I Survived My First Term Using Learning Objectives Based Grading (SBG)

I did it! Grades are in, and not only did I pull through, most of my students did as well. I have to admit I’ve learned more about teaching this term than I have for quite some time. Implementing Learning Objectives Based Grading¬†Assessment (LOBAG) has pushed me as instructor and I feel I’ve come out much stronger. Now it’s time to reflect.

What Worked

The LOBAG Philosophy (or SBG if you prefer):
Holding students accountable for mastering concepts and skills and giving them ample opportunity to reassess on those skills worked wonderfully. I can honestly say I’ve never had such a large portion of my class go on to Physics II with as good a grasp of the basics of physics. I’m dying to hear how they do during the next semester.

The Grading System:
I had a core group of about 60 C-level standards that students needed to complete just to get a C. In order to complete a standard a student needed at least two assessments marked as proficient. If students completed all of these standards they could get a C (or higher). Without completing all these basic standards the student could not get anything higher than a C-. If the student completed the C-level standards, their final grade was determined by how many of the A-level standards they completed. Despite considerable muttering and grumbling, almost all of my students completed the C-level standards and it turns out 3/5 of the class got an A or A-. I think this means either (1) I set the bar too low for an A or (2) the students really pushed themselves to master the material. I think the truth lies somewhere in between those two options so I’ll make an A a little harder next term and see how the students do.

The Standards:
The standards I used worked very well. I listed the first draft in an earlier post and towards the end of break I’ll upload my revised standards. The standards need a little tweaking but they got the students focused on the most important concepts.

What Didn’t Work:

Anytime Reassessment:
Unfortunately, the only limits I place on my students was they needed to give me 48 hours notice of reassessment and they could only take one reassement per day. As Thanksgiving rolled around I could see the dark clouds on the horizon, telling me that I was about to be hit with the mother of all storms, namely ALL of my students rushing to get all standards completed in the last few weeks. I basically spent every day after Thanksgiving writing, administering, and grading reassessments. The biggest problem for the students was that even though they were trying to learn the material, they were trying to cram 15 weeks of learning into the last three weeks. Some did it, but it was not very pretty. Next time I plan on requiring students to reassess within three weeks of their previous assessment, to cut down on everyone putting it off to the end of the term.

The Gradebook:
I really didn’t want the students thinking of their assessment scores as points, so I refused to average or add or calculate percentages. I needed a gradebook that would determine how many “proficient” marks or higher they students got. This meant cludging together the mother-of-all Excel sheets (I’ll blog about this later in more detail). This spreadsheet has over 100 tabs, each with calculations out to column DDD. Opening this file take about 4-6 minutes and updating grades is a nightmare. I’m not sure how to do things differently but that is my major task over break.

Figuring Out “Midterm” Grades:
Students always want to know how they are doing throughout the term, but that is a little harder to figure out with my grading system. I had a near mutiny at one point because several students were convinced no one was going to pass the course. The issue is that up until week 14, when the last C-level standard was assessed, none of the students had passed the point where they’d get a C. What I mean is that, in a points based course, at some point midway through the term a top-notched student will look at how many points and realize they have enough points to get a C, or a B, or even an A. With my grading system, no body knows for sure that they will at least get a C until a week before the term ends. I need to come up with a way of reassuring students so this isn’t so stressful.

Lessons Learned

Communicate, communicate, communicate:
The key is to keep telling your students why you are doing this, to list the benefits to them, and to explain the grading system at many points throughout the term. Students experiencing LOBAG for the first time are in very unfamiliar territory. They are professionals at getting points and calculating grades based on those points, but until LOBAG becomes more common the students will need to hear again and again why you are doing this.

If You Push Them They Will Rise:
I’ve always heard that if you set the bar high for your students they will rise to the occasion and will even thank you for it. This was the first time I felt I had the support of my colleagues and the courage to try it. And the students rose to the challenge! And thanked me for it!

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6 Responses to I Survived My First Term Using Learning Objectives Based Grading (SBG)

  1. Jason Buell says:

    Nice review. I’ve never figured out the midterm issue when “progress reports” roll around. This year I ended up projecting based on how they’re doing so far….what grade I “think” they’ll get. I then ran into kids thinking they were safe because I put “A” or whatever on their progress reports. It was a constant….no..ignore that. I just think you’ll finish with an A but you still need to learn XYZ.

    Having to give a single letter grade is stupid as it is, but midway through a grading period is ridiculous.

    Definitely agree with your Lessons Learned. As far as pushing them, I’ve also found myself creeping up the standards each year. At the end of every year I feel like I get to the end and go…I thought it’d be too hard this year but we did it….let’s ratchet up a couple of these standards I wasn’t happy with and see what we can do next year. It’s a good feeling.

    Nicely done first half.

  2. Stew says:

    Hey there,

    Congrats on making it through the semester. I was interested to read your comments about the gradebook. My company (Kickboard) makes a standards- or skills- based gradebook (depending on what you prefer to call what you’re tracking and analyzing). I’d love to give you a free account for next semester. It’s intuitive, flexible, and being used by thousands of teachers in the school we partner with. Each sign-up has two accounts – your own and a dummy with pre-seeded data so you can explore it before committing to use it. You can sign up at our website (www.kickboardforteachers.com) or shoot me an email if you want to learn more. I’d be happy to do a Skype demo.

    Happy New Year,


  3. Mylene DiPenta says:

    Glad to hear this is working well for you — and it’s great to hear that your colleagues were on-board. As for a gradebook — I can’t recommend ActiveGrade highly enough. It tracks reassessments as well as feedback, it’s fast, it’s web-based so you can update anywhere, anytime; it’s secure, and it publishes a “student view” so that students can see their own interim progress. I’ve got my account configured so that, as you mention, it does not calculate an interim grade; just reports on how many learning objectives they have mastered, when they assessed, and what feedback they got. Also, the customer service is breath-takingly good. The developers are all former teachers; they take feedback for themselves as seriously as feedback for students. Anyway, I wish you the best!

  4. Kris Shaffer says:

    Congrats! And thanks for a helpful summary of where you are and how you made out. I’m now nearing the end of my first semester using standards-based grading, and my experience has been very similar. I like the way you organize your course objectives better than what I did this semester (a dozen or so categories of work, with multiple grades per assignment depending on what it covered), and I think I’m going to try to move that direction.

    Maybe you’ve worked this out for your courses now, but for the gradebook, I wrote my own python scripts. One script entered grades into a master CSV file, one gave an assignment report, and one gave a student report (for each category it listed each assignment and score, in the order they were submitted, so I could see progress). Every week or two, I ran a report for each student and then put their current overall assessment for each category in the course website gradebook. Not a perfect system, but it worked for what I did, and it was fast. I’ll be happy to share the scripts with you if you’re interested and think it would work in your system.

    I can sympathize about midterm grades, since we’re required to submit them at my school. Lots of hand-wringing on my part, and lots of last-second (re-)submissions. The good thing is that a few students realized in that mad dash that it didn’t work, and they’ve been a little more diligent since then. A few are going to try and do it again come finals, but hopefully less than at midterm since some learned their lesson (I think).

    Now I have to read the rest of your blog and see if your changes for the spring worked out!

    • Kris, I’d love to see your scripts. I’m currently using Excel as a gradebook, which isn’t a perfect solution. I’ve tried ActiveGrade, but it didn’t do things exactly how I wanted them. If you could send it to me I’d appreciate it. I’m zimmermant and I’m ot uwstout which is an edu server (trying to avoid spam bots finding my email)

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