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General Physics Standards

This is a follow-up post to the Honors Physics Standards post that enumerates the standards that we have defined for our General Physics class. As I mentioned previously, this year, our entire school is replacing the traditional report card with a standards-based report card. The standards reflected on this report card, which we call report-card standards, represent an aggregation of several of the more-specific standards and are common across both high schools in our district. For General Physics, we have defined the following report-card standards for the whole year.

Report-Card Standards

  • science as a process
  • understand the basic concepts of kinematics
  • understand, explain, discuss, and apply Newton’s Laws
  • understand the basic concepts of energy and energy conservation
  • understand the basic concepts of momentum and its conservation
  • explain, discuss, and calculate the properties of electrostatics
  • explain, discuss, and calculate the properties of electric circuits
  • understand, explain, and discuss the properties of magnetism
  • describe wave type, properties, and interactions
  • understand the relationships among science, technology, and society in historical and contemporary contexts

Below are the more-specific standards that we use for General Physics during the fall semester. These standards are influenced by objectives defined by a group of physics teachers working together at the county level as well as Modeling Instruction.

Fall Semester Standards

STT 1. I can build a qualitative model, identify and classify variables, and make tentative qualitative predictions about the relationship between variables.

STT 2. I can select appropriate measuring devices, consider accuracy of measuring devices, maximize range of data, and calculate error propagation for an experiment.

STT 3. I can develop linear relationships and relate mathematical and graphical expressions.

STT Lab 1. I can create and populate data tables for an experiment.

STT Lab 2. I can measure phenomena in the laboratory with minimum error.

STT Lab 3. I can create graphs from data measured in an experiment.

STT Lab 4. I can analyze graphs of data measured in an experiment.

STT Lab 5. I can analyze uncertainty in an experiment.

STT Lab 6. I can write a complete formal experiment report according to the specified format.

CVPM 1. I can distinguish between scalar and vector quantities.

CVPM 2. I can describe and analyze constant-velocity motion based on graphs, numeric data, words, and diagrams.

BFPM 1. I can draw a free body diagram and add vectors graphically to find net force.

BFPM 2. I can identify the Law of Inertia (Newton’s 1st Law) to various situations in the real world.

BFPM 3. I can identify action-reaction force pairs (Newton’s 3rd Law) and the fact that they act on two separate bodies.

CAPM 1. I can describe and analyze uniform-acceleration motion based on graphs, numeric data, words, and diagrams.

CAPM 2. I can apply the various kinematics equations in one dimension.

UBFPM 1. I can draw a free body diagram and use the concept of net force to solve problems using Newton’s 2nd Law

UBFPM 2. I can identify how different factors affect the force of friction and can differentiate between static and kinetic friction.

UBFPM 3. I can solve problems using the coefficient of friction.

UBFPM Lab 1. I can determine the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration using experimental data.

PMPM 1. I can justify that if the only force acting on an object is gravity, it will have the same constant downward acceleration regardless of mass, velocity or position.

PMPM 2. I can apply the various kinematics equations in two dimensions while recognizing the independence of horizontal and vertical variables.

PMPM Lab 1. Model the path of a projectile based on experimental data and use this model to hit the predicted location.

PMPM Lab 2. Compare predicted values based on a model against experimental results.

COEM 1. I can identify that energy is transferred and solve problems using conservation of mechanical energy (kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy)

COEM 2. I can identify work as a change in energy and calculate its based on force and displacement.

COEM 3. I can analyze the rate of energy change of a system in terms of power.

COEM Lab 1: Perform an experiment to compare the loss of gravitational potential energy and the gain of kinetic energy of an object moving down an  incline in order to calculate the energy transferred between the system and the environment.

COMM 1. I can identify momentum of an object as the product of mass and velocity and relate the change in momentum (Impulse) to the force acting on it over a period of time.

COMM 2. I can analyze the momentum of a system of objects in one dimension and distinguish between elastic and inelastic collisions

COMM 3. I can solve problems using conservation of momentum were the net external force is zero.

Spring Semester Standards

ES 1. I can identify the charge on each sub-atomic particle and describe the behavior that each has on each other and how these particles move in a conductor.

ES 2. I can apply the principle of conservation of charge (charge is neither created nor destroyed just transferred from one object to another) to predict the movement of charges in insulators and conductors.

ES 3. I can predict attraction and repulsion between charged and neutral objects and predict how charges will redistribute based on charging by contact and induction.

ES 4. I can apply Coulomb’s Law to two charged particles.

ES 5. I can describe an electric field and identify the electric field diagrams for a one or two charge system and identify the direction of the force experienced by a charge in an electric field.

ES Lab 01. I can predict the charge on a neutral object knowing the process by which it was charged.

ES Lab 02. I can demonstrate how to put a charge on a conductor using the processes of conduction and induction.

CIR 1. I can recognize and analyze series and parallel circuits.

CIR 2. I can apply how energy is conserved within a circuit (Loop rule) and how charge is conserved within a circuit (Junction Rule)

CIR 3. I can calculate equivalent resistance and apply Ohm’s Law.

CIR 4. I can calculate the power used by an electronic device.

CIR Lab 1: I can measure voltage and current with an appropriate meter.

CIR Lab 2: I can draw a circuit diagram and build it correctly based on a description.

CIR Lab 3: I can draw a circuit diagram for a circuit based on bulb brightness and observations of the circuit.

EM 1. I can recognize and explain what causes magnetic fields.

EM 2. I can identify the direction of magnetic fields.

EM 3. I can distinguish between magnetic fields and electric fields.

EM Lab 1. I can understand the relationship between magnetic and electric fields.

EM Lab 2. I can recognize that an object must be charged and moving in a magnetic field in order to experience a magnetic force.

WA 1. Know and identify the following features of a wave: amplitude, wavelength, frequency, crest, trough, node, antinode, and period.

WA 2. Identify, and compare and contrast, the two types of waves and how they transfer energy.

WA 3. Apply the principle of superposition to explain constructive and destructive interference of waves.

WA 4. Conceptually and mathematically describe reflection and refraction of waves.

WA 5. Conceptually and mathematically demonstrate the relationship between velocity, frequency, and wavelength for a wave, and how wave medium affects these variables.

Understand the relationships among science, technology, and society in historical and contemporary contexts.

The Danger of Misapplying Powerful Tools

When I was a software engineer, I frequently used powerful tools such as C++ and techniques such as object-oriented analysis and design to implement software that performed complex operations in an efficient and effective manner. I also spent a lot of time sharing these with others. However, I learned to provide a caveat: if misapplied, these tools and techniques can result in a much more significant problem than would result when applying less powerful ones. That is, if you are not skilled in the deployment of these tools and techniques, the risk is much larger than the benefit.

Other engineers didn’t always appreciate this caveat. So, I would try to communicate with an analogy. You can build a desk with a saw, hammer, screwdriver, and drill. You can build a desk more efficiently using a table saw, drill press, and nail gun. If you make a mistake with the hammer, you may loose a fingernail. If you make a mistake with the table saw, you may loose a finger. If you are not adept at deploying the tools and techniques, maybe you should stick with the hand tools until you are.

In reality, the risk of misapplying these tools and techniques is more significant than the impact on the immediate project. The broader risk is that others who observe the troubled project associate the failure with the tools and techniques instead of the application of those tools and techniques. People get the impression, and share their impression, that “C++ and object-oriented analysis and design is a load of crap. Did you see what happened to project X?” Rarely do people, especially people not skilled with these tools and techniques, have the impression that the problem is the application of the tools and techniques rather than the tools and techniques themselves. This, in fact, is a much more serious risk that threatens future applications of the tools and techniques in a proficient manner due to their now tarnished reputation.

A series of articles and posts recently reminded me of my experience writing software and this analogy. I feel compelled to start with a disclaimer since this post has the potential to come across as arrogant, which is certainly not my intention. I have not performed any longitudinal studies that support my conclusions. My conclusions are based on few observations and my gut instinct. I tend to trust my gut instinct since it has served me well in the past. So, if you find this post arrogant, before you write me off, see if these ideas resonate with your experience.


Let’s start with Standards-Based Reporting and Assessment (SBAR) (a.k.a., Standards-Based Grading (SBG)). Last year, my school started adapting SBAR school-wide. SBAR is a powerful methodology that requires proficient deployment. It is not easy to adapt and effectively apply SBAR to a classroom in an effective way that resonates with parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Proper deployment requires a fundamental change in the teacher’s and students’ philosophy of learning. While the effect of a failed deployment on the individual classes is unfortunate, the larger problem is that teachers and parents attribute the problems to SBAR and not its application. It takes much less effort to convince a parent confused about SBAR of its value than it does to convince a parent livid about SBAR due to a poor experience in another class. At my school, one early SBAR adopter stopped referencing SBAR or SBG at all in his class to distance his methodology from the problematic applications. Fortunately, my school has pulled back a bit this year. This is the risk of mandating application of a powerful tool by those not proficient in its deployment. This is not a unique experience.

Two years ago, another teacher and I decided to try to apply SBAR to our Honors Physics class. We mitigated the risk by limiting deployment to six sections of a single class taught just by the two of us. We sent letters to parents, talked to parent groups, discussed the system with students during class. Only after gaining a year of experience, did we attempt to adapt SBAR to our General Physics class which contained ten sections and was taught by four different teachers. The risk of trying to deploy SBAR on this scale initially was too great given our proficiency.


Someone recently shared this New York Times article that questions the value of technology in the classroom. In general, a given piece of technology on its own isn’t effective or not effective. Whether technology is effective or not depends as much on its application as the technology itself. It depends on the teacher and the students and the class. Personally, I’ll stick with my $2 interactive whiteboards. This isn’t because SMART Boards are inherently ineffective. It is because they aren’t effective for me and my students given my classroom and my expertise. I expect there are teachers out there who use SMART Boards quite effectively. They are probably sick of hearing how they are a complete waste of money.

I hope to have a class set of iPads at some point this year. My school isn’t going to buy iPads for every student. Instead, we’ll put iPad in the hands of 25 General Physics students in my classroom and see what we can do together. Start small, reflect, adjust, expand.


I participated in a Modeling Instruction Physics workshop in the summer of 2008. I didn’t dare to really start modeling in my classroom until last fall. Why? I believed that the potential risk to my students due to a misapplication of the modeling methodology was tremendous. I decided that it was better for my students to learn what they could via more traditional instruction than what I foresaw as a potential disaster if I misapplied the deployment of modeling. Even more importantly, I was concerned that I could put Modeling Instruction at risk of never being adopted if my failed deployment was interpreted as a failure of Modeling Instruction itself. Only after more research, practice of Modeling Instruction techniques, and discussions with others, did I feel comfortable deploying Modeling in my class last fall. In an attempt to shield modeling from my potential deployment failures, this is the first year that I’ve associated the label “Modeling Instruction” to my class.

I used to be surprised at how adamantly some Modelers warned teachers not to do Modeling Instruction unless they had taken a workshop. I now believe they are worried about the same potential risk that I am. Modeling Instruction is a collection of powerful tools and techniques. Done well, by a skilled practitioner, Modeling Instruction can be incredibly effective. Applied ineffectively, Modeling Instruction can be a disaster and tarnish its reputation. I think students are better served by traditional instruction than by Modeling Instruction applied ineffectively. Traditional instruction may result in a lost fingernail. Ineffective modeling instruction may result in a lost finger. There, I said it. Disagree in the comments. Just don’t take that quote out of context.

While not directly related to modeling, I believe this recent article supports my conclusions. The problem isn’t that hands-on labs are ineffective, it is that ineffective deployment of hands-on labs is ineffective.


I don’t want my thoughts that I’ve shared here to paralyze you into inaction. Rather, I hope that I’ve encouraged you to make sure that you have sufficient expertise so you can apply your powerful tools and techniques in an effective manner. Your students will benefit and the reputation of these powerful tools and techniques will benefit as well.

How do you do this?

  • Attend professional development opportunities (e.g., Modeling Instruction Workshops) that increase your skill with these powerful tools and techniques.
  • Apply these powerful tools and techniques in a limited manner as you gain experience and expertise.
  • Participate on Twitter, start a blog, read a bunch of blogs, participate in online discussions (e.g., Global Physics Department), and subscribe to email lists to accelerate your knowledge of these powerful tools and techniques.
  • Observe skilled practitioners of these tools and techniques, find a coach to observe you, welcome feedback from everyone.

Honors Physics Standards

This year, our entire school is replacing the traditional report card with a standards-based report card. I’m excited that students and parents will see more than a letter that represents their understanding of physics. The standards reflected on this report card, which we call report-card standards, represent an aggregation of several of the more-specific standards and are common across both high schools in our district. For Honor Physics, we have defined the following report-card standards for the whole year:

Report-Card Standards

  • science as a process
  • understand the basic concepts of kinematics
  • understand, explain, discuss, and apply Newton’s Laws
  • understand the basic concepts of energy and energy conservation
  • understand the basic concepts of momentum and its conservation
  • explain, discuss, and calculate the properties of electrostatics
  • explain, discuss, and calculate the properties of electric circuits
  • understand, explain, and discuss the properties of magnetism
  • describe wave type, properties, and interactions
  • explain, discuss, and calculate the properties of geometric optics
  • understand the relationships among science, technology, and society in historical and contemporary contexts

Below are the more-specific standards that we use for Honors Physics during the fall semester. They reflect a couple of lessons learned during our first two years of standards-based grading. First, we’ve significantly reduced the number of standards. Too many standards made assessment and reassessment too difficult. However, the problem with this is that the standards become too broad for students to know what is expected. So, we supplement each standard with a few daily “learning targets” to make the expectations clear. As documented in the syllabus for Honors Physics, standards prefixed with (FR), for the more challenging standards that are initially assessed with free-response assessments, count twice as much as the other standards. The first number that prefixes the standard corresponds to the chapter in Giancoli, 5 edition.

I should disclose that, unlike my General Physics class which strongly reflected the Modeling Instruction methodology, my Honors Physics class does not as strongly. That said, many of the pedagogical techniques of Modeling Instruction are incorporated into the class.

Fall Semester Standards

SaaP 1 Select reasonable values for uncertainty of measuring devices and calculate uncertainty for derived measurements.

2.1 Distinguish between and calculate vector and scalar quantities (e.g., distance, displacement, speed, velocity).

2.2 Distinguish between and calculate instantaneous and average quantities for velocity and acceleration.

2.3 Solve problems involving objects with constant acceleration moving in straight lines.

2.4 Analyze straight-line motion by interpreting graphs.

2.5 (FR) solve problems involving falling objects by applying the kinematic equations.

SaaP 2 (Lab) Create and populate data tables for an experiment.

SaaP 3 (Lab) Measure lengths and time intervals in the laboratory with minimum error.

SaaP 4 (Lab) Create graphs from data measured in an experiment.

SaaP 5 (Lab) Use graphs of data measured in an experiment to perform analysis.

SaaP 6 (Lab) Analyze error in an experiment.

SaaP 7 (Lab) Write a complete formal experiment report according to the specified format

3.1 Add and subtract vectors using graphical and trigonometric techniques.

3.2 Describe the motion of a projectile.

3.3 Solve problems involving projectiles with an initial horizontal velocity.

3.4 Describe the motion of an object, in 1 dimension, in terms of various frames of reference including a boat moving in a current and an airplane moving through wind.

3.5 (FR) Solve problems involving projectiles with an initial velocity at an arbitrary angle.

3.6 (FR) Describe the motion of an object, in 2 dimensions, in terms of various frames of reference including a boat moving in a current and an airplane moving through wind.

3.7 (Lab) Model the path of a projectile based on experimental data and use this model to hit the predicted location.

3.8 (Lab) Compare predicted values based on a model against experimental results.

4.1 Explain everyday phenomenon in terms of Newton’s Laws of Motion.

4.2 Distinguish between mass and weight and convert between the two.

4.3 Solve problems in terms of Newton’s second law.

4.4 Solve problems involving friction.

4.5 (FR) Solve force problems using free body diagrams and net force equations for single objects.

4.6 (FR) Solve force problems using free body diagrams and net force equations for objects on inclined planes.

4.7 (FR) Solve force problems using free body diagrams and net force equations for multiple connected objects.

SaaP 8 (Lab) Create data tables and graphs to display the relationship between three related variables.

SaaP 9 (Lab) Create a general model of the relationship between force, mass, and acceleration based on experimental data.

5.1 Know and apply the velocity, acceleration, and forces that comprise uniform circular motion and distinguish from those that do not.

5.2 Solve problems involving objects experiencing a centripetal force.

5.3 Apply Newton’s Law to objects undergoing horizontal uniform circular motion.

5.4 Apply Newton’s Law to objects undergoing vertical circular motion.

5.5 Define Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation and use it to solve problems.

5.6 (FR) Solve problems using free body diagrams and net force equations for objects undergoing uniform circular motion with forces at arbitrary angles (e.g., inclined surfaces).

5.7 (FR) Solve problems using free body diagrams and net force equations for objects undergoing uniform circular motion in orbit.

6.1. Know and apply the definition of work to solve problems involving a constant force and a varying force.

6.2. Solve problems involving translational kinetic energy and the work-energy principle.

6.3. Solve problems involving gravitational potential energy (GPE) and elastic potential energy (EPE).

6.4. Know the law of conservation of mechanical energy and apply it to solve problems involving translational motion.

6.5. Know the definition of power and apply the equations for power to solve problems.

6.6. (FR) Know the law of conservation of energy and use it to solve problems involving dissipative forces.

6.7. (Lab) Perform an experiment to compare the loss of PE and the gain of KE of an object moving down an incline in order to calculate the force of friction along the incline.

6.8. (Lab) Explain the results of an experiment by discussing the concepts of work, KE, PE and apply the conclusions to other applications.

7.1. Use the definition of linear momentum to solve problems.

7.2. Apply the law of conservation of momentum to interactions in a 1-dimensional closed system.

7.3. Apply the law of conservation of momentum to perfectly inelastic interactions in a 1-dimensional closed system.

7.4. Use the definition of impulse to solve problems.

7.5. (FR) Apply the law of conservation of momentum to interactions in a 2-dimensional closed system.

7.6. (FR) Apply the laws of conservation of momentum and energy to solve problems involving elastic and inelastic interactions in one and two dimensions.

7.7. (Lab) Use the laws of conservation of momentum and conservation of energy to calculate the initial velocity of a projectile shot into a pendulum.

8.1. Know and apply the definitions, symbols, and units for lever arm, moment arm, moment of a force, and torque.

9.1. Know and apply the conditions of equilibrium of concurrent forces to solve problems.

9.2. Know the following terms and their use to solve problems: elongation, stress, strain, shear, elastic modulus, shear modulus, and bulk modulus.

9.3. Know the following terms and use them to solve problems: fracture and ultimate strength of materials.

9.4. (FR) Know and apply the conditions of equilibrium of concurrent forces and parallel forces to solve problems.

9.5. (Lab) Apply the conditions of equilibrium to find the value of an unknown mass.

9.6. (Lab) Apply the conditions of equilibrium to create a mobile.

9.7. (Lab) Apply the principles of equilibrium, stress, and strain and the characteristics of materials to design a bridge that meets the specifications.

9.8. (Lab) Apply the principles of equilibrium, stress, and strain and the characteristics of materials to build a bridge that exceeds the required parameters.

Spring Semester Standards

11.1. Solve for various properties (energy, displacement, velocity, frequency, period) of a simple harmonic oscillators.

11.2. Describe the behavior of pulses in strings or slinkies in terms of reflection, superposition, resonance, standing waves, and harmonics.

11.3. Distinguish between transverse and longitudinal waves and define the following in a wave: amplitude, wavelength, frequency, wave velocity, node, antinode.

11.4. (FR) Solve problems involving standing waves in strings.

12.1. (Lab) Experimentally determine the speed of sound from the wavelengths and frequencies of several sounds.

12.2. List the properties of sound and describe how each is related to wave properties.

12.3. Solve problems involving the intensity level of sound.

12.4. Solve problems involving harmonics with string instruments and open or closed-end tube instruments.

12.5. Solve problems involving the interference of sound waves (e.g., beats, shock wave).

12.6. Solve problems involving the relationship between velocity, frequency, and wavelength (including the Doppler Effect).

16.1. Apply Electron Theory to the behavior of static charges, conductors, insulators, and electroscopes.

16.2. (Lab) Apply Electron Theory to describe how an electrophorus can be charged and transfer that charge to other objects.

16.3. Apply Coulomb’s Law to charges aligned in one dimension.

16.4. Know the properties and calculate the strength of an electric field between two point source electrodes, between two plate electrodes, and inside and outside a spherical shell conductor.

16.5. (FR) Solve problems involving the electric force and electric field due to charges in two dimensions.

17.1. Define electrical potential energy, electric potential, and electric potential difference and solve problems involving these quantities.

17.2. Know the properties of capacitors and solve problems involving parallel-plate capacitors.

17.3. (FR) Calculate the electric potential due to point charges.

18.1. Apply the relationships between current and charge; voltage, current, and resistance; and resistance, temperature, resistivity, and length in DC and AC circuits.

18.2. Analyze the power dissipated in electrical circuits.

19.1. (Lab) Draw, construct, and analyze a combination circuit given its description.

19.2. Calculate the net resistance in series and parallel circuits.

19.3. Conceptually evaluate the effect of resistors, capacitors, and meters in series and parallel circuits.

19.4. (FR) Use Kirchoff’s rules to analyze I, R, and V in combination series and parallel circuits.

19.5. (FR) Analyze circuits containing capacitors in series and parallel.

19.6. (FR) Know how meters work and how they affect the circuits they measure.

20.1. Explain the cause and characteristics of the magnetic field of a permanent magnet and an electromagnet.

20.2. Find the direction of the force on a charged particle moving in a magnetic field.

20.3. Calculate the magnitude of the force on a charged particle moving in a magnetic field.

20.4. Determine the magnitude and direction of the force on a current-carrying wire in external magnetic fields and magnetic fields generated by other current-carrying wires.

20.5. (Lab) Build an electric motor.

20.6. (Lab) Explain why the armature of the electric motor rotates describing what factors affect its speed and direction of rotation.

20.7. (Lab) Apply the effects of magnetics fields and electric fields on charged particles to analyze the behavior of a cyclotron.

21.1. Use Lenz’s Law and the right (or left) hand rule for straight wires and for coils to predict the direction of the induced current and emf when a wire is moved across a magnetic field.

21.2. Know and use the relationship between magnetic flux and magnetic field strength to solve problems and calculate the emf induced in a wire when it is moved across or within a magnetic field.

21.3. Describe what is meant by and solve problems involving “back emf” or “counter emf.”

21.4. (FR) Calculate input voltage, current, and power and output voltage, current, and power for transformers.

21.5. (FR) Solve problems combining the concepts of circuits, electromagnetic force, and electromagnetic induction.

22.1. Describe the properties of electromagnetic waves and the major components of the electromagnetic spectrum.

23.1. Know and apply the law of reflection and determine image type, image orientation, magnification, f, do, di, hi, and ho given the appropriate information for plane mirrors and spherical mirrors.

23.2. (FR) Know and apply the three rules for locating images in curved mirrors using ray diagrams.

23.3. Describe the refraction of light, tell what causes it and what is meant by the index of refraction; describe total internal reflection and the conditions that are required; and use Snell’s Law to solve problems including calculating the critical angle.

23.4. (Lab) Measure the critical angle for light and calculate the index of refraction of acrylic using the critical angle.

23.5. Determine image type, image orientation, magnification, f, do, di, hi, and ho given the appropriate information for spherical lenses.

23.6. (FR) Know the three rules for making ray diagrams for lenses and apply these rules to find the size, location, and type of image formed.

23.7. (FR) Solve problems involving combinations of lenses.

23.8. (Lab) Find the focal length of a double convex lens, investigate the kind of images formed at various distances by convex and concave lenses.

Inspirational Syllabus Challenge

A couple of weeks ago, John Burk challenged us teachers to create more inspirational syllabi for our courses. He posted this just as I was about to send my syllabi for the fall out for copies to be made. Arrrgg!

While I don’t have visually arresting design skills, I did take another pass at my syllabi since previous versions were very dense and not at all inspirational. I wanted the revised version to share my essential goals, which I hope students find inspirational, and provide the most critical information on the first page. The details, the boring dense stuff, could be relegated to additional pages.

Here’s what I came up with for my General Physics class.

Download (PDF, 49KB)

My Honors Physics class syllabus is very similar.

Download (PDF, 50KB)

I’m going to send these out for copies before John can write another post that guilts inspires me to do more work. Hopefully, my students will benefit from these revisions as well!

Looking Back Before SBG

Several weeks ago, I noticed a teacher grading some papers. I don’t remember where I was, but I wasn’t at school, and I didn’t know this teacher. As I watched more closely, I saw her writing “-1”, “-3”, “-2” in the margin and then, after finishing with the paper, adding up the deductions and writing a score on the top. At first, I was puzzled by this teacher’s actions, and then I realized that she was grading papers. This realization was quickly followed by the surprise that, just a few of years ago, I graded papers in the exact same manner.

My brain is wired such that I adapt to new situations pretty quickly and often forget things from the past, especially if those things have a negative connotation. So, while you may be skeptical that I actually forgot how to grade papers traditionally, I assure you that my initial confusion was genuine. Fortunately for my students and me, I now provide feedback in a different way and actually enjoy doing so. This experience combined with the end of the school year has put me in a reflective mood.

I offer these reflections on how my approach to teaching has changed over the past few years not so much as a model of what should be done but more as a testament that it is possible to implement significant changes and, while these changes may seem daunting at first, in a relatively short period of time, they can become second nature.

Three years ago, everything that happened in my honors physics class was worth points. I checked homework almost every day and recorded points. I kept track of which students presented their solutions to problems to the rest of the class so I could record points. I stamped assignments that were submitted late so that I could calculate a late penalty when recording points. Every lab was collected and points recorded. There were opportunities to get extra points. I would pass back an exam so students could see how many points they lost and then we would begin the next unit. Students focused on collecting as many points as they could. Some played this game exceptionally well.

Two years ago, my colleague and I realized that these damn points were distracting our students from focusing on learning. We wanted certain things for our students and standards-based grading seemed like it could help.

It has. Two years ago we adapted a colleague’s implementation of SBG to our honors physics class. This past year, we made some changes and adapted our approach to our regular physics class team-wide. Last semester, we made some more tweaks to the implementation in regular physics. Now the entire school is moving towards some form of SBG.

Two years ago when we embarked down this path, I had many concerns about the implementation of SBG. What helped me to put these in perspective was comparing this new approach with what would have been done in previous years. I asked myself, “Yes, it may not be ideal, but is it a step the right direction?” Some of my concerns were:

  • Students won’t do labs if they aren’t graded. If the labs are engaging (not cookbook) and you have established a classroom culture that values learning, they will. If they don’t, maybe you need to revise that lab.
  • Students won’t study for exams if they have multiple opportunities. Some won’t. Some didn’t before. They get to prioritize and make choices. Learning to do that and the consequences of their choices in a valuable skill which is better practiced in high school than college.
  • Students will get behind and can’t catch up. Some do and can’t. Some do and can. At least now they have the opportunity to catch up instead of being left behind as the class plows onward. Before SBG, I can remember only one student who would go back and study topics they still didn’t understand after the exam. Now almost every student does.
  • I will be overwhelmed creating multiple assessments. It was work but not overwhelming since we split it. We limited reassessment opportunities and leveraged technology where feasible.
  • I will be overwhelmed with students assessing multiple times. When a line formed out the door of my classroom the afternoon after our first exam, I realized I would have to set some boundaries. Reassessments are offered one day a week before and after school. Period.
  • I will be overwhelmed grading reassessments. Grading reassessments is more grading, but checking for understanding is faster than deducting points. Overall, I do a lot less grading and provide a lot more useful feedback.
  • Parents will revolt. Many were extremely supportive. Some couldn’t let go of the points game that their child had learned to play so well. Some couldn’t focus on anything other than the GPA that will be on a transcript for college. Patience, open house discussions, and phone calls help.
  • Students will revolt. If you take the time to share the rationale for the structure of the class, discuss their concerns, and truly change your philosophy of education, a strong majority of students prefer SBG. After a career of playing the points game, some students are so frustrated that the rules of the game have changed, that they can’t adjust. I don’t give up on these students, but I’m not always successful in changing their perspective towards learning.

The past two years haven’t been easy, and there have been some challenges which could have been avoided. However, these past two years have been extremely rewarding. I feel that I spend my limited time in ways that benefit student learning. I feel that many students are once again focused on learning and understanding.

The best indication that I’m on the right track is that I can’t imagine teaching like I did two years ago.

Why Standards-Based Grading?

On Tuesday, the spring semester will begin and most of my students will be new to me and I new to them since classes get all scrambled between semesters. While everyone on my team structures their class according to our shared Standards-Based Grading (SBG) philosophy, I decided it would be important to share why I use SBG in my classes. I came up with five points:

  • I want you to focus on learning.

    Points and grades often get in the way of this.

  • I want you to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.

    This requires you to take risks, make mistakes, and try again. You should be rewarded for this and not penalized.

  • I want to know what you understand. I want you to know what you understand.

    This requires frequent, useful feedback. 8/10 is not useful feedback.

  • I want you to be responsible for your own learning.

    This requires you to have the information, tools, and freedom to do so.

  • I want your final grade to reflect your understanding of the standards for this course.

    This requires grades to be associated with standards and you to have multiple opportunities to demonstrate your understanding.

What is important are these goals, not SBG. I have embraced a SBG philosophy only because it helps me and you achieve the above goals.

Student Feedback on SBAR

As we near the end of the first semester, I have been reflecting, both on my own and with my team, on the changes that we made this semester to support our standards-based assessment and reporting (SBAR) philosophy. The adjustments that I expect to make in our honors physics class are minor since we now have three semester of SBAR under our belts. However, this is the first semester of incorporating SBAR into our regular physics classes. While we, as a team, have some ideas on adjustments to make for second semester, I wanted to capture feedback from the most important stakeholder of all, our students.

Inspired by Ms. Bethea’s survey that she administered at the start of the year, I created a survey to capture student feedback on various aspects of class: standards, grades, quizzes and exams, labs, other learning activities, and homework. Most questions permitted the typical strongly-agree to strongly-disagree responses, but a few were open-ended. All of my questions are available here. I don’t claim to have completed any sort of statistically significant scientific study, but I found responses interesting.

In the rest of this post I’ll share the responses of several of our students to the prompt “standards-based grading is …” to show their perspective. Some of these comments get me out of bed in the morning inspired; others, keep me up late at night concerned; and some, make me chuckle.

Get Me out of Bed in the Morning Comments

Standards-Based Grading Is…

a good alternative to the traditional grading system. In many of my other classes that do not use standards based grading, I feel that I do not really understand what I am learning, but rather, I am worried about my grade more than anything. The type of standards based grading utilized in physics ensures that I can focus on acctually learning new material, as I know that if I learn the material, I’ll have a good grade. Addtionally, I like the fact that we don’t keep losing points for simple “silly” mistakes, as this is where I usually lose points on, even though I usually understand the overall concept. This is why I feel that standards based grading is also a more accurate depiction of what people really know.

a great way to show learning in physics. It makes me think less about a letter grade and more about actually mastering the concepts we cover.

A great way for people to show what they know. If they did not understand the full idea, they can always go back and learn what they need to know. It also gives the students the knowledge as to what the teacher will be grading them on. It also saves the grade of a student who learns at a slower pace or looks at the curriculum at a different aspect than others.

fantastic. There’s more focus on what school should be about: comprehension of material retention. It is a wonderful new program; I believe courses should be taught with a much stronger foothold of standardized based grading.

Very helpful in increasing my grade and helping me further understand the material in class. The clear targets allow me to study specifically what I need to know, and I feel like I will better retain the information that I’ve learned this year.

A way to break down the material of a class and be assesed on individual topics.

only being able to move on when you fully understand a concept

awesome. This is the first year that I’ve had it, and I actually have A’s in both of the classes that I have that use it … . I think that this system really gives students the opportunity to show that they know the material, rather than getting points for doing homework and such.

more helpful than regular grading for most classes because you are not penalized for small non target-related mistakes.

good because you get a second chance to prove yourself, and improve, where as normal grading does not allow that.

A system that can be harsh if you don’t completely understand a concept, but forgiving if you spend the time to learn it and utilize second-tries.

Keep Me up Late at Night Comments

Standards-Based Grading Is…

a system of grading on a 4,3,2,1 / 3,2,1 system, instead of percentages, apparently that has to be used … because some people can’t handle regular grading.

detrimental to my grade. Though it places less pressure on me, I don’t feel like my grade in the class accurately reflects my understanding of the material nor the amount of work that I put into it.

Stressful and unindividual. My grade should be a reflection of my personal effort and growth.

REALLY ANNOYING, it penalizes you more then anything else because you have less points, and even if you just miss a few questions, you still get a zero for that target which has a huge impact on your overall test score instead of jsut getting a number grade which would be like an 85% or something. I hate SBG. I dont see the point of it what so ever.

Defy Classification Comments

Standards-Based Grading Is…

Another type of conspiracy, but less severe and possibly more helpful, although, it still will create a schism between those who understand, and those who don’t; however, this sort of grading measures how well someone knows the right answers rather than how well they can repeat it.

Pretty cool..i guess it could screw you over if you’re not careful…but whatever

What does this all mean? I don’t know yet. We’ll discuss some of the feedback tomorrow in class. I’ll have to reflect on all of this between semesters.

Adjustments for Second Semester

Our team of four physics teachers recently convened to reflect on the first semester of standards-based assessment and reporting in Regular Physics. While two of us have been implementing SBAR in Honors Physics, this Fall Semester was the first for Regular Physics. There are many, many aspects of how we integrated our SBAR philosophy that we found beneficial. However, the primary focus of our meeting was to address those aspects that we felt could be improved.

Assessing every standard for three consecutive weeks is not an effective use of time for most students.

Every standard would be assessed on three consecutive quizzes which would take three weeks. The first quiz would assess the standard in a more conceptual and basic manner and the second in a more advanced and comprehensive fashion. In combination, they provided a good measure of a student’s understanding. The third quiz wasn’t necessary for most students since they had already demonstrated that they understood the standard. That precious class time could be used more productively.

We decided that we would eliminate the third in-class quiz and make it an optional outside-of-class quiz. Those students who needed an additional opportunity to demonstrate their understanding may take this third quiz. The third quiz will be advanced and comprehensive since a student’s score on it replaces their score on the first two quizzes. Based on prior experience, we picked a single day every week when these third quizzes will be offered before and after school. At a bare minimum, students are required to submit corrections to the first two quizzes before they earn the opportunity to take the third quiz. Students are encouraged to pursue much more substantial learning activities before taking the third quiz.

The mapping of 1-4 to traditional percentages was problematic and inflated.

Our mapping of the 1, 2, 3, 4 indicators, which are used on almost all assessments, to traditional percentages as required by our school’s gradebook had a few issues. Students and parents were concerned that a “4” didn’t map to a 100%. It is really hard to not focus on traditional grades when our grade book only presents traditional grades. At the other end, the traditional percentages assigned to 1s and 2s didn’t reflect that lack of understanding that they should. Personally, I found that some students who were really struggling to understand physics didn’t appreciate this fact because their grade was inflated due to the mapping (“I’m doing fine; I have a C”).

For the Spring Semester, we will map our 1, 2, 3, and 4 indicators to traditional percentages as follows: A 4 corresponds to a 100%; a 3, 85%; a 2, 65%; a 1, 50%.

Too many standards.

Despite warnings from the two of us with previous SBAR experience, we still defined too many standards for each unit. Several times, this resulted in too much class time spent assessing multiple targets that could have been effectively assessed in combination.

As we define the standards for our Spring Semester units we are trying to combine standards when possible. However, if standards are too broad, it is hard for students to clearly understand what they are expected to learn. Which leads us to the next aspect in need of improvement.

Use consistent terminology to more clearly communicate with students, parents, other teachers, and administrators.

Our school is in the process of creating a glossary of terms with common definitions to address this aspect that is in need of improvement. One especially egregious example concerns the use of the word “target.” Our school has a history of defining “target” as a student-understandable and demonstrable goal for a daily lesson. We have been using “target” as a synonym for standard which is much broader.

In the Spring Semester, we will call our standards “standards” and our daily goals “targets.” This will help, but not address the problem that a high-level standard may be too vague for students to clearly understand what they are expected to know. Next school year, I hope to associated several targets or objectives with each standard to provide a connection between specific learning goals and higher-level standards.

Most of us can’t imagine going back to teaching Regular Physics like we did last year. That alone is a great sign that we heading in the right direction. Thankfully, we were given time to reflect and adjust for the Spring Semester which now looks even more promising.

Update: Fri Dec 17 00:28:05 CST 2010:

I’ve scanned the above referenced glossary of terms, which is still a draft document.

Dealing with Unfriendly Gradebooks

Last week was parent-teacher conferences. As I previously mentioned, I expected conferences to be somewhat more challenging due to how grades are reported this year compared to last year. The bad news is that I was right. The good news is that since I anticipated this, I was able to mitigate its effect.

When sharing reports from our gradebook system with parents, I noticed that regardless of what I was saying, if they could see the grade sheet their eyes would start scanning it and their finger would involuntary point to the 0% (F) in a row. At that point, they weren’t listening about learning or mastery or their son or daughter; they were focused on this “zero” which may just mean that the student is still developing mastery of that specific standard.

To maintain focus during the conference, I created paper templates (one for regular; one for honors) to defer visibility of these “grades” until the appropriate point:


This low-tech solution to a high-tech problem was very effective; my conversations with the template were much more productive than those prematurely focused on 0% (F). Since I didn’t always remember to use the template, I ended up with an informal qualitative study of parent reaction.

In addition, for Regular Physics, I displayed a spreadsheet on my computer that focused on the targets and the 1-4 scores on the weekly targets quizzes:


Parents seemed to readily grasp the 1-4 scale and the target quiz structure when presented in this manner. Parents and I discussed this report first before I ever presented the official grade sheet.

I share these examples because I know that many of us struggle with clearly presenting student learning with our less-than-ideal gradebook systems. For me, I was fairly successful by focusing the conference on student learning with supplemental information and low-tech modifications to standard reports. If you have developed an effective way to deal with your less-than-ideal gradebook system, please share in the comments!

Growing SBAR School-Wide

A year ago, when my colleague and I decided to jump aboard the SBAR express with our honors physics classes, it was a substantial effort but manageable. This year, when my team (four people) decided to integrate SBAR into another physics class, it was more challenging and more frustrating. Now, we are trying to move the entire school to an SBAR philosophy. I expect this will be extremely challenging and extremely frustrating. If there are only two people who share a common philosophy and passion, it isn’t too hard to create an SBAR framework for one class. However, as the number of people increase, the degree of agreement on philosophy and passion for implementing a change of this magnitude decreases exponentially. To be clear, this isn’t a slight on my colleagues in any way, but rather a reflection of the diverse philosophies and passions that we have.

The purpose of this post is two-fold. Primarily, I’m asking for your advice and experience if you have tried to grow a SBAR philosophy to encompass an entire department or, ideally, school. Secondly, in the process of writing it, I will refine a couple of ideas that have been idling in my brain.

So, for those of you who have tried to grow your own SBAR reform to an entire department or an entire school: How general are the guidelines? How do you balance the consistency desired by students and parents and the unique structure and characteristics of very diverse subject areas? How do you provide teachers who thrive on autonomy, flexibility, while providing teachers who desire it, structure? Have you agreed upon a one grading scale to rule them all? I appreciate that many educators are pursuing even more progressive ideas than my implementation of SBAR. However, I would rather my school take a step in a positive direction rather than fall flat trying to take too large a step.

One immediate challenge focuses on grading scales. When faced with a several different SBAR implementations, each with different methods of scores and calculating grades, parents and students are confused and frustrated. This is completely understandable. However, to be fair, while in a traditional grading system each class may appear to be the same since it consists of a percentage converted to a letter grade, each teacher may derive that percentage in a completely different manner. That is, it is an illusion of consistency since it is superficial.

Consistency is important. For example, if everyone uses a 1-4 grading scale, each number should represent the same idea. I think this is achievable; most teachers could probably agree to something along the lines of:

  • 4: Clear demonstration of understanding (with minor mistakes being allowed).
  • 3: Significant understanding is demonstrated, but a key aspect of the solution is not.
  • 2: Partial understanding is demonstrated (you are in the right ballpark, but misapplied some key information or concepts).
  • 1: No demonstration of understanding.

I think this level of consistency is most important. However, we still have a long way to go to change the conversation from grades and GPAs to student learning and understanding. Most likely a series of 1, 2, 3, and 4s needs to be converted to the same letter grade at the end of the semester.

While I agree that a consistent grading scale is important and I believe that agreeing upon one is feasible, I don’t know what it should be. However, upon reflection, I’ve formed the following high-level ideas.

If multiple things appear to be the same, there will be confusion if they aren’t. This applies in multiple ways. It applies to traditional grading scales that appear to be the same but aren’t. It applies to SBAR grading scales such as 1-4 that appear to be the same but map to different letter grades at the end of the semester. However, most importantly, if we select an SBAR grading scale such as 50-100 that appears to be the same as a traditional percentage grading scale, it will be problematic because students and parents will assume that the scales mean the same thing and, when they don’t, they will be confused and frustrated. Parents and students will understandably expect that a 70 means 70% of questions were answered correctly and not that “partial understanding is demonstrated (you are in the right ballpark, but misapplied some key information or concepts).”

If you want to clearly communicate that something has changed and means something different, make it obvious by making its initial appearance very different. I think this is why explaining a system where understanding is scored with “mastery (M)” and “developing mastery (D)” indicators is easier to explain than a 1-4 grading scale that appears to be based on a percentage of 4 points or a typical GPA.

We have to be proactive in our communication of change to teachers, students, and parents. The conversation about SBAR is significantly easier and much more likely to result in a positive outcome if the participants are starting from a position of curiosity. Even starting from a position of confusion or skepticism is better than starting from a position of hostility. The burden is upon the SBAR advocates to initiate these conversations proactively instead of reactively. The first time a student or parent hears about SBAR needs to be from a passionate educator who can clearly explain its purpose and goals.

When you are evangelizing a significant change in an organization, frame the conversation in your terms. In my previous career, I spent a lot of time and effort evangelizing wide-spread change. I quickly learned that I had to set that stage for the discussion, not the detractors. This applies to education reform as much as software development methodologies. Advocates for standards-based assessment and reporting need to frame the conversation in terms of the primary focus of student learning and not a letter grade; opportunities to demonstrate understanding, not retakes; feedback, not scores; standards-based assessment and reporting (SBAR), not standards-based grading (SBG). Choice of language is critical in framing the conversation.

I’m looking forward to your ideas and advice. I have to help our school figure this out before next year!

Update (Sun Oct 17 21:00:40 CDT 2010):

After reading Matt’s helpful comment, I realized that I didn’t present the steps that we have already taken throughout the school. During the last school year, we developed the following enduring understandings about SBAR:

  1. Grades communicate student achievement of learning standards; students’ grades should not be reduced or inflated due to student behaviors outside of the standards.

  2. Standards are clearly communicated to students with clear indicators of proficiency and exemplars.

  3. Grading policies are consistent among teachers of a course and common assessments are utilized to measure student achievement.

  4. Students learn at different rates and will have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge of standards; students are expected to take steps to correct errors of knowledge, understanding, or skills before they “reattempt” to demonstrate mastery of standards.

  5. Formative assessments are used to provide timely and descriptive feedback in order to allow students to utilize feedback to self-assess progress towards a standard.

However, just because these have been defined, doesn’t mean that everybody is on board or that everybody interprets them the same way. Perhaps, as suggested in Matt’s comment below, we need to reach philosophical agreement first. Or, maybe we have to work on philosophical agreement and implementation details in tandem.