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.

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