Monday, June 11, 2012

4 things more important than SBG

Everybody should think about implementing SBG, because it makes sense, and classrooms should be places where things make sense. A well-done SBG implementation can also eliminate a few perverse incentives that are endemic to traditional grading. But there's more to assessment reform than SBG.

Actually, there are at least 4 changes in my assessment scheme that have done more for my students than SBG has. In no particular order...

Frequent Assessment

I used to assess my students with tests every 2-3 weeks, after we had finished a unit. I still used SBG, in the sense that the quizzes/tests were broken down by skill and students were allowed and expected to reassess. But several things were off:

  • My students freaked out over these quizzes/tests, because they occurred somewhat infrequently. This put their focus on the tests, rather than the knowledge underlying them. 
  • Kids would cram during lunch for their quizzes/tests in the afternoon. Since the quizzes didn't come all the time, students felt that they could put off learning until right before the assessment.
  • Retention was poor, overall, in my classes.
Things changed this year. Quizzes came every week, and we started making significant progress on all three of the above problems. Quizzing at least weekly significantly lowers the stakes of any particular quiz or test in a way that SBG, with all its reassessments, doesn't quite pull off for me. And the learning benefits of frequent quizzing or assessment are well-documented. See this article, or this one. The act of decontextualized retrieval helps solidify the learning that's going on in the classroom. 

Cycling Concepts

Retention was a problem in all my classes, so this year I took a page out of Cornally and Picciotto's playbooks and extend the exposure my students have to concepts. It used to be that my quizzes and tests always assessed NEW things, things that I'd never assessed before. Oops. By doing that I sent the message to my kids that the things that they learned only need to be known once. Even more, by only assessing a new idea once a lot of my kids actually were lost between the cracks, and SBG wasn't able to catch all of them.

Now I know better. My weekly quizzes contain some new material, but always some old material that is being assessed for a second, third, fourth, or nth time. My students don't know what old material will show up on the quizzes. Anything is fair game, from any part of the year, on any quiz or test. Because, hell, as long as we're learning these things we might as well actually remember them past Friday.

Deeper Assessment

It turns out my students don't know as much as I thought they did. I know this because, every once in a while, I ask them to explain something. Or I ask them a question that isn't like anything they've seen before, but should be a safe conceptual leap from their current understanding. Or I ask them to describe why something is wrong.

To me, Sam Shah owns this point. Here's what he has to say about assessments that ask students to explain themselves:
I’ve been attempting to incorporate more writing in my math classes. It’s been extraordinarily enlightening, because what this has done is show me two things: (1) kids don’t know how to explain their reasoning in clear ways, and (2) I’m usually extraordinarily wrong when I think my kids understand something, and the extent to which I am wrong makes me cringe.
Bingo. And quizzes are the right place to do this. First, because hard assessments help learning. Second, because there's less chance of a class rebelling on a quiz or a test. Here's what I mean: when I've tried to ask kids in class to explain why something is true, sometimes a student will squirm uncomfortably and then blurt out, "Well who cares why it's true? I've got the right answer, right?" And then everyone else will laugh, and then I've lost the class.

Now, without a doubt that's all on me. It's my job to make sure that I expand these kids conceptions of what it means to understand math. But for an initially resistant group, deeper questions on assessments have helped me take the first step, since that sort of whole-class rebellion is less likely when everyone's brains are working hard to figure out a difficult conceptual question. It's not necessarily pretty, but it's worked for me, and it's orthogonal to what SBG does.

No Points

Points and grades are a part of school. Fine. I get it. And grades motivate some kids, maybe. But read this, and tell me how to recreate this in a classroom with points:
I will give you my honest perspective on the [computer programming] class, and I believe everyone in the class feels the same way. Your class is immensely enjoyable, and the one class I look forward to throughout the day... The class is extremely chill and open-ended; we can go at whatever pace we like, as long as we can still finish on time. Your class is the proof that there does not need to be a daily structured schedule for students to accomplish and to want to accomplish – We all of our own will and decision come to class each day, mainly because we enjoy it. It is a stress free work environment, as everyone just hangs out, has fun, helps each other, and in general just enjoys themselves.
That was a class without grades. I mean, there were grades, but it was clearly communicated to the students that they would be getting identical, high grades if they were working hard. In other words, I told them, "I won't think about grades unless you guys force me to." And that was that. This won't always work, but I've seen some amazing things when I've given it a shot.

Grades and points distort the learning environment, and SBG is a way of assigning points and grades. A lot of folks who talk about SBG think it will help break points addictions. It won't, but getting rid of points does.

SBG is worth it

I think that SBG is worth it, because it makes a bold statement to your students about what you value, and because it eliminates some nasty aspects of traditional grading. It also makes some data analysis a bit easier. But the four things that I describe in this post are largely independent of SBG. A non-SBG system that assesses frequently with quizzes that spiral through old concepts and incorporates deeper conceptual questions is a classroom with a healthy assessment system, even if assessments are not broken into skills, and even if there is no student-initiated reassessment.

But if you're a new teacher and not sure whether to take the plunge on SBG, there's still plenty of reforming that you can do. And I think the stuff you can do is way more important than SBG.

1 comment:

  1. Given there seem to be no comments here, I just wanted to say that this resonated with me. The philosophy of SBG is good, but it's not always the easiest thing to implement (due to external or internal forces). Whereas what you say here is sensible, particularly cycling concepts, which has been on my mind lately. Thanks for the read!