actually pretty much prepared”. If I give in to the unprepared ones (even if a majority), I confirm their strategy, and bore the prepared ones (telling them they wasted their time preparing). I’d rather lose the unprepared ones, and metacommunicate about what’s going on. I would think that having pre-advertised standards to point to would help when saying “You’re going to be assessed on the same standards no matter how much or little we accomplish in class, so the more effectively we can use our time here, the better for you. I can reiterate what you should have read but didn’t, or I can help you make sense of the hard bits and put it to work solving problems. You’ll be solving problems on the assessments either way. Your choice…”

        Too blue-sky idealistic?

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        I’m not sure if it’s too blue sky. I think you’re right about the slippery slope of catering to the under-prepared. I feel like my students who have had both of my sbg courses have really taken to staying on top of the standards but haven’t necessarily taken to getting more out of class if they’re prepared. It could very well be that it’s because I still cater too much to the low end.

        I think I blogged about this before but I’ll say it again. In my class, we always break into groups to solve problems. Now, it’s my discretion regarding when to move on to the next thing. Typically I wait until the majority (if not all) of the groups are ready. One idea I had was to determine their preparedness somehow (quiz, questions, something), and let that determine which groups they’re in. Then, I’d let the top group(s) decide when to move on while doing the problem solving bits. I would think that the top groups would get a lot out of it because I’d be hitting them in stride. Meanwhile, the bottom groups *might* be motivated to try to get into the top groups on future days.

      • Ian says:

        How about doing the occasional standard assessment in class — maybe at the end, after group work — so those who came ready to benefit from class have a chance to demonstrate mastery right then and there?

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        I think that’s a cool idea, Ian. At the beginning of last semester I had this idea to occasionally do “group quizzes” at the end of class for exactly that purpose. However, we did it, and then decided that it was hard to give individual assessments. What I think I could do is allow a single individual, who wants to, to take a crack at a newly activated standard.

  7. Bret Benesh says:

    Hi Andy,

    I am trying to re-enter the blogosphere, and I thank you for encouraging me to do so.

    As mentioned above, there is some concern about creating a too-complicated grading system. However, I don’t think that this one extra screencast is going to complicate things too much.

    As you may have guessed, I am wary of assessing these types of things like “preparedness,” and my _opinion_ (and it is only an opinion) is that you are reaching. Why not assess them on basic algebra skills, or basic physics knowledge from previous classes? Those are also important skills for a physics major to have. In fact—as you alluded to—you might get an even bigger payout if you assessed these instead of preparedness, since it is possible that lack of math skills is a greater hindrance to learning in class than not being prepared.

    So I am wary of it, but this is your class—try it! Blog about the results, and we can all learn from it!

    For what it is worth, here is my main tool for making sure students are prepared: nagging. They are supposed to do a pre-class quiz on Moodle about their pre-class reading and screencasts. There are no points given for this quiz—they are just expected to do it. If they don’t do the quiz, I email them asking if anything is wrong. I typically get 1-3 students not doing the quiz on a given night (out of 25), but they are not the same 1-3 students every time.

    This has been successful for me this semester, but it may be just because of the particular group of students. I am looking forward to you trying it out.

    I am looking forward to hearing what happens!

    • Joss Ives says:

      Andy, I think you were getting at this, but I like the idea of mashing your and Bret’s methods together. No marks for pre-class quizzes/assignments and no standards associated with them. BUT when they come to class to do group work those that did not do the pre-class work get to all be in a group together, and you move on when all the students in the “completed the pre-class stuff” groups are ready to move on. I certainly would not want to be one of the unprepared groups. Personally I would use my regular “honest effort gets full marks” system for the pre-class assignments and anybody that doesn’t get full marks gets to be in the unprepared group(s). Then the rest of the students get randomly distributed in groups so that pace doesn’t always feel like it is being set by the same group.

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        I think I like that plan, Joss. Do you (or Bret) think that asking for the screencasts from them is too much to ask for to determine if they’re in the “completed the pre-class stuff” group?

        Bret, I’m coming around to the notion that I’m “reaching” too. All you guys have really got me thinking here, thanks!

      • Bret Benesh says:

        Hi all,

        Andy: I am new at this, so I am not certain. But it seems to me like screencasts are probably reasonable for pre-class work. I am hedging because I do not know how the students take to technology. But it seems like your students have no problem with it, so it definitely sounds reasonable. I am definitely excited about you trying it out and reporting back. Heck, I might even try it out in my complex analysis class next semester! It is a nice idea!

        Joss and Andy: I am also intrigued by the idea of putting unprepared students in the same group. I have two concerns, though. First, I have semi-permanent groups throughout the semester, and having people pop in and out of the groups seems like it might takeaway some of the advantage of the semi-permanent groups. Second, I am concerned about class morale if some students are relegated to the “slacker group.”

        There are obvious advantages, too. My second concern might be eased if the reason for the groups were not publicly announced—it may just seem like you tweak groups every day. But I don’t know what effects that would have.

        Again, I like this idea, but I just have some concerns.

        How valid are my concerns?

      • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

        Good questions, Bret. First off, I would imagine that this public blog would mean that I can’t really hide from the students what I’m up to if I try the prepared- and unprepared-groups idea, but that’s ok.

        What it comes down to for me is will the students feel pressure to prepare because they see they’re not getting as much out of class? If the low end doesn’t feel that pressure, because they feel that class and assessing the standards are two different things (separated in time by at least two weeks, by the way), then I might develop quite the bi-modal distribution.

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