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Standards Based Grading, Day 0

January 14, 2013

SBG: With A Little Help From My Friends

With some encouragement from colleagues, I’ve decided to try Standards Based Grading in my second semester calculus based physics class this spring (2013).  Because this is my first attempt at SBG, I leaned heavily on the work already done by others and their advice (namely Andy Rundquist and Frank Noschese).  I also gained some instant supporters through Twitter.

So I don’t bore readers with all of the finer details, I’ve tried to break up my thoughts by headings below.  Feel free to skip around, and if you make it to the end, this post will end up in that discrete minority of entries that are read in entirety!


Change for change’s sake was not enough to warrant this shift in assessing my students.  And, while trying something new can be refreshing for the instructor, there is more to the story here.  I really am looking for ways to make the course more meaningful for everyone.  And there were some very specific items I wanted to address explicitly

  • Assignments up to this point have always been one-time “values” students earned.  If students made improvements later on in the course, traditional grading means could not facilitate “master learning/grading” (revisions of grades due to addressing shortcomings in resubmissions).
  • While I could in general understand the reasons for choosing certain assigned problems, specific objectives were not clear to students.  And, to be honest, choosing end of chapter problems was not as focussed as I would have liked.  When choosing problems, I found myself thinking:
    • “Yeah, they need to do one of those; it’s kinda out of the box” and
    • “That’s a classic problem, they need to work that one out”
      • These rationales are subject to just being assigned on a whim, which may change by the mood the instructor is in.
  • I loathed deciding how much each problem was “worth” point wise.  About the only thing I standardized was 0.5 points off each time units are incorrect/omitted.  Partial credit consisted of my inferences on where students’ thought processes were misguided.  Longer, more difficult problems were worth more points; shorter single step problems were worth less.  While this makes sense at the surface, I began to question “should credit be based on content tested rather than length/difficulty?”
  • These students are pre-engineering students.  Eventually, they will need to present their ideas to their colleagues and clients.  Presenting ideas and explaining your own thought processes are fundamentally different from simply turning in a problem set and being done with it.


With just about anything new, there is an uneasiness that, well, makes one feel uneasy!  The following are my greatest apprehensions.  Time will tell how warranted they are.

  • One way students will need to submit work for standards is by screencasts.  I’m just beginning to create screencasts myself and know there’s a bit of a learning curve.  Much of the burden will fall on the students here, but there are some wonderful pain free ways to create them.  Screencastomatic is quickly becoming one of my favorites.  Jing is what I learned on.  If the means to create them requires admin privileges, it could be a show-stopper for some of my students.
  • A departure from traditional instruction might not be received well by the institutions these pre-engineers transfer to.  However, I reasoned that if students are more thoroughly grasping the most important concepts in physics, are future instructors really going to care how “assignments” were graded?
  • I couldn’t break completely free from the last bullet.  I’ve kept exams a part of the course, though they are take home exams.  There is also a separate lab score.  Some standards can be addressed with what is done in lab.

The “Points”

Standard grading is on a 0 – 4 point scale: from 0 = no attempt to 4 = exceeding expectations.  Essentially, I’ve used the rubric Andy Rundquist has on his course website (where he credits Frank Noschese).  I  added the element of “able to come up with examples and applications outside the context of the problem” for a 4.  Because I wasn’t sure exactly how many points there would be for the entire course, I decided to use weighted percentages for the different course components:




Laboratory Reports






Final Exam






Full Disclosure To Students

I really wanted to be transparent with my students.  Too often, I think they feel in the dark about why they are being asked to solve certain problems or required to do this and that.  So below is an excerpt from the list of standards to be handed out to students.

This is what students will see:

Chapter 15: Mechanical Waves
Standard 1
I can successfully compare and contrast different types of waves, periocidy of waves, sinusoidal waves and provide a clear & complete definition of simple harmonic motion.

Assignment:  (Recommended and required for submitting reassessments)

  1. Describe two different examples that are periodic but not simple harmonic oscillators.  Describe two different examples that exhibit simple harmonic motion.  Include sketches/graphs for each.  (Use multimedia for source material if you wish, like YouTube).  Of all of these examples, explain why some are and some are not SHM.
    • The point: periodic behavior does not necessarily mean it is SHM!
  2. There are many types of waves.  Give explanations of the three basic types discussed in Chapter 15.  Research a fourth different type of wave.
    • The point: some waves can be described as combinations of other types of waves.  Other wave types or “wave-like” phenomena are completely independent of others.
  3. Text problems 15.3 and 15.5
    • The point: “periocidy” means we can use basic physics to get at the basic physical properties of the wave.  But there is a lot more to the story . . .

Taking Advice

I heeded the advice I read in Andy’s blog and those who left comments: Standards become “active” when discussed in class and students then have 2 weeks to submit their work.  If they want opportunities to resubmit work, then they need to submit the recommended assignment in the same time frame.  From then on, they can continue to resubmit so long as the standard has been active within 2 weeks.  I’m a little fearful of the accounting this will require, but it’s a small class (only 3 students!).

Other advice taken was to have the policy that score may go up or down based on repeat assessments.  I think higher ed courses can implement this more easily than K-12.  I just hope students see the merits of this policy.

Students can submit work for standards in various formats: screencasts, URL’s of appropriate media supplemented with their own written narrative, office hour visits, class quizzes, class discussions and chance/water cooler meetings.


Well, that’s it for now–this ended up longer than I’d anticipated.  Thanks for reading!

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