Reflection on Standards-Based Calculus

Our semester is wrapping up and we only have one more class meeting day after Thanksgiving. I’ve been teaching two sections of “Calculus II” using my standards-based grading system that I’ve mentioned before. I think I made several improvements this semester and I wanted to share them, along with a couple of things I’m still contemplating. But first, here are things I thought went well:

  • I really liked having my standards organized by Big Questions. This is probably something I could have implemented outside of my grading system. Somehow writing and organizing my list of standards gave me the motivation and time and priority to think about the take-aways I wanted my students to get from our course.
  • Last Spring, I had approximately 18 standards, meaning about one per week. They were large learning targets. Take, for example, the “Techniques of Integration” standard that encompassed a couple of weeks of class time spent talking about integration by parts, by trigonometric identities, by trigonometric substitution, by partial fractions, and so on. This semester, I wanted more standards that were more specific. I hit my goal of 30 standards for the semester and this number worked well. On the one hand, the standards were specific enough that students could focus on just one idea at a time. On the other hand, there weren’t an unreasonable number for me to assess. Roughly they correlated to one standard per textbook section, spanning about 1.5 classes per idea.
  • Originally, I had a “policy of replacement” where a score would be updated each time a problem was attempted. In some cases, this seemed to harsh, since prior good work was “erased” easily. In some cases, this seemed to lenient, because sometimes an easy problem would earn a high score, but replace more thoughtful work on a harder problem. This semester¬†scores were defined as the average of the scores from the last two¬†attempts. This also made picking problems for re-assessments easier on me since I wasn’t as concerned about having them all be exactly the same difficulty. It also means that a score of 4 means a student demonstrated a strong level of mastery on two problems of a particular type, and that seems to work well.
  • I limited the number of re-assessments to one re-assessment topic per week. For example, if a student were struggling with Taylor Polynomials, they could come in throughout the week and try re-assessments. In some cases, they would just solve one problem. In other cases, they might solve four or five problems, each time getting a little more of the correct solution. Previously I let them do 2 standards per week but I found two problems with this: First, some students would just always pick their lowest two scores and try them, without really ever focusing on a single idea and working toward mastering it. Second, having multiple re-assessments on multiple topics times multiple students meant my grading workload was higher. So, one per weeks seems like a more manageable number for them to work on and it makes my grading workload lighter. Lastly, since we had 30 standards (but only 16 weeks) this policy pushed them to demonstrate mastery on in-class assignments (quizzes, exams) without just punting them to re-assess in my office later on.

Two things I don’t have data on yet:

  1. This semester I tried assigning online homework, with the homework contributing 5% to the overall course grade. I found assigning just textbook problems (and not grading them) did not work well. Perhaps I was not very good at motivating students to solve more problems on their own? I haven’t taken a detailed look at homework scores compared with course standing, so I am not sure if homework correlated with success on in-class assignments or not. I also feel a bit “icky” about assigning and grading homework, given some of the research I’ve seen.
  2. The other change I made was I separated “during semester scores” from “final exam scores.” So 70% of course grades will come from a letter grade assigned based on the scores on standards that were accumulated during the semester and 25% of course grades will come from a letter grade assigned based on scores on standards that will be accumulated on the final exam. This breakdown was in response to some conversations with students from last semester who felt that the old policy (“average of semester score and final exam score”) was too strict. We will see how this works out and if there is much movement in pre-final letter grades to post-final letter grades.

I’m teaching calculus II again in Spring 2015 and I plan to continue using this system. I am still entirely undecided about trying it in Pre-Calculus. I have several worries about trying it in that course.

Postscript: Here are some links to some older blog posts about my SBG Calculus adventure:

https://blogs.cofc.edu/owensks/2014/10/09/big-questions/

https://blogs.cofc.edu/owensks/2014/08/18/list-reboot/

https://blogs.cofc.edu/owensks/2014/02/25/on-the-purpose-of-examinations/

https://blogs.cofc.edu/owensks/2014/01/09/sbg-faq/