SBG: Skills Mastery as the Beginning, Not the End

Ah, the interminable design cycles that we as teachers put ourselves through! Something that I often find challenging is how lengthy these cycles can be–I mean, if the day after you’ve shared a lesson with kids you have a great idea about how it could have been way better, it could be up to a year or more before you get a chance to try it out.  And that’s if you remember your idea.

The cycle that has thrown me for the biggest loop is the one I’ve been in about SBG (or Standards-Based Grading).  When I first got into this mathedtweetblogiverse two years ago, I was excited by the work Dan Meyer and others had done to make their expectations about skills clear to their students.  Until that point, my own assessment arc had not been going well.  From the start, it had been really hard to match up my previous experiences with assessment with Saint Ann’s culture and ideals.  Giving quizzes and tests in arbitrary and knee-jerky fashion after we had covered “enough” material fizzled in the face of not giving grades.  Also, neither the tests themselves nor the feedback and corrections I labored over seemed to improve anyone’s understanding.

When I pulled back from those traditional assessment methods, however, I found myself in something of a vacuum.  The fact that I’m in charge of my own curricula and evaluations with little to no constraint–coupled with the fact that I tend to spontaneity and disorganization–often meant that I did few formal assessments whatsoever.  I knew that my students were learning things from the work they were doing for my class.  I could make records about my observations of their activities to include in my anecdotal reports.  Still, I couldn’t help but to think something was missing–my students just weren’t being best served by the lack of clear expectations, a systematic way of pursuing them, and a feedback cycle.

Enter SBG.

Trying to bring Standards-Based Grading into a no-grades school was an interesting adventure.  Suffice it to say that after trying out several different formulations over the past two years, I’m really excited to try out my new approach very soon.  I’ve decided to go binary with respect to my skills quizzes, since trying to measure progress toward understanding numerically never felt fruitful to me in practice, and there’s no need for me to establish a final “average” for each kid.  (Shawn Cornally’s thoughts here also helped to get me there.)  I’ll continue to have skills lists for my kids and weekly quizzes for them to choose from in order to demonstrate their mastery.  I’ll be giving them copious feedback and letting them know if they nailed it or still have work to do, and we’ll both keep track of the skills they’ve mastered.

Still, I really wanted to find a way to encourage students to see that skills mastery is the beginning of the story, rather than the end.  Skills are tools that let you do new things, that empower you, that even give you a new bit of social capital.  With these thoughts in mind, I designed the following sheet to help kids to track their progress toward skills mastery and to inspire them to use their knowledge in fruitful ways.  I’ll be using the same document to track their progress.

That first column gets checked off once a kid aces a weekly skills quiz–that’s the binary got-it-or-don’t.  The space below is for me and students to keep track of feedback that I give them and reminders they might make for themselves.  The other three columns are by no means sequential and don’t represent “stages” past mastery.  Rather, they are suggested asperations and goals for the newly-minted master geometric-series-summer.  Would you like to try a non-routine problem that involves geometric series?  Just ask me for one.  Does someone you know–in our class or out of it–need help with this topic, or just curious about learning some new math?  Share your new knowledge and document it by journaling, snapping a photo, or making a video.  Did you recognize three months later that knowing how to sum geometric series opened up a route to solving a problem as you worked on a project?  Sweet!  Include it in your project write-up.

The point is that those other columns are an ever-present alert: You know things!  You can seek out ways to use your knowledge!  All three of the “choice prongs” are here–the suggested tasks are big and open-ended, the timeframe is as long as needed, and students can choose these for themselves as goals and record and reflect on their successes as they happen.

A final thought: it seems to me that something like this could be easily adapted to a grades environment.  I’m not well-practiced at designing grading schemes, but I’m thinking:

  • non-mastery of a skill in isolation is a high F
  • mastery of a skill in isolation is a high B or low A
  • mastery of a skill in isolation plus a further use of the skill is a high A

And then average them up.

Thoughts on the practicality of such a grading scheme?  Comments on the set-up I’m going to try out?  Ideas for other ways of building and sharing skills mastery beyond use in isolation?


16 responses to “SBG: Skills Mastery as the Beginning, Not the End

  1. This is a lot like how I started with SBG, too. Good luck!

    Plug: I developed to deal with all of the data so I could keep focused on the conversational/progressive nature of this sort of assessment. Check it out!

    • Hi Riley,
      I’ve followed ActiveGrade with interest for a while. With the numerical feedback (and the “Grade” in the name), it isn’t the right fit for me. But thank you for making this awesome software! I know that it’s helping tons of teachers help to put self-direction and good feedback into students’ hands.

      • Ah, that makes sense. Since the original version we’ve added textual scales, which never ever show students a number as a grade… but it’s definitely still about using grades to communicate. We’re designing for a very specific philosophy, and I’m glad that you know the specifics of _your_ philosophy!

  2. Justin,
    I really like that “I can teach someone else this skill” is a part of the student’s self assessment. I think that’s a great way to create a culture of collaboration as well as one in which skills aren’t mastered and then forgotten but are practiced, learned, taught, used, and discussed. I’m excited to hear how your year goes!

    • Michal,
      That was my thought exactly. I’m hopeful that even just putting that little suggestion there on paper might help to promote a classroom culture of helping each other to learn. I want my students to see that becoming a teacher doesn’t happen when have a classroom of your own. It can happen whenever you know something that someone else doesn’t know and wants or needs to.
      PS I enjoyed watching your BarCamp talk!

  3. Thanks for your thoughts. Your format gives me a starter into SBG. I have 4 preps this semester, so it may be a project for next semester. Do you really get to set your own curriculum? That is an awesome luxury. I love the title too. I will check back in often. It is great to have another member of the mathbogtwitosphere.

    • Nat,
      Thanks to you for coming by! I’m glad to have provided food for thought. When you get around to SBGing, let me know how it’s coming together.
      I do get to set my own curriculum. Period. I can share the parts of the subject that I’m passionate about, turn on a dime in the classroom, and take tangents to follow whatever my students latch onto. It’s also an enormous juggling act, and sometimes it can feel like floating in space with nothing to push off of. I have to find structures and constraints for myself–like what’s described in the post–in order to feel like I’m making some progress. But I have trouble imagining trying to teach in any other way.
      Til soon!

  4. Another great post!

    Love this – “Skills are tools that let you do new things, that empower you.” I wish our public schools recognized this fact. Feels so much like the tests are aimed right at this level. Probably because the rest is non-standard and really can’t be tested universally.

    The idea of assigning grades and averages to this immediately drove me crazy, but that aside, I love so much of it. I can definitely see implementing a version of this. I like the idea of having kids select some of their own skills to focus on, and I really love the idea of documenting it in various ways.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more about what you see as “applying a skill in context” vs “a non routine situation.” I definitely love the teaching one and the idea that they would help students in other classes.

    Great start to the blog so far. I’m psyched up.

    • I agree that rolling this kind of thing into a grading scheme is not going to satisfy or appeal to you or me. But I think it could be a radical perspective change for someone who gives grades in the quotidian way, and has something worth thinking about for SBG converts. I feel like there’s something cleaner about not having the IV drip of points as a student moves from a 4 to a 4.5 on some skill. Maybe a binary-plus-capstone scheme would make it all less grindy.
      Yeah, I’m really pumped for the documenting part, too.

  5. Justin,
    I like this a lot and have implemented something similar in my class where students are encouraged to show synthesis by completing capstones (mastering all concepts in isolation only takes you up to a 90). Here’ s a description of how I’m going to try them in my class.

  6. This is fantastic, especially the idea of students helping students. So much of that happened in calculus last year outside of class, and you’ve reminded me that I wanted to make that visible somehow to me. I’m getting ideas…

    As for “I can use this skill in context” I am wondering if you’re going to guide students to the context, or if not, how they might demonstrate that to you? Intriguing, but I’m just not seeing it. Or maybe I don’t know what “in context” means.


    • Hi Sam!

      I’m not planning on much specific guidance with respect to “using in context.” The thought is that if there’s a blank spot that begging to be filled on the skills sheet, it’ll help kids to keep their eyes open for how they use that skill later on. An example would be a fifth grader who has learned how to make factor trees and has demonstrated mastery on a skills quiz. Throughout the rest of the year, I want this kid to be on the lookout for instances when knowing how to make a factor tree helps him to investigate a problem, win a mathematical game, or employ another skill (say, reducing fractions). The student might pass this on to me in conversation, but the idea would be that he would record it in his weekly journal entry. Then he would check it off on his sheet, as would I, and I would also include a description of what happened in the relevant section of my notes on that kid.

      I hope that makes the idea more concrete. Know that my goal isn’t to have every kid recognize that they’re using every skill in context–just many of my students, some of the time. It’s asperational. We’ll see how it plays out. I’m excited to give real-life examples once they happen.

  7. Justin-
    Last year I used a 0-5 scale for my SBG quizzes (with 4 being proficient), but thinking about switching to a binary system (W/P ie working/proficient). While I feel that I had trouble distinguishing between a 1, 2, and 3, I’m worried that students might get more disheartened and frustrated by a W W W score than by a 1 2 3 score. What was your experience with kids who “failed” multiple assessments?

  8. Hi Avery!
    This is my first year with the binary idea playing in my head, but in some sense I was doing it last year on a practical level, at least from my students’ perspective. Because of discussions at school and further thoughts in my own head, I never put any numbers on kids’ quizzes at all–just corrections and feedback. Still, I recorded their progress in my binder along a 1-4 scale. I found that keeping a record of that numerical information wasn’t that useful to me–not for helping to direct kids, and not for reporting-to-others purposes. So this year I’m dropping that structure altogether.
    That’s background; now for your question. First, it’s still totally possible to point out to a student that she is making progress by using written feedback. I feel like this is probably a more effective way of highlighting growth than an increasing numerical score. Second, when I had a student get stuck on a particular skill where their progress was extremely slow, the vast majority of the time there was no angst on the part of the student. The failure wasn’t permanent because of requizzing, it was “local” failure since that could be succeeding elsewhere, and it was a great occasion to discuss the ways in which they were preparing for these quizzes. Finally, the biggest kind of frustration that I came across was with students who made small mistakes that were sometimes tangential to the skill at hand–like small algebra errors in solving a geometry problem. They really didn’t want to have to take a whole new quiz. So for the most part I made that negotiable–they could just do another problem of that kind rather than several, or I could give them a little quiz just on that little subskill. Their objections would drop at that point.
    Hope that helps!

  9. Pingback: Quality Assignments at #sbgchat | mathcoachblog

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