Tag Archives: assessment

SBG to Nowhere?

(Some readers may need to click through to view embedded videos.)

Warning: I make no attempt to present a coherent and tidy post. I’m just thinkin’ through some thoughts that I’ve been wrestling with over the last few days. And those thoughts got a big kick in the rear yesterday after our entire high school faculty watched Race to Nowhere. The movie hit home because the overwhelming majority of the students at my school are under the stress to perform and acheive academically just like the students profiled in the documentary.

I want to focus on learning rather than grades. SBG has taken me a long way toward this goal. But, having done some version of SBG for several years now, I am left wondering: Are students now just playing a new game? Instead of racking up points, aren’t they now racking up learning targets? Has my SBG system simply helped my students become better runners in the race to nowhere?

What is at the finish line that I want my students to reach? My course syllabus says:

This course utilizes guided inquiry and student-centered learning to foster the development of critical thinking skills. It aims to help you become: 

• A Collaborative Learner — You will complete cognitive and hands-on physics assignments in cooperative student groups. You will acknowledge and fulfill your responsibility to the group and actively contribute.

• A Self-Directed Learner — You will develop and demonstrate initiative and responsibility by always trying to complete tasks when faced with challenges. You will problem solve independently and create new solutions.

• An Effective Communicator — You will develop graphical, mathematical, verbal, and diagrammatical representations of the phenomenon being studied. You will present ideas to your peers and ask productive questions of your peers and of yourself, helping you to become a better thinker and problem solver.

• An Analytical Thinker — You will use observation, experience, reasoning, and communication in order to gather, interpret, and evaluate information and abstract concepts. You will utilize and apply these concepts in a variety of new and meaningful contexts.

This expectation doesn’t align very well with the “learn-quiz-reassess” version of SBG that I’ve been using. My students are racing to an empty finish line. This realization has me asking lots of questions about my assessment and instruction.

What does it mean to demonstrate mastery? Should I expect my students to become physics masters by the end of the year? Should they be able to solve problems and design experiments blindfolded while standing on one foot with the same ease and finesse as their teacher who has been doing this for 13 years? Hell, I needed to reference my own notes today about the second-order differential equation for the motion of a mass-spring system. Which leads to my next question:

Should students be allowed to use their notes on my assessments? I ask my students to do all their problem solving, lab analysis, and general notetaking in their physics journals. I make them use colored pens to color-coordinate their diagrams and graphs. They are curating the artifacts of their learning in these notebooks, but I ask them to put them away for quizzes and tests.  Am I worried that students could just transpose a homework problem onto a test problem? If that is possible, then I must be asking the wrong questions. Am I worried that allowing open notebooks would make the quiz meaningless? But aren’t most “real world” assessments “open notes?” Which leads to my next question:

Should students be allowed to work in small groups on assessments? I want my students to solve problems which force them to stretch their thinking. I want my assessment to be just as much a learning experience as any other group activity we do in class. Recent research shows that collaboration beats smarts in group problem solving. I want to give students the satisfaction of solving challenging problems, even if they can’t do it alone. And aren’t most “real world” assessments really group assessments? Which leads to my next question:

Should portfolios replace formal exams? Can a portfolio of work show evidence of learning just as well as a test? A portfolio would allow  students to display a wider array of skills (like those listed above on my syllabus) which go beyond mastery of content. Haven’t the physics students in the “Mythbusters” videos below demonstrated they’ve learned physics (and obviously much more) without taking a single exam?

I do not claim to have the answers to these questions. But, as a teacher who values learning and risk taking above all else, I must explore the possibilities. Today, I allowed my college-prep students to use their notebooks on their quiz. I am going to try to implement the “Mythbuster” model seen in the video with my conceptual physics students. I will allow for more group work to be used as evidence of learning.

I am not abandoning SBG. I need to take it to the next level. Learning goals are still needed so we have direction. But how we get there will be different.

Some Resources for New Physics Teachers

In a comment from an earlier post, Matt Wasilawski writes:

Thank you very much for these posts, I am looking forward to using them in physics. I have been teaching Earth Science and AP Environmental Science for the past 10 years. I was assigned to teach Physics this year. I was hoping that you could direct me to more specific modeling suggestions for topics in Physics. I do not have a strong background in Physics but have been working hard to develop my knowledge base.

Here are some of my resource recommendations to help new physics teachers with planning and instruction:

Get yourself a copy of Randy Knight’s Five Easy Lessons: Strategies for Successful Physics Teaching. He discusses the best in physics education research, describes several methods for interactive engagement, and goes through a typical physics course unit-by-unit with lesson plan ideas and places where students have misconceptions and stumbling blocks. Every physics teacher should have this book because we all should be incorporating more teaching strategies based on physics education research.

Walking in front of motion detectors to kinesthetically match graphs of motion -- highly recommended by physics education research

The K-12 Physics standards by Heller and Stewart have lesson plan ideas and activities which are founded on physics education research.

The ASU Modeling Website has their Mechanics curriculum available for download, including teacher notes.

Mark Shober is a modeler who put all his materials on his class website. It’s tied to his class calendar, which makes it great for pacing.

And lastly, there is the Physics Classroom website. While it doesn’t mesh perfectly with modeling, it is much better than the most widely used physics textbook. The website has online readings and animations for you and your students, worksheets with links to the corresponding online readings, problem sets with audio solutions, labs, rubrics, and objectives. There are also Minds-On Physics modules, which are good for formative assessment.

I know there are many more, but these are the ones that stick out in my mind as being most helpful.

To my more experienced readers: Leave your favorite resources for new physics teachers in the comments!

SBG Free & Clear

Assessment is a dirty job. That’s why there’s SBG Free & Clear® with Morale-LiftersTM.

With SBG, teachers are FREE to assess and re-assess what they want, when they want, and how they want without worrying about many points should an assignment or problem be worth and how will it taint the quarter grade.

Here’s a quiz I gave last year on constant velocity motion. Before SBG I would agonize over assigning point values and had agita trying to give partial credit. The SBG version simply links the problems to the standards. A single problem can address multiple standards. A single standard can be assessed with multiple problems. SBG sets you free!

Two problems, one standard: Students must be able to tell me both Larry’s distance (problem 1a) and displacement (problem 1b) in order to demonstrate mastery of standard CV.1

Two standards, one problem: Students must be able to interpret the position-time graph given (standard CV.6) and be able to draw the corresponding motion map (standard CV.4) in order successfully answer problem 2a.

SBG has reassesment naturally built in. After the quiz above, we continued our work on constant velocity motion. The unit concluded with a lab practicum in which students simulated the tortoise and the hare story with 2 toy buggies, one fast and one slow. The “tortoise” had was given a head start, and students had to determine where and when the hare would pass the tortoise. If you scroll to the second page, you can see this is the first time for assessing CV.8 and the second time for CV.6.

You can also see that SBG gives students the opportunity to be assessed both on lab process standards and constant velocity content standards in the same assignment. You cannot mix and match standards this way with traditional grading. In the past, I would have lumped everything together as a “lab grade.”

Later in the year, when we are doing momentum conservation, I can reassess on some of the constant velocity standards to check for retention. If you scroll to the second page, you’ll see that CV.4, CV.6, and CV.7 are reassessed again.

With SBG, students are FREE to re-assess what they want, when they want, and how they want without worrying about how their past performance will impact their grade.

Here’s what one former student had to say about SBG:

I am very happy with the grading system for two reasons. A) it fosters success, and I believe that improves confidence. B) Physics is not easy. I, and I believe most students, do not always get it the first time. Being able to be graded on what we ultimately know improves my own stress-level, but by going over certain topics, I also get to know and understand them better.

As you can see,this level of freedom gives SBG its morale-lifting action.

With SBG, teachers are FREE to assign homework without worrying about how to grade it and what to do when students copy homework from each other. Teachers do not have to collect a stack of copied work, take several hours to mark them, only to return them the next day to end up in the blue recycling bin.

With SBG, students are FREE to tackle homework.for the sake of practice without worrying about performance. And students are free to choose not do homework if they do not need the practice.

A word of caution: You must trust your students and they must trust you in order for students to take ungraded homework seriously. Read about what happened when I broke that trust in an earlier post titled SBG and Trust.

SBG makes it CLEAR to teachers which of their assignments are meaningful. Does this assignment help students become more proficient in my standards? Can this assignment be used to assess students on my standards? If the answer is no, away it goes! SBG puts a stop to baseless extra credit and pointless crossword puzzles.

For example, in the past, I would give extra credit for students who submitted an entry for the Physics Challenge Problems that are in each issue of The Physics Teacher magazine, the High School Physics Photo Contest, or the Toy Box Physics Video Contest. The extra credit would usually be something like dropping their lowest quiz grade, exemption from an uncompleted homework assignment, or just extra points added to their quiz average.

Now with SBG, I can still have students enter those contests, but I will assess their entries based on the standards that apply. Hopefully, they will chose a topic they are weak on and use the contest as an opportunity to grow and to demonstrate to me that growth. Now students have another method to show me what they know outside of a quiz and get credit for it — more morale-lifing action!

SBG makes it CLEAR to students what they need to know and be able to do in order to be successful. With a list of standards give to students at the start of each unit, they do not have to second-guess what will be on the test.   Students also know exactly why their assignments are important.

SBG make it CLEAR to both teachers and students how students are progressing by CLEARLY pointing out strong and weak areas. This level of clarity is also part of SBG’s morale-lifting action. One of my students said:

I like the grading system because it helps you know what learning goals you need to focus on, and in what areas you need to study for the quiz. By putting them in those charts, we can also be aware of our progress at every point throughout the quarter.

You can find more student reactions to SBG in an earlier post called 31 Reasons Why Kids Like SBG.

Don’t think SBG Free & Clear® can stand up to Traditional Grading? Here’s a testimonial from Ms. Gajda about how traditional grading held her and her students back during an egg-drop competition in her class:

As they were taking apart their container to see if their egg had survived, these two students analysed the design of their container and highlighted the features of the design which made it successful. They had made a few last minute changes and they explained to me why they made those changes and how those changes improved the design. When asked, they were able to describe the physics concepts behind all the successful aspects of their design.

As they were talking, I thought to myself, “please write all this down in your lab report” because a lab report was how I was going to assess their understanding of the concepts of physics and design. But did those brilliant, eloquent explanations appear in the lab report? No. Did those students get credit for their understanding that had been demonstrated to me? Well, it wasn’t on the rubric for the lab report.

These two students weren’t unique. Another student who was able to tell me why his container had worked didn’t even submit a lab report. At that moment I knew there had to be a better way of giving credit to students for what they have mastered.

Enter SBG. Imagine now that I have a time machine and I can go back to April during my practicum. How would I deal with the same situation using SBG? For this project, I would have two forms of assessment.

  • One assessment would be the lab report with which I would score the students on two standards: (1) understanding Newton’s second law and (2) demonstrated ability to effectively communicate in writing.
  • Another assessment would be teacher observation or interview. I would record a score just for the student’s ability to demonstrate understanding of the relationship between force, mass and acceleration.

That’s the power of SBG Free & Clear® with Morale-LiftersTM.

(Note: My SBG Free & Clear® with Morale-LiftersTM picture at the beginning of the post is my lame attempt to parody this. Please don’t sue me!)

31 Reasons Why We Eliminated Regents Exams

Back in October 2009, at the request of my principal, I gave a presentation to the Board of Education in order to convince them (and the community) that our students and teachers would benefit tremendously if the Board would free them from the pressure of preparing for non-essential Regents exams. In the end, the Board agreed and supported our decision. This article from the local paper has all the details:

I created a lengthy packet responding to many concerns the Board might have. It included research articles about depth vs. breadth, Modeling Instruction, examples of projects, and a sample of my standards-based grading system. I even color-coded the pages for easy reference. Here it is, I hope you find something useful in it:

But what did my students think of this type of instruction? Did they resent the fact that they couldn’t get an “A” by filling in worksheets? Did students complain that I wasn’t giving notes or lecturing them everyday? Did students loathe coming to class because I made them work together in order to figure physics out on their own instead of reading a textbook? So, like every good teacher should, I asked my students to fill out a survey. Here are their responses:

Consider the fact that since there is no Regents exam for the course, we can now spend more time on activities and discussions and working problems in class. For example: the videos you made for the Mythbuster labs, the egg catcher project, the Kobe lab, the tug-of-war analysis, and all the whiteboard discussions that went with these activites. If we had the exam, we would not have had time to do most of these activities. What do you like/dislike about this type of instruction? Do you think this has had a worthwhile impact on your learning and understanding of physics? Give an example.

  1. I enjoy how different this class is compared to any other class I have ever had throughout my entire school career. I enjoy how, instead of going over, with lectures, our majority of class time is used for hands on labs, which I find to be more effective learning than lectures.
  2. I really liked those activities because that is what actually made me learn. I don’t get things when they are first explained, so the labs and activities solidified what the lesson taught, and got me to understand what we were learning. I can now relate what we learn in physics to real life, which is something I probably wouldn’t be able to do if we didn’t do those activities. I probably would be doing a lot worse in this class had we not done them.
  3. I like that we get to design and test our own experiments to learn the facts/stipulations of each topic/law. This is definitely a new type of learning for me but it is the best learning I have done.
  4. I like this a lot better because there is a lot less pressure to get stuff in rather than to actually focus on learning the material. When we can go more in depth to learn I feel it is much more effective.
  5. I like that we are able to focus on more “physics” and not have to spend time on what the exam expects us to learn. The labs make it easier to understand the physics behind everyday activities. I think that these labs have impacted my learning and understanding for the better because I am a very visual learner.
  6. What i like about this type of instruction is that it allows us to learn through labs and we can perform the activities to learn it better. Yes i do think it will have a worthwhile impact because when i think back to the labs i can remember why we did them and what they taught us.
  7. I think that this method of instruction is definitely worthwhile. It is better to learn in more detail about fewer things than to cover too many things not as well. I like doing applications and labs because it makes the class fun and makes physics interesting. I look forward to doing fun things in physics!
  8. I love when we do experiments like the Egg Catcher Project, because it gives us free reign to create something and then compare it to numbers and formulas. The whiteboard discussions are different from the traditional “put your answers on the board” in that we can really see what went wrong and explain our understanding. I feel as though we learn through the explanations we have to give and the little question prompts you give us. I feel as though I would be drowning under all of the terms and relationships if we did not connect them to something hands on. Science is much harder to learn when it’s all textbook and dry labs. It’s great to be able to explore before we actually get the equations.
  9. I really like that there is more freedom in the curriculum of the class. The lessons are more fun, and focus on applying the things we learn to real life situations. This is worthwhile because seeing how these things are used in real life helps me to understand the topic.
  10. I think this type of instruction makes the class much more fun and enjoyable to everyone. the fact that we don’t have the regents allows the class to spend more time on the topics so that everyone can learn physics more in depth as opposed to rushing through topics to meet the curriculum for the regents. It also helps in that for students who have trouble with certain topics, they have more time to understand the subject and learn how it is done.
  11. I really do like the fact that there is no Regents exam at the end of the year! Every time I have a class with a Regents exam at the end of the year i feel like the other reason we are doing anything is just for a test, instead of for the idea of learning. With this new system you get to show us more examples, and get more detailed about every topic. I understand the material better now that we have focused less on the regents then in the beginning of the year when it was all about just learning for it.
  12. Physics can be fun. I’ve been in classes that only prepare you for a final assessment (AP World History). It was not fun. It was awful. This is not awful; I enjoy the projects and also get to see some real-life applications of the material. Also an idea that I like very much.
  13. I think it shows that physics is far more applicable to everyday problems and concepts then we otherwise would have seen. In chemistry, we mixed obscure and generally not household items together, making it seem distant and inapplicable to everyday life. I have had more fun having a slightly less formal and curriculum bound class then I would have with a rigorous class bent on taking a state exam that proves little about our actual knowledge at the end of the year.
  14. I like the hands on learning activities, because it helps us explore the properties of physics ourselves, without just being taught it and having to take notes.
  15. I enjoyed these types of instructions because again, it was unique among most classes. What made it unique was how we had multiple labs for one subject that we are learning, labs that are simple and yet effective. We would then go over these labs as a class, and share our knowledge of the lab.
  16. I believe that not having the reagents this year really makes this class more exciting and a class to look forward to, because there is no pressing appointment to struggle through work for a state test.
  17. I like this type of instruction very much because it is hands-on and allows the students to practice the material almost everyday. Another plus is that these activities are usually fun and we get to work with/meet new people.
  18. I like this type of instruction more than I like regents style instruction. I am not fond of Regents type material, and I like the interactive learning we do in class. These labs are a fun way of learning physics that Regents style lessons are not.
  19. I think that not just having you teach to the Regents test is totally beneficial to the learning in the class as a whole. I think that Regents exams are generally a waste of time and energy, and learning through labs and practical application is much more helpful.
  20. Because we don’t have the regents we are able to learn things we normally wouldn’t have been able to.
  21. This system was absolute beneficial to the students. I think the egg catcher was the most fun I’ve had in class all year. Plus, studying for the Test would require us to cover less interesting topics, I’m sure. In general, I like that we have a more hands-on approach to learning physics.
  22. In general, I enjoy these activities. The idea of Regents exams in general is bothersome to me, because they simply encourage the teaching of a narrow range of material; I like that we actually apply the concepts we learn in class to meaningful activities.
  23. I like hands on activities, especially the egg catcher project, they are helpful and are more enjoyable than lecturing
  24. This is definitely better, because the class doesn’t feel defined by a rigid schedule like some other classes. Also, the examples we learn about seem more relevant to life.
  25. I do enjoy these activities and being able to learn without the Regents curriculum is certainly a relief. I like that we often relate physics to everyday life with these activities. These activities are far more enjoyable than just simple lectures.
  26. It does have a very worthwhile impact on my understanding of physics. I would not believe some of the things we have learned this year if it wasn’t for the real life examples that were shown in these activities.
  27. I love the hands on type of class we have without the regents. I feel like the class is a lot more free and we can explore the topics that interests us the most.
  28. I like that you don’t have to teach to an arbitrary and standardized test, as it allows us to focus on things that are both more interesting and more fun to learn about. It also makes the learning process less stressful.
  29. I like the activities that we do in class because I learn better when its very hands on. This is better because we work together and we get to do work other than just listening to the teacher lecture.
  30. I like this a lot, not following a strict NYS standard lab helps kids to be able to grasp physics in interesting ways. A lot of the NYS labs are boring and don’t catch anybody’s interest therefore making them unfocused on the actual physics of it. I think physics is really cool and being able to explore it in ways that I want to makes me a lot more intrigued.
  31. The only thing I dislike is that I generally do very well on regents, and now I don’t have the chance to use my skill.

You gotta love that last one!

How Reformed is Your Teaching?

NOTE: This is an update to my Grading the Teacher post where I introduced the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) rubric.

How often in your teaching do you:

  • show respect for student’s prior knowledge and misconceptions?
  • engage students in exploration before your presentation?
  • allow student questions to guide your lessons?
  • engage students as members of a learning community?
  • promote strong conceptual understanding?
  • make connections to other disciplines and the real world?
  • represent phenomena in multiple ways?
  • have a significant amount of student-to-student talk?
  • play the role of “teacher as listener?”

According to the original RTOP rubric, those are just a few of the many characteristics of a reformed, inquiry-based classroom. But why are these characteristics important? And what are some examples?

Thankfully, I just discovered that physics teacher Drew Isola has edited the original RTOP rubric to create a more self-reflective guide to reformed teaching. In his version, he includes a description of what each criterion means, why it is important, and asks the teacher to give examples from his/her own teaching.

As we start a new year, think about the ways in which you can incorporate more of these teaching strategies into your classroom. (The PDF version above is posted on Scribd. You can access the MS Word version here. More information about the original RTOP rubric here.)

Grading the Teacher

In the comments to my previous post, Lee asked:

Frank, can you post your teacher evaluation? I have an end of the year one I could share with you as well if you are interested. I like your idea of offering the evaluation more than once. Here’s a link to my evalation: http://trampleasure.net/lee/index.php/430

I never understood why teacher evaluations are typically given at the end of the course. It makes more sense to do it early and often so your current students can benefit. After all, they are the ones who are taking the time to give you the feedback.

The first time I ask for feedback is right before parent’s night. It’s real simple. Everyone gets an index card or scrap of paper. I ask students to write down the things that are working for them on one side, things that aren’t working on the other. I compile the responses, share them with the class the next day, and respond to any concerns. It’s great for them to see what their other classmates think.

I also incorporate some of the positive responses into my Parent’s Night presentation along with photos of the class working in lab and whiteboarding. Here’s an example from several years ago:

(Note to physics teachers: I used to do Hooke’s Law with hanging weights, but kids got caught up in the mass/weight issue. Then I tried using force probes, as shown above. Now we use regular spring scales because it’s simpler. And simpler is better.)

Later in the year, my students do more formal teacher evaluations using Google Forms. This evaluation is one I’ve used for a long time, tweaking it each year. I have put a copy of the evaluation form in My SBG Files public Google Docs folder for you to use.

Finally, I think teachers should grade themselves and each other. One great instrument for this is called RTOP (Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol). The RTOP rubric assesses how well individual lessons use “reformed” teaching methods like whiteboarding, inquiry, using multiple representations, and student reflections on their own learning.

While RTOP was created for evaluating individual lessons, look at the descriptors and ask yourself how often do you do those in class? Everyday? Once a week? Once a month?

The RTOP website has videos of lessons with sample scoring, links to research papers about RTOP, and photo galleries of reformed teaching methods being used in class.

And if you are truly brave, video tape one of your own lessons and watch it. Truly eye opening!

Now matter how you do it, continuous reflection is a teacher’s best tool!