Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Digital Learning Portfolios

Purpose

Students creating and publishing digital portfolios allows them to personalize their learning. If they are used with self evaluation and reflective writing, portfolios can also get them focused their growth and progress, developing metacognition.

The idea of a digital portfolio is that it shows student work, and, ideally, tells a story about process and growth. The portfolio would have some sort of organizational focus, either by topic, or standard or skill. I use a system I call skills-based grading, which is focused on a fairly short list of transferable skills. A portfolio for standards-based grading would have many entries because of the many standards, ideally grouped by topic.

Portfolios are something meaningful you can use to evaluate student progress without changing much of what you do in class. I still give scores on plenty of more traditional items, like reports and homework and quizzes, but they just serve as feedback and become artifacts for telling their story in their portfolios. The scores don't become a grade until they become part of their story of growth and reflection. Here is a great example of a student portfolio. The name has been changed and some photos removed.

This strip isn't that relevant, but I love Get Fuzzy and I don't have my drawing stuff set up to do my own yet.


Choosing platform(s)

I think the hardest part about setting up digital portfolios is choosing the platform. This decision is based on many factors -- ease of use, features, school subscriptions, end product, privacy, and more. The two basic platform needs are a place to publish and a repository to store potential artifacts of learning for them to choose from when making their portfolio. They can be the same platform, but they don’t have to be.

I like the portfolios to end up as a web site, so we use New Google Sites. It is easy for students to use and fairly robust in options for what they can create. I create a "template" and show them how to make a copy of it. With New Sites it is easy to change layouts by clicking and dragging and dropping. It is also set up for easy embedding, which works especially well with other Google services, but almost anything that exists on the web with an address can be embedded.

My students document everything they do by posting it to their SeeSaw journal. It serves as an organized repository for learning artifacts, and I can monitor what they post and give feedback. They don't necessarily want everything they do in their portfolios. When they post to their journals, which can include drawings, photos, videos, audio, links, and combinations of those things, they choose which folder(s) to put the journal post in. Our folders are skill categories, but they could also be standards or topics folders. Each journal post gets a unique URL, and SeeSaw will even give embed code for each, so they can be easily embedded in a web site or other places that allow it. 

Other ideas for a portfolio platform could include other web site creation tools, digital lab book tools, journaling sites (like SeeSaw), blogging sites (like Blogger), Google Docs, and even Google Classroom assignment(s), if you don't care about portfolio ending up as a published site. Any sort of digital journal, or lab book, or repository (Google Drive folders) could work to hold their work before it gets organized in their portfolio, but I have found that having it in a journal that I can monitor and give feedback helps.

Template

Pushing out a template is not absolutely necessary, but if you have some idea of how you want them to be organized or how you want them to read, it can be quite helpful. Otherwise, setting them up and evaluating them can take forever. It's always nice to give student some creative freedom with layout and look, so it is good to try to balance that freedom with expectations.

I used skills-based grading for 25 transferable skills last year, and I included their descriptions in the template I gave to them. Here is what it looked like published. It's got tabs for the five skill categories and one example entry. If I shared the unpublished editing link with you then anyone with the link could edit it, which is the one problem I have with New Google Sites. I have share my "template" with students with editing rights, and then I have to walk them through making a copy of it and finding it their Drive to make their own before the start editing mine. You cannot actually make a real template. Only Google makes those. It's not that big of a deal though. 

I made some organizational improvements for year's template, as well as updating it to be about our newly revised list of 15 transferable skills. I also reduced the freedom for design a little because of uncertainty of when we will be in the same space, to streamline things. I'm going to have students embed and maintain a SeeSaw multipage journal post (kind of like a slideshow) for each of the 15 skills we will focus on in their New Google Sites portfolio. The embedded SeeSaw slide shows will include their rubric with self evaluation and will be accompanied by reflective writing. 

Guidance

Student tend to need a fair amount of help getting started. In the beginning, portfolios feel quite cumbersome, because of how much time it takes to get them established and to get students use to using them. There is a lot of front-end loading. Once you get in the the groove, though, it's as easy as, "Hey, folks, can we get the collaboration section of our our portfolios updated for evaluation by next Tuesday?" and students will know what to do.

I have found that student ability to reflect effectively varies wildly. There are some students for whom it clicks instantly and they thrive in the system. There are others who seem to never taken time to truly consider about their own abilities and behavior patterns, and the idea is confusing to them. I make a point to be patient with the latter group, and they usually come around. I like to work through an example of skill application and self assessment, once we have our rubrics established. Then I give my live example of what reflective writing might look like. I also provide this guide for reflective writing for skills growth I wrote to help them. So we basically walk through what a first entry in a portfolio would look like. This happens a couple weeks into class, as it takes time to establish rubrics together and wrap our heads around expectations and the class environment.

Expectations and grading

You need to decide what you want portfolios to be. Since I use them for 100% of my student's grades, I want them to be a robust story of their growth, and since I grade for growth, I want the portfolio to tell a growth story. This means I like having many artifacts related to each skill I assess, and that the reflective writing is going to tell a story about how a student got from early artifacts to the latest.

If you don't use skills-based grading, and I can't imagine you do because I can't find anyone who does, but maybe you use something like standards-based grading, that story of growth for each standard might be a bit overwhelming. You might just want to see their best work for each standard. If you use traditional grading systems, then arranging a portfolio by topic and telling a story of growth and experience can be robust.
 
I like to let students grade themselves before I do. It helps to have evaluation tools and expectations that are owned and understood by all parties. I make a point to grade for growth, replacing old grades with the latest. I have them turn in their portfolios and use rubrics on Google Classroom to grade them and give feedback.

You need to decide how often you want to grade and how much at a time. I found that requiring students completely updating all or most of a portfolio for all of the 25 skills we used last year was quite overwhelming. Collecting and grading sections of the portfolios at a time worked better. After they had something for each skill, updating them was not as intimidating, so they could handle multiple sections at  a time.

My advice

If you are considering portfolios I would recommend going all in and making them as much of the student overall grade as you are allowed. As previously mentioned, you can still do all of the stuff you might normally, like scored assignments, assessments, labs, etc, but just don't give students actual grades for those. Score them and let the score be feedback they can use as they discuss their growth and achievement in their portfolio.

I make a policy not to give students any grades until they have fully reflected and self evaluated. If I have done my job well they should have plenty of feedback from me to help them do that. Portfolios work great with this policy.

What did not work so well for us in the past was making portfolios one of many grades in the grade book. They were not taken seriously enough by most students, and I never saw the reflective writing I was hoping for from most students. They didn't have the regular practice with it. The portfolios simply became a summary piece that was one of many huge overwhelming projects they had at the end of term in their classes.

Having portfolios as the main avenue for earning a grade might seem like a huge change, but when you don't really change much else of what you do in class then it's not that big of a deal. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked, and I got so much meaningful mature feedback about how much students valued thinking about their growth over such a long term. I anticipate I'll work with this system for a long time. 

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I am working with my office mate teacher friend to revise our system, so I am actively adjusting and open to working with others who are interested.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Deconstructing our systems in education

Our systems in education often don't make sense when you boil them down to fundamental reasons for existing. When we recognize this, and acknowledge that change needs to happen, we tend to make the mistake of trying to work within the faulty system. It's not always our fault, because we, as teachers and administrators, do not always have the power to design systems or set policy, but we might be guilty of not making enough noise and arguments against them as regularly as we should. I see a trend in education -- important and effective change rooted in equity and the meaningful development of young learners always seems to come from K-12 educators. When we let anyone else design the systems they always end up rooted in misguided beliefs and/or greed. So we need to be that change.

When systems are in place that are rooted in nonsense, bias, outdated or obsolete situations, or sometimes, seemingly nothing, change needs to start with deconstruction and build up from a new foundation. The process of deconstruction of education systems has some parallels to the form of literary analysis. You often end up going so deep that you realize that previously held truths are either nonexistent, subjective, or complex and dynamic enough to be impossible to use as a foundation for a static system. Deconstruction is difficult and uncomfortable, but often necessary to build a system based on a solid foundation of moral structure and just motives.

Aliens and the big picture

In order to get the best appreciation of how ridiculous a system is it helps to back out for more of a big picture view -- the 30,000 foot view, if you will. This allows one to see how backwards a system might be before diving into the details and trying to deconstruct it. Sometimes this big picture view makes the system crumble and reveals the underlying issues immediately. It's like auto-deconstruction. Big picture TNT. Getting the big picture view is not always easy, especially when you have been working in the system. You are part of the system and the system has become part of what you do. You cannot see the forest for the trees.

To help get the big picture view I like to pretend I am trying to explain a system to a friendly curious alien who is somewhat familiar with our culture and society. Imagine you have that alien sitting down for a cup of coffee and she has a rudimentary idea of how our society functions. 

Let's take one of my favorite topics to deconstruct -- grading. Imagine trying to explain the alien what we grade for K-12 students and why. We grade students on compliance and of retention of information. This information can be almost instantly accessed by anyone on the planet. Imagine the alien inquires more about the details of the process, and then we have to start explaining that most of what we base their grades on is stuff we ask them to "learn" but which we know they most likely will never actually use. Not only that, but we use those grades to decide what kind of access students will have to future opportunity. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why you don't grade things that actually matter to development and learning, like the skills they will use.

Let's do another -- school start time. Imagine trying to explain to that alien that while it is well known that adolescents cannot effectively learn early when you make them wake earlier than their biological clocks say they should, and that doing so not only has measurable negative effects on learning but that lack of sleep has been shown to cause permanent brain damage, but that we do it anyway because a handful of extra curricular activities would be inconvenienced. Be ready to explain why learning so much useless information is deemed important enough to harm students. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why you don't just start school when it makes sense and build everything else around that.

How about another? Summers off. Imagine having to explain the the alien that it is well known that giving students a 3+ month break in the summer has measurable negative effects on education but that we do it because . . . we don't actually have a good reason. We just do. There were a handful of bad reasons the trend started a long time ago, but now we just do it because of the tourism industry and tradition. I imagine the alien follow up by asking why you don't just spread out the summer break throughout the school year.

One more. Subjects. Imagine trying to justify why you would separate art, math, writing, language and science into separate subjects with little-to-nothing connecting them. You have to explain that you are a math teacher who teaches only math skills, but you do not work with the other teachers who teach the classes where those math skills might be useful to make sure connections are made with skills and application. Pick a subject and you can most likely find a trend of teaching and learning that is missing many important connections to other subjects. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why you don't just combine subjects to make it all more relevant and connected.

Okay, just one more. Standardization. Imagine explaining to your new alien friend that while you know each individual student is different, with different interest, abilities, passions, skills, and that children grow and develop and different rates, that we decide to hold them all the the same standard at the same time with the same testing methods that don't really test their development and growth. Not only that, but we use those test results to figure out what track they should be on, and in many systems we make it quite difficult for them to get off of those tracks, even when they show great growth. I imagine the alien follows up by asking why we don't just figure out where students are in their development and interests and adjust their education accordingly.

I can keep going all day long on big picture views, but I think that's enough for now. I don't want to spoil any more future blog posts.

Diving in deep, without aliens

What about when the big picture doesn't seem to reveal big problems with a system, but we see evidence that there are problems? The imaginary alien coffee date might not work for auto-deconstruction for every system, or for someone who is closely tied to the system -- can't see the forest for the trees. Sometimes we have to start digging down into details to find reasons that the big picture view might hide.

For example, let's look at AP classes and AP tests. If you try to explain this to an alien the big picture might sound like it makes sense. Kids take these classes that prepare them for these tests which give them credit and a head start at the next level. It allows the more motivated and capable to work ahead and achieve, without punishing anyone by setting all standards for all students too high. However, if you start to deconstruct AP classes and tests you start to run into some pretty disturbing trends, motives, biases, inequities, and truths (or lack thereof). 

It is pretty well documented that AP curricula were hyperfocused on content retention for many years. The newer models and redesigned classes are more skill-focused, but those older classes running for decades as they were had lasting effects. Teachers trained for and worked in those systems for years, which can affect how the do things for their entire careers, and how students grow up to attempt to do, learn and even teach. The newer AP courses are still quite heavy in measuring content retention. When it comes down to it, AP tests measure how well you remember a subject and some of the ways you can apply the content from that subject. The tests mostly boil down to a test of remembering information that is instantly accessible outside of a regulated AP test.

AP test scores can get you college credit. If you start to look at who does well on AP tests you quickly find out it is the students with all of the access and privilege. The good schools, with the highest average family socioeconomic status have the higher test scores. This means that the kids who would most likely benefit the most from getting some cheap college credit are not necessarily the ones getting it.

Why do high school students need to be earning college credit? This takes us down into another deconstruction rabbit hole. To graduate college early? I guess that argument could make some sense, but I have yet to find studies showing that is the result of AP test success. To save money? That seems like another good argument, but if you look at that reason it exposes another deep issue with our systems. College is unaffordable. If the reason to try to earn college credit in high school is that college credit is really expensive, that does not seem like a solid foundation for an education system. It sheds light on a major issue with another system.

You can dive deeper into those college systems and you don't ever arrive at any sort of foundation or truth that sounds anything like we do this because it is best for student development. The reasons always turn out to be because it is easier, or cheaper, or that's just how it has always been done.

Go at AP tests and AP classes from any angle and dig down and you get to bad reasons for doing them -- either money or to align with another system with even bigger issues. You never encounter any foundation built on a premise of healthy growth of a learner or the development of important skills.

You can dive into grading systems if the big picture alien idea wasn't enough for you. I won't hash out the deconstruction details again. It has already been a topic of some previous blog posts by me. The result you get when you boil down our grading systems is that we do it because it's easiest, or cheapest, someone can make more money from it that way, we believe remembering stuff is learning, or that's just how it has always been done. None of those are healthy foundations.

The questioning of what is wrong with teaching standalone subjects is a hard one to see the big picture on for many. Humans find is quite helpful to categorize things. Drawing boundaries can help us wrap our heads around big ideas. We have physics class, and everything in that class is physics. If it was mixed up evenly with math and art and writing then maybe it would not seem as much like physics and we would not have as easy a time seeing the big picture and patterns and major physics concepts. It turns out, without creative outlets, and writing, and taking time to truly make meaning of the math, physics is pretty impossible to learn for many students. The best physics teachers get the best results incorporating skills and ideas from outside of what one would probably label physics.

If we start to boil down the systems of running standalone subject classes, they tend to break down to the same base reasons that grading systems often have -- money, it's easier, because we have always done it that way, because another faulty system does it that way (college), and/or a belief that remembering stuff is learning. The foundations are never what they should be -- that it best serves the needs and interests of every learner.

Bandaids or something better?

We have all of these systems with policies in place that don't really make any sense, and instead of fixing the actual problems we try working within the systems and bandaids. We try to make our grading systems more fair by allowing for make-up assessments. We try to convince kids to go to bed earlier, like that works. AP teachers give summer homework, as if that is going to fix summer retention issues, ignoring the fact the retention as a goal is the issue.

If you don't get to design the systems, it might not seem like you don't have much control or freedom. I write a fair amount of stuff that people seem to agree with in principle, but I get a lot of responses like, 
"Yeah, but what am I supposed to do about it? I have to work in this system we already have. . . " 
or, 
"Tell that to the politicians!" 
or, 
"Changing how I do things is too scary, and I don't think I could pull that off."
All of those responses make sense to me. I lived all of those responses at some point.

So what is there to do? How can a teacher or admin affect change?

Be the change. Dconstruct your systems and rebuild them on solid foundations. This tends to be a crazy soul-searching endeavor that takes a while and it is best to do with a colleague or two.

Start the conversations and keep them going. If our systems are not rooted in what is best for students and they even harm many students then we should be talking about that all the time. K-12 educators are the best candidates for crafting the solutions. It can also help to reach out to college and university educators. You will probably have the most luck with professors in college of education that train teachers and do research in education, but there are some progressive professors in all colleges and departments who actually care about improving education systems.

Write to your politicians and policy makers. Tell them what is wrong. Even better, give them a solution. People love it when you give them a solution. They might even give you credit or ask you to be part of crafting the design details an implementation of a new system.

Advocate for students. Tearing down old systems and building new systems based on actually supporting young learners is advocating for students, but people might not realize that's why you are doing it unless you tell them.

Educate yourself. Stay informed. Stay up to date. Know that the research says, know what the opposition says, know what everyone says. Know what our students say. Know what your gut tells you. 

Most important, know why. Know why we do things the way we do, and if the reasons are not good ones that are student-centered, then figure out how to make them so they are.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Whose idea was that, yours or theirs?

The problem -- We give students our questions to answer and our problems to solve.

Before I dig into this issue and offend all of the teachers reading this, I want to say that I am a huge fan of questions. I am also a huge fan of teachers collaborating about cool questions we could be asking in interesting and engaging ways. It's super important. But we should not be forcing our students to answer our questions as often as we do. I am a guilty party here. If I am writing about an issue here it is often because I first saw the problem in myself and what I do, and then I noticed it was bigger than just me.


This problem with asking all of the questions for students, or giving students pre-arranged problems to solve, is a trend in physical science education. It probably extends into other subjects and fields as well, but my experience is mostly with science teachers. A teacher spends a bunch of time and energy dreaming up some really impressive questions for students to engage and then gives them to students. This often takes the form of a really well thought-out problem, lab exercise, challenge, or project. It might involve a fairly complicated setup, maybe even some equipment arranged in a creative and clever way. Most often, though, there is a question or problem involved. And the teacher is the one who came up with it or found it.

We should try to avoid defining questions and laying out the format for students to answer them. Both steps of identifying questions and organizing their answers are essential parts of the creative design process. Completing those steps for students takes away much of the possible meaning of solving a problem, and is often nothing more than setting up hoops for them to jump through. We take the majority of the possible meaning out of a problem and keep it as our own. Even if there are multiple routes to explore with creative freedom for solving our problem, they still have no ownership of the problem, so we greatly diminish the chance that they will take anything useful away from it.

Let me give some examples of where I see this in physics education.
  • A teacher comes up with a clever "real world" physics problem with only one solution.
  • A teacher comes up with a clever "real world" physics problem with multiple solutions.
  • A teacher come up with a clever physics problem and lays out empty graphs for students to fill out.
  • A teacher invents a really cool lab where students all use the same equipment to investigate the same thing. There is a template for responses.
  • A teacher gives a demonstration and leads a discussion about testable questions, guiding students to use the lab equipment which is all laid out on the table obviously set up for the question the teacher guided them to.
  • A teacher sets up some really cool physics demonstration(s) and then asks students challenging questions about them.
  • A teacher assigns an engineering project with either prescribed solution or obvious pigeon-holed solution.
  • A teacher writes some code that almost solves a problem and asks students to finish it.

There is nothing necessarily wrong or bad about any of those, except for the fact that they all start with "A teacher". This is a big part of what is wrong with education now. Our teachers are doing the dreaming up of cool questions, of awesome problems to solve, of fun lab questions to investigate. Students are just jumping through the hoops. Sometimes we make them find the hoops and stand the hoops up in the right order themselves before they jump through them, but they are still jumping through our hoops. They might be super fun meaningful hoops, where they get to learn and collaborate and explore, but they are not as meaningful as they would be if they were exploring their own questions and problems.

This is definitely a trend I see with the actively collaborating science teachers, the ones who all pat each other on the back and nominate each other for awards, but it is an issue for any teacher trying to get new ideas. We can be super creative and fun and outgoing and awesome, and we all get together and share ideas (mostly things for student to do) which are often super impressive, but they are impressive because a quite capable physical science teacher dreamed them up. We all take those ideas for problems for students to solve with our solutions in mind and push them on our students, instead of giving students the room to be super fun and creative and awesome in our subjects. Those problems show a teacher’s understanding of content. Students answering them is their attempt at showing they brushed up against the teacher’s understanding.

How often do we see science teachers passing around lab ideas, or problems/challenges, or project ideas? They seem to change hands regularly in many teacher groups. We trade them like currency and worship the teachers with the best ideas with the best typography. We get stuck in these weird teacher echo chambers and can't see outside of the noise of them. Our ideas bounce around getting perfected and polished and reworked until we have this perfect problem for students to solve. And then we wonder why the students are not as excited about it as we are.

Almost everything I see shared by teachers with other teachers are plans for students to do something. How uninteresting and uninspiring from the students perspective. It's no wonder we manage to crush the creativity out of them.

The solution -- Let students ask their own questions and make their own meaning.


Stop giving students our wonderful dreamed up complex problems. Let them dream them up. I'm not just talking about leading students to what we want them to explore in the manipulative way all of us effective teachers can. Let them actually come up with their own testable question and explore it. Let it be okay that it is not the same as another group's. Don't give them a template to fill out, but rather guidance for technical communication. Let them dream up their own problem to solve with a project, just help them keep it relevant. Let them help decide what successful solving will look like. Let them figure out what kind awesome problems they can solve with their findings and let them solve them. Let them crash. Let them try again.

That's it. That will solve the problem. Easier said than done, of course. That solution has chaos and failure worked into it at every turn, but it should. Those are things we should be embracing, but we often try to avoid them like they are bad. Students don't need more practice hoop-jumping, they need opportunities to ask questions about the chaos that is the physical world, find a problem to solve, design their own solutions, fail at that, and then try again.

That was short

My solutions to big problems with education are always much shorter than my defining and complaining about the problem, but that is because the solution are all attempts to try to solve the same major issue with modern science education systems -- we, as educators, too often do way too much to try to establish all of the meaning, context, and questions for students and then we expect them to make meaning jumping through our hoops. Let the students ask the questions and make the meaning. 

Every solution I have ever crafted to this problem is stupid simple. They always look like I did almost nothing, which is kind of the idea. My systems are all empty vessels for students to do the creative work. Guides to be a better guide. We should stop doing all of the creative thinking for our students and spend our time and energy creating systems that will allow them to safely explore their own questions.

The ones doing all of the creative thinking in our classes are the ones doing all of the meaningful learning. Let's make sure that is the students, not just the teachers.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

How to switch to skills-based grading

I have some really long posts about skills-based grading and discussion of issues with other systems as well as my experience and opinions. Here I will attempt to write a shorter guide for how to make the change to skills-based grading. It's pretty easy, and once you do I can't imagine you'll want to go back.

Things you need to do:
  • Decide on a list of skills to work on
  • Develop your methods of evaluating them
  • Choose platform(s) for submission, reflection and feedback
  • Plan for frequency of measurement
  • Set up your gradebook

None of those things are that difficult. The most involved and time-consuming of them might be the methods of evaluating, but ideally you would be developing those with student input, so they do not need to be finished to start school. Let's break down the steps. I'll share a bit of my solutions too.

Decide on a list of skills to work on

Think about the general skills that students need to be successful in your course. Think about skills they need to be successful in other courses in your department. For me, I think about what skills student need to do physics successfully. Then I make sure those skills also apply well to other science subjects. The ones which seem to only apply to physics I toss out. Here is our current list of skills for high school science.


Everything students do in class can be connected to one or more of these skills. There are only 15 of them. We ran with 25 last year, but after reviewing them at the end of the year and reducing redundancies, this is what we settled on. We will probably tweak them a bit, but this is generally what our list will look like.

Develop your methods of evaluating skills

I highly recommend you develop these with your students. You do not need to have these in place when school starts. If you can take time to talk them through and develop them with student input then students will understand them and take greater ownership.

This is where the details of a skills-based grading system live. This is where you can differentiate for your subjects, grade levels, classes and even individual students. There are plenty of different systems of mastery ratings used out there. Pick your favorite one or choose one that seems to make it easiest and most fair to convert them to a grade later on. 

In general, you would need some sort of rubric that is useful to both you and students for assessing performance with each skill. You would use the same rubrics many times during the year, and students would use them to assess themselves and each other. The rubrics should include, or be accompanied by, detailed objectives and expectations. I use rubrics like the example below. For some of them I also make a checklist form of the rubric, which students find useful. Here is an older rubric from last year.



I might change that rubric to be more about using simulations, rather than writing them and using them, for a class that doesn't code. My chemistry teacher friend who uses this system will use a version that is mostly about using simulations in science. I think it's pretty easy to see how one might add elements and converting the list to a checklist for students. Some rubrics read less like lists and more like descriptions, but for technical applications a checklist can make things more clear for students. Here is an example of a checklist I used last year. You could fairly easily decide on how the number of checked items corresponds to different mastery ratings.


My plan this year is to move to checklists. They are more useful for students and I tend to list objectives and expectations in my rubrics anyway.

Choose platform(s) for submission, reflection and feedback

The choice of platform is a combination of personal preference, convenience and ease of use for all parties. You need a good way to collect student work and reflection, give feedback on it, and keep a record of it. This might be a combination of systems. For informal feedback I like to use paper rubrics. Students can grab one, or I can, and use them to assess work without it counting for a grade. Or you can use them for a grade as well. 

I like to use a digital platform, like Google Classroom, for my official records. But my students create digital portfolios, and the complex rubrics you can make in Classroom happen to be quite useful for assessing those. Any LMS where students can submit pictures of stuff and digital files and you can either fill out rubrics or return a pic of one should work. Moodle, Edmodo, Canvas, Schoology, and many other LMS's should work fine for this.


My students use SeeSaw to document and journal most of what they do. They keep their journal post organized in folders that match the skills category names. The can then choose from this work to have their skills assessed when that time comes. They use New Google Sites for making digital portfolios, but portfolios are not necessary for skills-based grading. Just the SeeSaw journal would be enough. 

I have also used Google Classroom to make an assignment for each skill with rubric attached. That works pretty well, and students can re-submit. If I did not use portfolios I would have my student submit SeeSaw journal entries to the Classroom assignments. The SeeSaw part is not necessary, but they are digital artifacts that can be linked and embedded and they are organized as they post them.

Plan for frequency of measurement

When you measure these skills and how often might depend on many factors, like when students want grades, when the school wants grades, how often you want to give formal assessment, how much time you want to spend filling out rubrics, how easy your system is to use, or even the platform students use to turn in work for assessment. I like to use many rubrics informally for feedback during the quarter, and then students can use their work and those filled out rubrics to submit their final work for skill evaluation. If you keep some record of them, or make students keep a record of them, then you can talk about them like they are grades and progress at conferences. 

I have found that being flexible and willing to adjust, as well as trying to incorporate student choice, when skills are assessed is quite helpful. As I mentioned previously, my student create digital portfolios. I learned that trying to assess all of the skills for all of my students at one time is pretty time-consuming. It's best to do them in waves or one at a time when possible.

I highly recommend you maintain a policy of refusing to grade student work formally until they have submitted self assessment and thorough reflection. It helps make it about them and growth more, and less about jumping through hoops.

I also highly recommend you let student decide what is appropriate to be assessed for what skills. If you make all of those choices for them, then you will be the one examining what they do for relevance, thinking about the expectations, and making connections. You want them doing that. They should be sorting everything they do by attachment to skills.

I also highly recommend you base their grades on their most recent work. Do not allow only old work to be submitted for evaluation when they have more recent work. It keeps it about growth and it keeps them trying to grow.

Set up your gradebook 

There is nothing difficult about the grade book entries, but there are some options. Just make a entry for each skill in your gradebook. You can run it like a total points system, or you can make each skill category a weighted grade category. The weighted grade category can be useful to keep the skill categories at an even level of grade determination. That way if you haven't gotten to a skill in a category yet the average of that category can still determine 20% of their grade or whatever, if that is of interest to you. You can also just have a grade book entry for each skills category and have the details live somewhere else. I do this because out LMS is not very conducive to what I am trying to do. Our details live in Google Classroom, but our grade book is in a different environment.

The grade book might seem like the easy part, but deciding how this all translates to a grade can actually be pretty tough. When you use a system like this it isn't really about grades, it's about growth, but at some point we still have to assign grades. I try to arrange for my highest mastery rating for each skill (Exemplary) to be mostly out of reach and beyond course expectations, or A+ level work. I have average mastery rating cutoffs for grades. If a student gets at least five Exemplary ratings out of the fifteen total skills they will achieve an A+. An average of 4 for all skills, or Proficient, gets them an A, and my grades just follow a traditional 4 point scale down from there. How you do yours will depend on your situation, choices, students and school.

In summary

Setting up for skills-based grading is not difficult. The most time consuming part is developing the evaluation tools, but those should be crafted with student input. Choosing the right platform(s) for student to document, organize, reflect, and submit where you can give feedback and keep records is important. Finally, turning those mastery records into grades will have to happen for most of us.

You might have noticed there was nothing about changing your content activities in this post. You don't need to. You should be able to evaluate everything your students do with a general skills lens without making any changes. But you might find that using the skills lens sheds some light on how much time you spend on certain activities tied to the various skills, and you might find yourself making some adjustments there. The good news is that you don't have to worry about that too much ahead of time. It becomes quite obvious as you get into things. Just be ready to be flexible.

Good luck! Let me know if you need someone to bounce ideas off.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Grading is gross unless you grade for growth

The purpose of this post is to promote awareness and discussion of how ineffective most of our grading systems are at fostering a growth mindset in students. I will also offer what I believe to be descriptions of some aspects of grading systems that could do better.

I love talking about moving away from grading and into something which makes more sense, but that post is for another time. For now I am going to assume we need to assign traditional grades.

I am also working with the assumption that the reader values promoting a growth mindset with students. Most research converges around the idea that when students believe they can work to achieve they tend to do better than when they believe their ability is determined by inherent static talents. If you don't buy into that then you may as well quit reading now.


Grading systems we currently use

The two most popular grading systems for high school classes seem to be the traditional grading system and standards-based grading (SBG). There are other grading systems, like pass/fail, but the traditional systems and SBG seem to be the big ones in high school, especially in physical science learning. Many different styles of teaching and learning can be made to fit into either system. Many modelers associated with the American Modeling Teacher Association tend to be drawn to SBG systems, but modeling certainly works fine within a traditional grading system. I personally think full-on project-based learning fits a bit better in a traditional system than in SBG, but that all depends on what else is happening, if anything, for assessment in the class.


Traditional grading systems

Using a physics class as an example, like I always do, a traditional grading system might have weighted categories method of grade determination where tests make up 30% of the grades, and quizzes 20%, homework, 25%, labs 25%. Another option is a total points systems where each grade item is simply weighted by the total points, tests are 100 points, quizzes are 25, each homework assignment is 5 points, etc. In the first unit of a physics class a student might do three kinematics homework assignments, with two kinematics quizzes, a kinematics lab report, and a kinematics test. Each would have a grade entered in the grade book which would figure in to the quarter or semester grade. All units after would be structured similarly, resulting in bunch of entries in the grade book with names like Newton's Laws Test and Simple Pendulum Lab Report, and HW #13.

Standards-based grading

Many progressive teachers adopt a standards-based grading (SBG) system, with a goal of focusing learning and giving some room for growth and improvement before a grade becomes final. SBG grade books often simply have a single entry for each content standards student need to master. For example, there might be and entry for Create line graphs using measured values of position and elapsed time. 

Mastery of each content standard would most likely be determined with some complexity using multiple attempts at showing mastery for each content standard, and the teacher would have some method of using data from those to determine a grade. That standard would get a score and there would be a number of others in the grade book with equal weight. The average score of all content standard score or rating would determine a final grade. 

SBG systems are meant to give students a chance to focus more on the actual content, not points or performance on one-off assessments. A SBG system often includes opportunities for re-assessing and alternative assessment options. They are designed to promote a more growth mindset and offer a more fair grading system in which students can work and learn.  


Problems associated with popular grading systems

Most teachers are required to assign grades based significantly on measurements of content retention and application. We also tend to give grades for other things like compliance, citizenship, participation, etc, but the large portion of a student grades in most high school classes will be determined by how well that student does on assessments and assignments tied to the content of the class. It makes sense for most teachers. It is how they did school. It's how school has always been done, it seems.

I was about to start writing about my grading system recently and I was thinking about all of the reasons why it makes sense to me and then I saw this Tweet.
It's important to make arguments for why a new system makes sense, but if you are trying to tear down a current system to replace it with something better it's also important to justify the changes by explaining why the current system does not make sense. That Tweet does a pretty good job of summarizing a big part of the problem. 

Both traditional and SBG systems generate problems and stresses with students that often result in something other than a healthy growth mindset. There are plenty of teachers out there with strategies to mitigate these problems and reduce stress, but when the root of the problem is actually the grading system there is only so much one can do.

Issues with popular grading systems and growth

Let's consider teacher evaluations. They can be a source of stress and conflict at some schools. We are often evaluated by administrators based on some aspect of teaching that we (or they) identify as an area in which we should improve. Think about what your last one was. 

Administrators observe us, and then we meet with them, and we spend a lot of time and effort trying to get better at whatever aspect of teaching we identified. We might be observed a number of times after that, and part of our evaluation might be based on if we got better at whatever we were working on. Imagine you worked really hard and got really good at whatever you were trying to improve, and you moved from what you both decided was an ineffective rating (let's call it a C-) to a highly effective rating (an A+)!. 

But then your admin says, "Well, taking the average of all of the observations of your teaching over the school year you are actually only at an effective rating (a B), so that is what you will be getting." 

You made a point to work really hard to get good at something, and you got to where you were actually highly effective at it, but for some reason you final grade was determined by the average of all of your observations. Of course, your observations over the school year involved you teaching different topics, but why should that matter? It was supposed to be about that aspect of your teaching you identified to work on.

That is what we do to students! We give them all of these strategies and procedures for doing our subjects correctly. We demand that they follow them. We make them work on those same skills over and over on different topics but we give them a final grade based on the average of all of the applications of those skills.

Let's use physics as an example again. If you give students credit for their work in organizing a problem and showing work and you have a policy, like many good physics teachers do, that the right answer isn't actually worth all that much, it's more about the process, then you are really mostly grading problem-solving skills. But for some reason we name the grade after the content standard they were applying it to and we let that grade sit permanently in the grade book. Even when they have shown they have gotten much better at problem-solving down the road, we let the old grades factor in to their final evaluation.

If we are really just trying to grade problem-solving ability, or graphing skills, or lab design, and we are really interested in promoting growth in those skills, then why are we naming student attempts at applying those skills after the content standards, and why do we let their early attempts sit in a grade book to punish them forever by lowering their grade? 

It's supposed to be about growth. Why do we care so much that they figured out every content standard? We know research says they won't remember that stuff. There's just too much of it and they won't use it often enough.


Traditional system issues

The traditional grading policies and the common methods used to calculate them, weighted categories and total points, have plenty of issues associated with them. Students do some task, they get a grade, they may or may not have an opportunity to try to do better, and then eventually that grade is locked in and they move on. They can wash their hands of that content, or they believe they can, even though we tell them it will be important for what is coming next. Once a unit ends, often with a test, students rarely spend more time than we force them to considering what went well and what did not and how that should affect what they do going forward in new material.

They tend to develop an attitude that they need to achieve on a task, and if they don't, then oh, well, it's on to the next task. It's not really conducive to a building a growth mindset. I failed that rotation test. I guess I'll just try harder when we start electricity. Offering make-up opportunities can get closer to growth thinking, but it is too often short term growth centered on content standards. I did better on that rotation make-up test. Man, I hate that topic. I'm happy to move on to electricity. Rotation wasn't for me. Students will still attempt to leave it behind, like they should, if it is something that isn't relevant to their lives.

With points counting in a running tally you get points-chasing on one-off assignments and assessments. The focus is on the score, not the understanding. You get shortcuts, tricks, memorization, begging for extra points, and all kinds of behavior not associated with growth as student try to get points and scores.

Students often start of a class with major discouragement from traditional grading systems. Getting all of the skills in place to be successful in a high school course takes some students longer than others, especially students who are already disadvantaged. Writing an essay is not easy to do effectively at first. If a student has to accept a poor grade on their record it can kill their motivation going forward. It's easier to give up and accept that they just aren't cut out for it. 

In physics it often takes students a while to get used to how to do well, especially if you start with mechanics. Math is all of a sudden a big deal in science, and it's this weird vector math they have never done before. Kinematics is an especially dry topic with very few actual reasons why things are happening involved. A kinematics test is a great way to make sure an intro student hates physics, and when it sits in their grade book it will remind them how much they hate it. Re-ordering topics might help, but it still takes many students a while to figure out the skills for success in physics. 

The first unit of a challenging math-based physical science class often only discourages students, making them feel like they are just not able to be good at physics. This is the opposite of what anyone who is trying to foster growth mindset wants. The traditional systems do not really make room for growth. Teachers attempt to make them more fair and appealing by implementing lowest score drops in categories or extra credit, but those policies tend to contribute to grade-chasing and minimum performance/effort strategies, not growth thinking.

Standards-based grading issues

Standards-based grading sounds a lot better in theory than traditional grading systems, but it can easily generate large amounts of stress and frustration, and the number of standards can cause problems. SBG can also further steer the focus of learning away from important skills, as the focus becomes content mastery. With traditional grading systems you get lab skills, and problem-solving skills that are easily made important by figuring into how assignments and assessments are graded. If you try to make too many of these skills into standards to be graded in a SBG system, which may seem like a wise choice, then the list of graded standards can quickly grow into something unmanageable (more on this later).

I have run both the traditional and standards-based grading systems in my physics classes. For years I did traditional, always with the intention of going SBG, and every time I thought I was ready to dive into SBG I would balk and go back to my traditional system. Once I finally actually tried SBG I found I liked it, and I wished I would have tried it earlier. Students seems a bit less stressed, and most of the students who needed the extra chances at improving took advantage of the opportunities to expand their understanding and re-assessed with improvement.

While the SBG system felt better, I didn't see too many changes with how students approached learning, besides noticing it was easier for them to pinpoint exact content they struggle with. To students it just seemed like I had a weird grade book that was a dissected series of quizzes and tests subtopics, and that I offered custom make-up quizzes focused on what they didn't do correctly the first time. They appreciated that, but it did not really seem to change the way they approached learning. There might have been some less stress for some, but the ones who needed to improve and re-assess actually got pretty overwhelmed with trying to learn new material while also trying to figure out the old. 

It seemed to me that the biggest changes with taking on a SBG system were on my end, but it was manageable. There was a ton of book keeping that was much different than what I was doing before. Anything that I wanted to use for actual formal assessment had to be tied to the content standards. It wasn't really that hard or anything, but I was the one doing all of the thinking, identifying, categorizing, writing questions, inventing problems and scoring. 

The fact that the major difference of the new grading system was mostly a ton of extra work for me should have been a sign that it wasn't doing much for the students. The ones doing the all of the creative work tend to be the ones doing the learning. I had a plan for fixing this issue, with getting the students choosing what should be assessed out of their work for each standard. 

It was during this reflection and brainstorming of a plan that I really started to become aware of the fundamental issue with SBG and the traditional systems -- they are mostly based on content performance and much of content is fleeting in nature and arguably not that important to students, making the systems counterproductive to building a growth mindset. And if you try to add important through-line skills the number of standards gets overwhelming.

Standards-based grading, but with less standards and more meaning

Whatever solutions we can find to fix grading they should centered on long term growth and based on fairness. We should not be giving grades that stick in the beginning of a course. Any early grades should be seen as feedback and students should play an active role in using that and other feedback in figuring how to replace those grades with better grades by working to get better at what matters most.

I do not necessarily have a full solution to the problems, but I have some ideas I have been trying, and I have some ideas of what foundations on which one might build a more fair growth-focused system. I have a set of blog posts focused on what I think might work if you are interested. I am glad I tried standards-based grading. It allowed me to develop what I think is an even more fair and meaningful grading system based on some of the guiding principles and ideas from SBG.

It was during reflection and refining of the list of standards for my SBG system in between semesters that I finally figured out what was wrong with the standards-based grading approach and how I could modify it to work better for building a growth mindset. As I was moving between semesters I was changing the grade book to include the content standards which were important to semester 2, while dropping most of what was semester 1 content.  

There was a group of content standards that I called General Science and Math Standards or something. They described things like graphing skills, and solving systems of equations, and breaking down word problems, and writing Python code, and designing lab investigations, and collaborating, and technical communication, and many others. It was a list that had continued to grow throughout the year and they were skills that I found myself reassessing all the time because they were required to do all of the stuff we do in class. Those standards stayed in the grade book throughout the year. As that list of general science standards grew the total number of standards I was grading got unmanageable. 

The physics content standards plus the general skills were just too much and everything was getting lost in the details of book keeping. I started lumping together physics content standards to make the list more manageable for everyone, but at some point I realized I was sort of just making topic assessment grades (subtopic quizzes) by doing so. If Modeling situations with constant velocity kinematics becomes a content standard with different aspects like graphing, motions maps, table trends, and vector math wrapped into it, then how is that really any different than having a constant velocity quiz?

I was starting to see how much more value those general science standards seemed to have than the content  standards associated with specific content items. Why did Apply the independence of the vertical and horizontal initial velocities to solve projectile motion problems share equal weight with the essential skill of being able to break down word problems with diagramming and organizing information for use in mathematical solving? In fact, wasn't the projectiles problem-solving standard just an example application of that general science skill? Why was is so important that they get the projectile's problem-solving mastered? Did they really need a grade for that? Of if they did get a grade for it, then why couldn't the next grade where they used that skill in a different physics topic replace the previous one?

I'm not sure if grading general skills as the course standards is the answer, but at least they are examples of useful skills that are needed for every physics topic. They could be graded repeatedly and used as through lines on which students can focus their growth over the whole course. Chose the general skills to grade wisely and they might even seem worth grading to students. 

In summary

Most of our current grading systems can discourage student development of a growth mindset for learning. They do so by the very nature of being rooted in content mastery grading, which often results in early student performance grades included in determination of a final grade. Standards-based grading is a decent start at a system for growth but it still has the content focus problem, and it often includes too many standards. It is possible to modify a SBG system to tack long term growth. If standards, skills or goals in a SBG system be identified as essential to all topics in a course, then they can be tracked/graded through an entire course. If students can focus on getting better at them and the teacher bases grades on growth on them, the students will be allowed to work in a fair and meaningful system that can help them build a growth mindset.

Thanks for reading. I hope I didn't offend anyone too much. We all work within these systems and sometimes it's hard to hear some jerk we don't know telling us we are doing it all wrong. Well, I didn't say that. I just said you are grading stuff wrong, but it's not your fault. You didn't invent the system. But you might be able to re-invent or modify it to make more sense. I'd love to talk about it if you want.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

If you love some science, set it free. Part 2 of 2 -- a solution

The purpose of this post is to offer a solution to the problem discussed in part 1, which is the unfair and unwise use of content standards to determine student grades. I'll break down my solution -- skills-based grading. 

It's really skills-focused learning and assessment, but I am going to assume that we are all operating in a system where we have to assign grades in the end. Until we kill that policy I'll keep the name. It has some parallels with standards-based grading (SBG), so having a similar name is useful.

My motivation for sharing this is hope that others might be inspired to try it. It changed the feel of my classes so drastically in a positive way, and they were already pretty fun. The feedback I got from students, nuch of it unsolicited, was overwhelmingly positive. But I didn't even need that feedback to see the changes in student attitude and performance. It's an easy switch too, because it is really just about adopting a more fair and focused grading system based on what is truly valuable to take away from a learning experience. No change to content activity is necessary.

I'll break it down by

What is a skills-based grading system?

A skills-based grading system is a set of tools and policies which establishes expectations and procedures for measuring growth of a set of general learner skills over time. It is used for students and teachers to assess and drive growth of skills throughout a course. Student and teachers use student work and experiences from class to assess their skills. Instead of dozens of content standards to measure for learning, student work is evaluated based on a smaller set of general skills. Assessing learning through the lens of transferable skills allows students to focus on their actual strengths and weaknesses, reflecting and planning for meaningful growth over time.

Daily class in a skills-based grading classroom looks a lot like what you already do. Where it differs for students and teachers in terms of assessment and grading.

The student and/or teacher decides it is time to assess skill mastery for one skill or multiple skills. The student submits work with self assessment, thorough reflection, and a plan for future growth. The teacher assesses that work, giving meaningful feedback and mastery ratings, which replaces whatever ratings the student had previously. The cycle continues. Ideally, students grades are determined by their most recent skill mastery rating evaluations. All skill mastery ratings are replaced with new. Growth is the focus.

Skills-based grading should focus on general science learner skills that track through an entire class, and ideally it is used in a system that offers student choice at some level. Choice can mean when things happen, what type of assessment, what platform or media, or whatever freedom of choice makes sense for the class, situation and student. 

Class-appropriate skill mastery expectations and measurement tools are developed by students with teachers and should be used by all parties to revisit and re-evaluate their skills throughout the semester/year. Also, when called for, individual learner-appropriate mastery expectations and measurement tools can be developed by a student with a teacher and used by both.

Ideally, a science department, division, or entire school would adopt a set of general skills for learners and track student progress. Each skill would have documented mastery expectations appropriate to the grade level, class and/or student. But the system works great on it's own in a single class.

In a grade book this can look like a single equal weighted entry for each skill, or one entry for each skill category, or if you decide to go the route of portfolios, a single grade with the details and breakdown living elsewhere. A skills-based grade book can look a lot like a standards-based grade book, except a skills-based grade book would look the same every quarter/semester and class.

Who needs skills-based grading?

Every single student and teacher.

Every student and teacher deserves to focus on what really matters. We are trying to prepare our youth to be contributing citizens to society, not vessels of partially remembered Wikipedia information. Every class should focus on what is relevant, what inspires, and what skills students need to learn and function responsibly and at a high level in the world. There is absolutely nothing contradictory about using a wonderful topic like physics to do this. But basing a grade from a physics class on the retention of practically useless physics content items makes it too much about the physics and too little about preparing the student for situations outside of physics. This is true for any science subject or topic.

All students deserve equal access to education and fair and useful assessment of their learning. Science, especially physical science, is full of inequity and injustice at so many levels, and it goes all the way back in time.

In order for a grading system to be inclusive, to help battle inequity, and to operate independent of access to resources, it must offer equal opportunity to all learners. It must cater to every student's interest and needs, and it must be adaptable to every student situation.

Where can skills-based grading work?

Anywhere. Everywhere. This system can work in any classroom, in any school, in any setting, and in any topic. It operates off a short list of transferable skills that are applicable and adaptable to any science learning situation. The details for expectation are in the skill mastery rubrics which are made appropriate for learner level in each class.

Why use skills-based grading?

It makes learning more relevant, meaningful and empowering. The focus is on learner skills that any learner can take away and use in any situation to learn anything. Student can be easily convinced of relevance. It is easy to show how general learner skills are useful in all aspects of life. It is tough to do this for many content standards.

It fosters the development a growth mindset over time, with regular practice of reflection, self assessment and planning for future growth. Developing awareness of one's own strengths and weakness and using that to plan for growth is a necessary ability for students, and it is often ignored on the student end in K-12 education. With an entire course to focus on skills, this effort is no rushed, but rather can be tackled strategically and thoughtfully over time.

It reduces stress associated with one-off assessments and assignments based on standardized content that get left behind, but with grades that stick around. When combined with a grading policy that encourages and rewards growth, students focus more on the present and future, using their past experiences as a foundation for understanding how to grow.

It increases risk-taking which increases engagement and makes room for passion. When students are not obsessed with a grade they are about to get that will stick around forever as a judgement of their worth, they tend to take more risks and try new things with less worry. If they know that failing at a task does not mean failing at a grade, then they won't be as afraid to fail. That is huge. Quite possibly the best reason and argument for the model. Our current systems vary rarely allow for students to use failure as a positive growth opportunity.

It's fair. It offers up the chance for a teacher to allow for choice and flexibility for students. Expectations can be catered to a student situation when needed. If done with a growth model policy, it evaluates student by where they end up, not where they started. No one is punished by where they started.

It includes the important steps of reflection, self assessment, and planning for future growth, which we often skip in K-12 education. Too often it is teachers who are the ones putting most of the thought into what students can and should do to develop and learn, which is silly because but we are they ones who already know. We create well-thought out tasks, challenges, assignments and situations for student to complete. Students are often just along for the ride and going through the motions. What if we ask students to dream up ways of showing learning and mastery? What if it is on them to figure out what is relevant and how, and what if they start using that to identify more opportunities to explore and improve?

You don't have to change much of what you do on a regular basis. Switching to skills-based grading might only means you change how assessment and grading is done. You can even use all of your regular methods of grading and feedback, but now they are initially just for feedback. Give a quiz, grade it, and give it back. The student can use that feedback for skill evaluation arguments. The same applies to everything you use in class. 

Skills-based grading might encourage you to make some improvements to what you spend time on in class. It did for me, but it was a fairly easy adjustment to time allotment for activities associated with skills, rather than a panicked pacing adjustment to content. I found that, although I claimed that reflecting was an important skill, I did not really give students time for it, so I dedicated the end of every class to reflective journaling. That was an easier adjustment to rationalize and make than moving days around to adjust to "cover" content.

It works well with remote learning. Student have various levels of access to resources and time with remote learning. Allowing for flexibility with what they use to show skill mastery and not allowing permanent records of grades they earned during uncertain crazy times is fair. 

It can increase deep learning of content. That might seem counter-intuitive and hard to believe, but it's true. How can moving the focus from content assessment to skill assessment result in students learning more content? It comes from a combination of less stress, more flexibility, more risk-taking and the resulting increase in actual interest in content. If knowing the content is not the source of worry then the content can be the source of fun, excitement and inspiration. You also spend less time reviewing for, taking, and reviewing solutions to quizzes and tests. That's more time for more useful exploration of content.

When should we start doing this?

Yesterday. Students have instant access to all kinds of digital information and they have for years, but many of us are still teaching like we are a student's greatest and fastest source of content next to a textbook or encyclopedia. That's just not the case. Education needs to stay relevant and we have been slow to adapt the the fact that content is at everyone's fingertips. The skills for how to explore, understand and apply that content are what students need.

How do I start skills-based grading?

Decide on a set of skills to use. Develop and publish expectations and evaluation tools, ideally with student input. Model using them to self assess and reflect for growth. The hardest part for many learners is figuring out how to do honest reflection. Teenagers are still trying to figure out who they are, so asking them to evaluate themselves requires some modeling.

Provide opportunity and guidance for skills growth. You already do the opportunity part, assuming you run a science class focused on active learning and inquiry. You might have to show students what applies to what skills in the beginning. After that they should be able to do it themselves, but it is easy to point out connections on the fly if they need help.

Find the right platforms for students to share their work, reflections and self assessment where you can give your feedback. Evaluate and track their progress. Update their mastery ratings accordingly as you go forward.

To what extent?

To the fullest extent if you really want to get the most out of it. It's tempting to hybridize things that are new big changes to how we do education. We like to dip our toes in the water to test how new things might work. I have learned that not only is that not the best way to see if something can work, it is often a way to set that new thing up for failure and make it seem like it could never work. 

For example, I tried student digital learning portfolios as part of a more traditional grading system and then again as part of a standards-based grading system, where they had their regular grades in the grade book as well as a portfolio grade. It was pretty lame on the portfolio end. They treated it as just another assignment they had to do at the end of the quarter. It wasn't until I made routine portfolio evaluations the only route to a grade that portfolios grew into what I always dreamed they should be. I set portfolios up for failure the first two times because I didn't go all in. Not everything is an all-in kind of deal, but what I truly desired out of portfolios was. I think skills-based grading is the same kind of deal.

Going all in on skill-based grading is not a painful change. It is easy to sell to students and parents, because the benefits to students are fairly obvious. You just need to figure out what skills, platforms and tools to use for assessing skills and how often to do it. The good news is that grading based on skill mastery does not require any changes with planning of content for a course. You probably already use digital platforms that are appropriate for this. This does not mean developing new labs, or projects, or homework, etc. Just new policy and maybe a new platform for reflection/feedback loops. You can dive right in doing the same stuff you do most days in class without changing anything except how grades are determined, and that is easier than it sounds.

Our system and my experience

Before I get into some details of what we do, I want to reiterate some of the important positive results from making the change. The feel of my classes changed drastically with this switch, and more so than I expected. It took some time to get students used to it. They had never worked in a system like this before. But once they understood it they quickly grew to appreciate the fairness of it. Stress levels went way down. I had grade-chaser perfectionists who had never gotten lower than an A+ being okay with a B for the majority of a semester, because they understood they were working on growth and that they did not have to start with perfection. Without the stress of constant imminent permanent grades happening all of the time students relaxed, they took more risks, they were more engaged, and they did more impressive work. I no longer had an issue with some students carrying others through labs or projects. And this was all during a pilot year where I had no idea what I was doing, and then a pandemic happened. I am super excited for this coming year, assuming the pandemic doesn't completely destroy it. Skills-based grading works quite well for remote learning.

I stumbled on this idea for a 100% general skills-based grading system when I was trying standards-based grading. I had a list of physics content standards accompanied by another list of general science and math standards. That list of general skills kept growing in number and importance, and we noticed how often they were used and assessed. I realized that those general skills, along with the additional of some that were less obviously tied to science content, were the skills that were actually important to the class. Assessing the physics content directly was not necessary if we used the content as a platform for assessing the general skills. The content learning would happen naturally.

I am by no means an expert in this, but I do have one full school year of 100% skills-based grading (general skills-focused learning and assessment) under my belt. My office mate, Jaime, teaches chemistry and forensics. I used to call this my system, because I dreamed most of it up initially, but Jaime was brave enough to dive into my crazy idea and help me work out the kinks, so it is no longer just mine. It is ours. And she is arguably better at implementing it than I am. I don't make any changes without her.

We both went the same route with assessing student digital portfolios for skill mastery. We made New Google Sites templates organized by skill topics, which students copied and populated with artifacts and reflection on their skills. They used SeeSaw for regular journaling and documenting everything they do associated with class, which are posts easily embedded as artifacts on their New Google Sites portfolios. We evaluated their skills via portfolio evaluation rubrics on Google Classroom. Rubrics on Classroom was in Beta at the beginning of the school year, but I believe it comes as part of Classroom now. It's pretty great.

The rubrics for skill mastery are for feedback and evaluation. Teachers or students can use them at any time. If a teacher gives feedback on a skill, outside of portfolio evaluation, or if a student self evaluates or has a peer evaluate them, those evaluations are all useful things to include and discuss in their portfolios along with their artifacts of learning. You can keep a printed stack of each rubric sitting around for a student to use or to ask you to use any time.

After the pilot year we revised our skills list, eliminating many redundancies. We started with 25 skills, but narrowed it down to 15. Here are the skills. Formatting might look kind of weird on a phone. They are currently in revision, but I believe the final set will look much like these:

General skills for science
 
  1. Investigation

    1. Research I can locate, evaluate, and summarize research for a question.

    2. Experimentation I can design and execute an experiment to test a question.

    3. Inferences I can draw conclusions from patterns in data and use them to drive inquiry.

  2. Solution design

    1. Visuals I can model nature with detailed diagrams and 3D models.

    2. Mathematics I can apply the design process to solve problems systematically.

    3. Simulation I can create and use simulations to predictively model nature. 

  3. Collaboration

    1. Resources I can keep my time, space, and materials organized and functional.

    2. Respect I can treat my peers and mentors with respect.

    3. Contributions I can contribute significantly to group problem-solving.

  4. Reflection

    1. Feedback I can use feedback to drive personal reflection and plan for growth.

    2. Self-assessment I can honestly self-assess to drive reflection and identify areas for growth.

    3. Journaling I can use regular journaling to document and reflect on my growth.

  5. Communication

    1. Reporting     I can report on investigations and projects.

    2. Presentation I can present and discuss investigation and project results.

    3. Publication   I can publish a portfolio record of my learning experiences and skills growth.


Skill evaluation

Your skill level evaluation is based on your most recent demonstration of your skills.


Skill mastery ratings

5 - Exemplary

4 - Proficient

3 - Developing

2 - Basic

1 - Emerging


The skill statements were written to be as succinct as possible. Details on how to achieve levels of mastery will be laid out in specific expectations and rubrics in class, often developed with student input.



The hardest part of adopting skills-based grading is crafting the evaluation rubrics, but when the are developed with students input, expectations are clear and students have some ownership of them. Here is an example rubric for the Mathematics skill from Solution design category. Problem-solving is a big part of high school physics. It is part of every unit. It is a skill that students continue to hone and use throughout the school year. 


1 - Emerging

2 - Basic

3 - Developing

4 - Proficient

5 - Exemplary

Math

solving

Showed some unorganized work.

Missing most of:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer

Missing some of:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer with units

Solve successfully including:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used it to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer with units

Solve successfully including:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used it to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer rounded appropriately with units


As mentioned, it is always good to develop as many rubrics as possible with student input. It is also useful to make rubrics that are actually useful to students. To create the rubric above, you could solve a problem in groups and then share what is important in solving with math. Use student ideas and language to craft the rubric, and fill in any gaps.

Rubrics which function like checklists are particularly useful to students. In fact, organizing and printing the exemplary requirements for mastery as a checklist is often more useful to students that the style above. Below is an example of a student checklist for the Experimentation skill from the Investigation skill category. The mastery rating could be determined by the total number of checked items.


As far as student reflection goes, I ask them to follow the guidelines below. They are written for use in portfolios but are easily modified to be used in many platforms. I do not evaluate a skill for mastery without full student reflection.

Personal reflection for growth


Reflecting allows us to

  • Gauge our own abilities and needs

  • Evaluate how our choices affect our personal outcomes

  • Process and solidify new knowledge and skills

  • Do more with feedback than just read it

  • Plan for future growth


Organize your reflection for each skill using the following

What does reflection look like in portfolios?

  • Explain the context of your artifact, relating it to the skill.

  • Reference and discuss feedback, verbal and/or written.

  • Identify strengths/weaknesses with your skill.

  • Discuss growth and progress you have made with this skill recently.

  • Identify behavior patterns which might explain your performance.

  • Plan for future growth by outlining strategies and resources for improvement in needed areas. 

Reflection as a narrative

If you are working on growth in the same skills over an extended period of time it helps to keep an organized narrative going. You don’t necessarily want to replace the old with the new, because some of the story of growth is then lost. But you also don’t want an overwhelming detailed narrative of every detail along the way when you really want to celebrate where you are. Finding a balance is key. Summarizing the rise to your current state and detailing your current level should be the goal. In order to accomplish this, it is important to keep discussion of a skill together and to keep the narrative updated.



I have tried a few versions of what a grade book would look like. Fifteen skills is a manageable number for individual entries in a grade book, depending on which grade book you have to use. Mine is not so user friendly for this kind of system, so I tend to use the five skill categories as my quarter grades. I let the details live in the Google Classroom rubrics. I have also just had a single portfolio grade as their entire quarter grade and let all of the details live on Classroom.

That's it. At first glance, my classes look a lot like they used to in previous years. I still use most of my favorite labs, activities, problems, challenges, projects, etc. To me the changes to my classes are obvious. Students are having more fun and trying harder stuff now than they used to. They also spend more time journaling and reflecting and they generally have a greater appreciation for what they are learning. If you want to learn more about portfolios I hope to blog about those sometime soon. They go really well with skills-based grading, but any system of gathering and tracking evaluations and student reflections can work.

But what about content?

Content is the platform for skills progression. It is the vehicle for exploring the skills. Without mastering content it is impossible to showcase most of the skills at a high level. This should be made evident in the expectations of the evaluation tools. For example, you can't get to the Proficient rating on that Mathematics skill on the rubric shown previously if you cannot actually do the physics problem-solving.

Content is no longer the source of stress in a skills-based grading system, so it can more easily become a source of inspiration. It is okay if a student struggles with content at first, which often happens in a physics class that runs through a traditional topic order. They can still come out the other end of class with a love for the content and an appreciation for how useful it was for developing important skills.

In summary

When students and teacher evaluate general skills repeatedly over time students can build real self awareness and a growth mindset, learning of content gets easier, grading becomes fair and less stressful for all involved, and the experience generally becomes more enjoyable and meaningful for all.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions feel free to contact me. I hope you consider giving skills-based grading a try. You won't look back if you do.