May Course Evaluations: Standards-Based Grading Feedback

Part 2 of my May course evaluation reflection is centered on standards-based grading (SBG). I’ve just wrapped up year 2 of this radical change in my assessment philosophy and procedure. It has been a huge success.

Instead of posting every response, I will just post the best (in terms of feedback, not necessarily the best at giving me what I want to hear) and the most interesting answers.

The best reading is in the 3rd question. If you’re short on time (or patience for reading student feedback), but you also want to know what kids have to say about SBG, then scroll on down to hear how the grading system has impacted them this year. Powerful stuff.

In every case, any emphasis included is my own.

First off, after a year of participating in it, what do my students think I’m trying to do with the grading system? For reference, here’s my own (not that concise) explanation.

Question 1: Explain the grading system

Please give a concise explanation of the grading system used in this class. The purpose of this question is to compare how students have interpreted the system to the physics teachers’ ideas about the system so that we can improve how we communicate those ideas.

HONORS PHYSICS (70/30 sophomores and juniors)

Students are asked to show mastery of certain concepts and objectives that the Physics department decides are critical in understanding physics. Quizes are given to students as an opportunity to show whether or not a certain objective has been mastered, not to be graded. Students can choose when they want to demonstrate mastery of certain objectives by applying for tests over the weekend or another time, which lets students learn and master physics at their own time. It is also very easy to go for extra help.

well we test but even if we get it, it doesnt count because we have to show it right before a quarter or sememster to get any credit for the work we have done so i think its kinda making us either stay consistent or really lazy

You cannot fail this class because even if you do very poorly on a bunch of quizzes, you can apply for another quiz and if you get all of your objectives, you can still get a good grade. If you have all 2 objectives then you have a 90 and you can do extra work to get over a 90. The exam grade is your semester grade and the quarter grades don’t matter.

In this class, every topic that we learn has learning objectives, which we are assessed on through in-class quizzes. There are A objectives, which everyone must perfect, and B objectives, which are a bit more complicated. We are graded on each objective with a 2, 1, or 0 depending on how well we showed mastery of the objective. Then, we can reassess with extra tests on objectives that we have 1s or 0s on. Our grade is based on how many objectives we have mastered.

I love it. I never realized until this year (when I was forced to think about the logic of the class grading system), but it makes absolutely NO SENSE to get a bad grade for not knowing something perfectly when you first do it. That’s just ridiculous to expect. Also, if I actually LEARN through the school year, and know the material really well by the end (LEARNING- what I thought we were encouraged to be doing), we are still brought down because we didn’t, at some point, know it. Doesn’t that make it seem like even if you actually improve and learn over the course of the year, you’ll still be treated like you don’t understand it partially? Stupid. Basically, I LOVE this grading system, despite how frustrating it can be when it doesn’t work in favor of my grade because it’s always in favor of my learning.

An arbitrary system that doesn’t really work.

Practice makes perfect

0= Fail
1= Fail
2= Good

If we showed that we fully understood and could use the skills in the objectives then we got a 2 on that objective. Our exam grade serves as our final grade because it is the culmination and final example of all our learning, and even more importantly, practice.

The grading system is supposed to tell us what we need to practice more until we can solve all sorts of different problems from the same fundemental concepts, and until we can understad situations from all different points of view with the support of the laws of physics

PHYSICS! (almost all juniors)

Quizes are administered on the same day every week with an opportunity to reassess every Sunday at 9:00am or 1:00am. You’re judged on your understanding of the content, not necessarily your answers, and this judgment is done in a pass, almost pass, or fail system. (2,1,0) Objectives are split into A’s and B’s, A’s being the fundamental principles of a unit that you must have all 2’s on prior to taking a midterm or final for this class. When entering the final, your base is grade is based on how many 2’s you have, but you still have the opportunity to show your understanding of concepts that you hadn’t before. If you mess up something on the exam that you previously showed consistent mastery over, that will be taken into account

There are a set of ‘objectives’ which each student tries to work to achieving with a ‘2’ on said objective. The are two degrees–a fundamental A objective, or an extra B objective. While one student may have a 2 on an objective, nothing is set in stone as the grades keep changing depending on whether the student makes an error later. The quarter grades are simply snapshots, and the exam grades are also the semester grades because the exam is supposed to be our best work of the year.

2 – Shows complete mastery and understanding of an objective.
1 – Shows an understanding, but not mastery of an objective.
0 – Shows neither and understanding or mastery of an objective.

Well, since you asked– the grading system is an attempt to accurately grade students based directly on their understanding while simultaneously tracking their progress with objectives. Despite the laconic nature of that response, that was probably the best answer you’ll get.

I have separate objectives that I need to get by testing each week. We can never concretely get our objectives, because each time we test our previous completion can be erased if we don’t show mastery. By the exam we need to show that we understand each objective.

The grading of this class reflects more on the student’s improvement and hard work than rights answers. It is more important to get a wrong answer the right way than the right answer the wrong way.

The grading system doesn’t revolve around a grade. Students try to master objectives by taking quizzes and getting scored on a scale of 0-2 (2 showing mastery). The point of the class isn’t for students to consistently be trying to achieve a specific grade on a quiz but is focused on the depth of understanding physics from each student. The exam is the only time there will be a grade as students have the chance to show their understanding of the year.

I like the grading system, becuase the objectives tell if you truly understand something, not homework grades, quiz grades, or test grades, but in order to fully do well, you have to understand everything and prove that you understand everything more than on one quiz, but over and over again, so it becomes memory during the year.

Each unit is made up of objectives: A objectives for basic concepts and B for more complex ones. Each time you learn a concept you must quiz to show mastery of it for it to be graded. You can take quizzes on precise objectives almost any Sunday. The grading system is highly individualized and improves upon the student’s ability to actually learn physics and not just memorize.

By and large, the kids get it. They know what we’ve been trying to do. They understand a lot of the subtlety of the system (importance of scores not being permanent, the difference between A and B objectives). A few, of course, couldn’t give an answer without coloring it strongly with their like or dislike for the system. As has often been the case, the very few students who have strong feelings about SBG being bad are almost all students who did quite well in the course, often earning A’s by the end of the year. Okay, yes, these evaluations were “anonymous”, but a lot of the students either told me which was theirs in person, told me which was theirs by giving at least one response that was an obvious announcement of their identity (often referring to an inside joke), or gave other responses that confirmed the “did well” idea without giving away their identity—I think they know by now, though, that I’m much more interested in feedback than anything else. That’s the whole point of grading this way, isn’t it? So the answers are pretty honest, even when they were broadcasting which response was their own.

The answer that I highlighted above honestly made my year. Also, I might have just sent a kid out into the world who is likely to never be satisfied with the way school will (probably) be presented to her in future classes (or in her children’s future classes, should she have them). Oops? Or, “success!”?

There are a lot of good descriptions in the student comments that I might borrow for my own purposes next year in introducing the next batch of kids to SBG.

So, anyway, that’s great, but how did they decide to take advantage of the grading system to support their learning? Or did they at all?

Question 2: How did you manage your own learning?

In what ways did you manage your own learning when preparing for in- and out-of-class assessments? Were you able to use learning objectives to manage this learning yourself?


no, if i didn’t get it in class, i wasn’t going to get it on my own.

I did a lot of goal-less problems then used Wolfram Alpha to check my work. Those more often than not really helped because I had to figure out what to use in which situations instead of only being able to use an objective in a specific setting. Also, the fact that that the subjects were split up into objectives really helped me target what I don’t know specifically.

Most of the time I had no idea what was going to be on the in-class quizzes, so I focused more on knowing the current material than looking at past material in preparation for a quiz.

Yes, by looking at the objectives I got wrong the most time, I could figure out my strengths and weaknesses.

i looked at stuff by myself but otherwise classtime was alot of my preparation so i felt the need to just memorize in class and was usually swamped with other homework and physics homework wasnt assigned so i did it usually in class.

Yes, I used Active Grade to always know what I need to work on. I looked over old quizzes and did extra problems.

I usually just looked back at older quizzes on the same things, however I never stressed about taking the quizzes, as it is better to fail so that you remember your mistakes.

I didn’t practice

I did a lot of practice

I would look over my past quizes and problems to see what I was doing wrong and then look at and do some problems from the packet. From there I would then ask for help and understanding from others in honnor physics or beyond.

I went over old tests (not the best method)

I liked the objective system because it provided me exact feedback about what I need to practice. Although for some reason I always felt like some of the objectives I had 2s on, I still didn’t understand.

Yes the objectives were very helpful in figuring out which problems to practice on my own to master a concept. I would practice problems that I hadn’t done yet, like on the supplentary practice problems online


I learned this year through preparation for the extra tests as well of classes how helpful it is to practice instead of just read over the material–I didn’t totally buy into this concept originally but it definitely proved me wrong–I think about how we learned in physics when I’m in other classes now and think about actually trying a problem and learning from that mistake. I liked the way objectives worked and I think I was able to learn well from them with this structure.

I’m not sure what the question is really asking? How did I manage… my learning… I suppose I reviewed my past quizzes, if that is what you’re asking. Objectives is a good system, flawed, but more efficient than the class otherwise would be. It almost allows a hint of freedom.

I solved extra problems and sought out friends for help during study hall. The objectives helped focus my studying

The switch from just looking at problems to actually working on them on a blank sheet of paper had a big impact of my understanding of physics. I learned that physics, though it may be really confusing in the first couple of quizzes, will get better with continuous practice.

I have managed to complete most all of the requirements for this class in class. So generally I just show up with a pencil.

I had more oportunity to manage my own progress than I took full advantage of. However, simply knowing that it was my own initiative that would improve my grade made things much less stressful and just makes sense to me. It made class seem more personalized and less industrialized.

I didn’t really manage my learning for out of class assessments but I practiced for out of class ones. I should have thought more about objectives.

If I did not get a problem I would work at it and occasionally work with others the problems always got solved If I was given enough time and was able to talk with Ms. O’Shea which she was often willing to do.

I got this question from Mark. It was a huge improvement on previous versions of this idea (mostly along the lines of, “What did you do to contribute to your own learning? What did you do to contribute to the learning environment of the class?”—those never yielded the same quality of answers that you can see above). So—thanks, Mark!

This question also plays a lot off of what was asked of them in the last batch of questions that I posted (part 1 of this series, on homework).

Two really exciting things that I notice in these comments. (1) Most of the Honors Physics folks got the idea of practice (as opposed to review or studying). Even the comment of “I didn’t practice” uses the word (not the first they would choose at the start of the year, for sure), showing that even a student who chose not to manage their own learning outside of class knew what he was supposed to be doing. And the student who “went over” things to prepare for assessments knew that they weren’t doing a good job of preparing. Pretty cool! (2) A large number of the regular Phys! students also “got it” when it comes to practicing. Even more exciting, though, is that there were several students who had a(n at least somewhat) transformational experience when it comes to thinking about how you learn and get better at a skill—practicing problems on a new sheet of paper is hugely, gigantically more effective than looking at problems that have been solved already (either by you or by someone else).

I know that I need to do an even better job next year with teaching students how to practice outside of class, but I was excited to see how many students had actually both learned that skill this year and understood that they had learned that skill (enough to write about it on a survey).

Okay, on to the most exciting feedback on SBG this year. It was tough to cut much here, so apologies in advance for the number of responses that I saved. I suspect that these will be some of the most worthwhile pieces of reading in this post for anyone interested in implementing their own version of SBG. I can talk all day about how great I think it is, but hearing students talk about what kind of effect this hippie grading system had on their ability to learn physics this year is everything. Read on!

Question 3: Impact on each student

Has the grading system had an impact on your learning and understanding of physics?


Well it has made me have to go back and revisit stuff that i learned in the beginning of the year.

Not really, I haven’t been focused on the grading system at all. It’s nice to be able to learn without worrying about screwing up one quiz and knowing I can’t make it up.

By focusing on the objectives that I have gotten a 0 and 1, I can concentrate on parts that I wasn’t sure on that I didn’t know before.

Yes, it is nice to have hope that you can always try again when you fail at mastering things. I don’t feel defeated when I don’t get something the first time or the second time because I know I can try again.

maybe because i dont do anything outside of class until i have to take a sunday quiz then i look at it but thats about it.

This grading system does not allow me to move on without actually understanding what we have already learned. One time, I missed a problem about average speed and average velocity. In most classes, we would have moved on, and I would have not understood that concept. However, I applied for an extra quiz and I actually studied these concepts and now I know how to solve problems like that.

Yes, I DEFINITELY have to know what I’m talking about. I can’t just pass one test and forget, because the objectives keep coming back. In math, I am worried about the final because I forget almost everything we learned. In physics, however, the objectives have been so ingrained in my memory that I forget hardly anything. This is good.

Yes I was missing an objective that I totally forgot about because it had appeared so long ago, however when I realized that I had to clear this up I came in. After doing so I now know exactly how to do this problem.

I understand it so much more because without it I may have failed and given up on physics.

It actually lets me know what I specifically do and do not understand, and gives me ways to target those areas instead of just pointing out that there’s something I’m not getting.

It’s made it more difficult to gauge how I am doing.

Yes, I chase a score not an understanding. Example: I want a 2

yes. It allowed my to fail without feeling horrible, get back onto my feet and then destroy the next time I found the problem on a quiz.

I focused on learning and practice, instead of on the grade.

yes. sometimes the grading system was in my favor, but sometimes the grading system was not in my favor. so, i had to try harder to make up for the missing objectives..

It has made me become more conscious of how much I need to practice things before I move on to be able to fully understand them.

I really like the grading system! It lets us get grades based on what we know as opposed to how we did on a certain quiz. Also it makes sure you actually know something instead of memorizing something for a quiz and then forgetting it.


Yes, this grading system has forced me to make sure that I completely understood something before moving on. For example, I had a 1 and a star on an objective for the longest time because I kept on making small mistakes that showed that I understood, but had not mastered the objective. With extra help from Ms. O’Shea, I was able to grasp an understanding of the objective, and I finally got a 2.

Yes, if I had an 85 I wouldn’t necessarily work as hard to get the 90. When I have a 1 I know I have to work to get the 2. Mostly because getting a 1 is like, so annoying.

It taught me how important it is to sift through a difficult concept to achieve a final understanding. I also through the grading system had to push myself to remember basic concepts. I really liked this, as in many other classes sometimes it is difficult to remember the basics.

Yes, in the same way that any teaching method would have an impact on the way I learned anything. If you were to teach using corporal punishment for wrong answers, I imagine that would impact how I learned.

The grading system makes sure that I understand each objective, and continue to understand it as the year goes on. The grading system doesn’t let us forget the past material that we have learned as we learn new material. Each objective that we learn relies on an understanding of all the past objectives.

I study more to gain an understanding then to just get a good grade

The grading system has taught me that there is more to getting answers right on a quiz. I learned that if I am not consistent in solving physics problems, I haven’t fully understood that objective. There are some objectives from the beginning of the year which I had 2s on but later in the year, I made mistakes which showed me that I was not completely clear on some of the concepts that we were learning. Out of all the classes I’ve taken, this physics class has taught me the most because we are not only taught how to solve problems, but also to be consistent in our understanding by practising.

Sometimes it feels too simplistic, because a 1 can mean you were close to the answer, or had some basic understanding of the problem. The grading system has helped me understand that you can’t just get a problem right once, and that you must maintain the knowledge and skills to keep it through out the year.

Yes, I think the grading system has impacted my learning and understanding of physics positively. Without this grading system, I woud be focused and stressed about grades. I would try to memorize equations and diagrams so I could answer quizzes correctly. With this grading system, I am able to work on actually understanding each physics concept. I am not afraid to get a 1 on a quiz as I know there will be other opportunities to illustrate my understanding throughout the year.

It has had a positive impact becuase of the fact that it forces me to know, study, understand, and learn the objectives so that it would be possible for me to get all 2’s consistently. It forces me to know what I am supposed to do, and what I am forced to study and teach myself.

Yes; instead of simply memorizing a formula, I know the reasons for every calculation I make. I understand concepts and can apply them to almost any real life experience. Physics isn’t just another math class, it is a comprehensive science that frames the way I look at the world now.

It makes me have a fuller understanding of the objectives eventually. However, it kind of made me not study enough for the in class quizzes

Yes it has allowed me to make sure I have a lot of opportunities to learn the material.

Unlike math where after we pass one unit it is pretty much closed, in other words after we have an end of the unit test are grade on that test pretty much determines our entire level of skill in that unit. through out the entire year we have may try again and again to prove our mastery. I feel much more in control of my learning in physics than in math (not to hate on the math department which is very well taught as well)

So much to celebrate and think about, here. The biggest takeaways: (1) Students are still entering the class scared of physics. SBG is a system that alleviates some of that fear and worry. (2) Students are embracing mistakes and failure as a part of learning instead of thinking of them as something shameful or damning. (3) Students are focusing on the value of consistency in their understanding and are excited to feel that they truly know something (instead of being satisfied with memorizing some facts). (4) Students are doing some metacognition about how they learn and about how they approach other classes. This system hasn’t been only about physics class, but has helped shape, in some small way, their thinking about school in general. Holy cow!

There were a lot of students who contrasted their understanding in physics class with their understanding in math class (the great majority of these students were concurrently enrolled in either Algebra II or Precalculus of the “honors” or “regular” varieties). On some petty level, of course, I’m smugly pleased that Physics is getting the positive review in the comparison. Mostly, though, I feel unsettled about how so many students are feeling about their experience in math classes. They are hungry for deep, real understandings of mathematics, but they also don’t seem to expect to get those understandings in their classes. Most will only get one year of physics at this school, but all will get four years of math (or even more, as some take a second math class in their senior year). There is some change that is just starting to happen (with respect to class time, not grading) in the first year math class (a problem solving class) that seems really exciting, and I hope to get to see more of that class next year (my schedule makes it tough). I’m not involved in the math department at all, but I do hope that there will be more conversations that happen about healthy assessment practices, uses of class time (that maybe shift away from didactic lecture), and the use of homework. Of course, it’s not entirely fair for me to complain from across the hall or to expect my thinking about education and math to have any importance in another department. Still, we haven’t yet had the opportunity to share our work on assessment and grading with anyone else at the school in a formal setting (there have been “faculty forums” on some evenings for others to share exciting aspects of their work over the past couple of years), though many have asked about it. I hope that we will finally get that chance this fall and that it prompts more conversations across departments about the meaning of grades and grading.

I don’t know how I could do this, but I think it would be really interesting to get some sort of parent feedback on how they felt about SBG from afar (really afar, since I teach at a boarding school). I get a little bit of feedback from their first impressions at the October parents’ weekend (one parent called it “groovy” this year after I explained it to her), but I wonder a lot about what they are thinking by the end of the year. I imagine that access to that kind of feedback would also be really helpful for other people thinking about implementing a similar grading scheme.

One final bit of business—this post marks the third time I’ve shared student feedback about SBG. In case you want to read earlier impressions, here’s the feedback from these same students in January and the feedback from last year’s students (my first year of SBG).

2 thoughts on “May Course Evaluations: Standards-Based Grading Feedback

  1. One thing I need clarification on is how the grade is computed. For example, if a student has a collection of 0’s, 1’s, and 2’s how is a grade computed for a given unit? I know the 2’s on “A” level objectives get them to 70%, but how does it go from there?



    PS. Wonderful comments. I will try this next year, and hopefully get positive comments like these to recharge my batteries. Congratulations.

    1. In the end, the grading system is basically binary. 2 = yes, but 1 and 0 both mean no. Start with the assumption that every student enters the exam with 2s on all of the A objectives (reasonable because I put them in afternoon “detention” during the week or so before the exam if they haven’t shown mastery on all the core objectives yet). So once the exam is finished and their standing is updated on the B objectives (I don’t really look specifically at the As on the exam, though they of course need to be able to draw diagrams and such to do the exam)—the percentage of Bs that they have mastered gets them a percentage of 20 points (up to a 90 for their grade). That is, if they’ve shown mastery on half of the B objectives, then they have an 80. Then I look at how much work they did on the open-ended part of the exam (3 goal-less prompts where they choose to respond to 1 or 2 of them depending on time). Exceptional responses here can move their grade much closer to 100. Solid to good responses will move the grade 1 to 5 points, most likely.

      That’s basically the gist of it. I also wrote a little more about this here:

      And if that isn’t clear yet, keep asking questions. I’ll try to be more specific about what I do. 🙂

      SBG has been a huge revelation for my teaching and relating to students. The kids are so much calmer, which just makes everything so much better. Let me know how it goes in your classes next year!

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