Thoughts on my First Experience with Standards-Based Grading

I just completed my first term using Standards-Based Grading, and I learned a lot from it.

What I liked about it:

  • The classroom atmosphere was no longer filled with stress and fear.  I think this was because assessments weren’t “final”.  No score was ever locked in, which meant that students paid more attention to the feedback than to the score.
  • Academic dishonesty was virtually non-existent.  This was probably due to the fact that there was no incentive to cheat on homework because only the student’s last grade on a particular standard would count.  When I used online homework in the past, the average homework score was typically at least 95% and there was almost no correlation between homework grades and exam grades.  This past term, I was fairly confident that there was no cheating because perfect scores were extremely rare.
  • Re-assessment seemed to work.  I kept track of the five lowest-scoring standards each week, and those lowest scores were almost always from what we had covered most recently.  Scores slowly crept up over time, and there were very few times when scores went down.
  • Students seemed more concerned with understanding the process than with getting the right answer.

Mistakes that I made:

  • I underestimated the amount of procrastination I would see from students.  Deadlines seemed to go against the spirit of Standards-Based Grading, so I didn’t really give any.  Interestingly, this was not much of a problem for the homework, but it was a major problem with the labs.  I assumed that most students would do a rational cost-benefit analysis and realize that they could maximize their grade by handing lab reports in as early as possible.  Instead, most of the lab reports were handed in for the first time within an hour of the final deadline.
  • My policy that re-assessments could be done at any time made for an unpleasant and chaotic final week of office hours.  There were a few students who were diligent about re-assessing during the term, but most students waited until the end.
  • I made my list of standards before preparing questions for some of them.  It turned out that some of the standards I had on the list weren’t very conducive to assessing multiple times.  The biggest culprit here was the standard “I know the ideal internal resistances of ammeters and voltmeters.”  Even the textbook only had one question on that topic.
  • My standards didn’t address the fact that not all ways of representing an answer have the same difficulty.  The ability to calculate something and the ability to answer a question using words, graphs, or proportional reasoning are very different things and should have been treated separately in my list of standards.  For example, scores on the topic of the Voltage Loop Rule fluctuated wildly depending on whether or not I gave actual numbers for the battery voltage and resistances.
  • The “A”, “B”, and “C” categories for my standards were largely irrelevant.  I felt like the different categories were clever because each category represented a different level of difficulty as well as the letter grade someone would get for mastery of all of those objectives.  In the end, though, the net effect of each standard on the overall grade was almost exactly the same regardless of whether it was a “C”, “B”, or “A” standard.

Overall, I can’t imagine going back to a points-based grading system.  That being said, there are some things that I need to change.  Here are changes that I plan on implementing next time:

  1. I need to set deadlines.  I put too much control in the hands of my students, and in the end it hurt them.  The deadlines will also apply to Student-Initiated Assessments.  If they want to fix their score on a standard, they will have a limited time to do so.  This way, re-assessments won’t all happen in the last week of the course.
  2. I will create a set of questions that I want to ask, then structure the list of standards around those questions.  This ensures that I have enough questions for a particular standard and that I am actually testing things that I care about.
  3. I will separate quantitative and qualitative skills on my list of standards.  This should reduce the amount of grade fluctuation.

I am glad I was able to figure out all the kinks on my own because next week I start teaching with two other professors.  I somehow managed to convince them to try SBG, and they have been great so far in accommodating me and the new system.  I’m looking forward to hearing their feedback in the coming weeks.