Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Keeping Track in a Mastery Based Class

After wrestling for years with different systems for keeping track of student progress and interventions for struggling students within an asynchronous course, I finally arrived at a solution that works for me. Learning Management Systems that I have used don't appear to offer helpful internal structures for self paced learning, so I had to develop my own tools. Before diving into the nitty gritty, here's the gist: I set up a suggested pacing calendar that represented the slowest pace allowed in the course. Once the suggested pacing calendar was created, I made a Google tracking Spreadsheet with all of my students in one place, then used the Import Range formula to automatically update progress in personalized spreadsheets shared with students (and parents and/or tutors as needed.) Within these spreadsheets were predetermined check-in times which also served as triggers for contacting parents or advisors.

The course calendar was the slowest pace allowed in the course. Since the course was self-paced within reason, I no longer distinguished between class and homework. I only shared my expectation for what work needed to be completed by the end of each lesson. The standing homework was to complete whatever did not get done during class. I did not check where students were at the end of each class, unless they needed that support; I was only concerned about their progress at the end of each 8 day cycle (my school has an 8-day schedule) but I recognize a weekly or even shorter cycle might be more helpful for other schools, divisions, etc.

Suggested Pacing Calendar

Students were highly encouraged to show me their work after completing each assignment in order to prevent bottlenecks on Day 8 check-ins. Whenever a student satisfactorily completed an assignment, I updated the master copy of the pacing calendar spreadsheet shown below. Note: in the past, I asked students to update their own progress but found that the students who most needed this type of support were also unreliable in updating their own tracking sheet.

Here's some useful information to help read the spreadsheet:
  • The left column has names of students in each section and the top row has the name of the assignments.
  • The cells in green with an "X" indicates a student has completed the assignment, while cells highlighted red with "no" are missing or incomplete assignments. (Note: a slightly different system could have grades rather than the binary "Yes/No" system described above.)
  • The black columns represent a check-in time at the end of every 8 day cycle. 
Master Spreadsheet

If a student did not have all green cells at the designated check in time, then on a second tab shown below, I colored the cell red to indicate "behind" the suggested pacing within the course. I blind copied students who were behind after each cycle with a warning email.  For students who I knew there were other significant issues, I sent individualized emails and copied their advisors. For students who were behind two cycles in a role, I sent home an Academic Notification to parents. In our school, these interventions are sent for a number of reasons, including failing an exam or missing several assignments. As the year progressed, I lifted these notification rules for some students; Eventually by the 4th quarter, I did not have to do the check-ins for most students.  

Cycle Check-in Tab

After using this system for a few weeks, students wanted me to post or share access to my master spreadsheet because it helped them keep track of their own progress. Since I did not want students to have access to their peer's data, I used the Import Range formula to link my master spreadsheet to individual student spreadsheets. Shown below is an example of one student's spreadsheet. By using the Import Range formula, I was able to copy a particular segment of my master spreadsheet and place it in an individual student's spreadsheet. Whenever I edited the master spreadsheet, the individual student's spreadsheet also updated. 

Individual Sheet

An added benefit of individualized spreadsheets was being able to share it with parents, advisor, learning specialist, and/or tutor. If I wanted certain students to skip an assignment, it was easy to update the spreadsheet with that information as well. If there were optional enrichment assignments or particular assignments for different groups of students, this system also accommodated for that as well.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Recent Course Updates and Future Plans


It’s been awhile since I wrote an article to my blog. I’m unsure if it was due to lack of inspiration, distraction, complacency or some combination of different reasons. My class has continued to evolve and I made important changes to the course. I hope to continue to improve my course and reflect about it online.

Since the last blog post, these are the changes I’ve made to the course:
  • SBG improvements: science process standards that span between units as part of my SBG focus
  • Flirtation with gamification: leader-board and other graphics showing the number of level 4s and mastery projects completed by individuals and classes.
  • More voice & choice: robust offerings of optional units and mastery projects.
  • Differentiation in content delivery: iBook that accompanies most of the videos.
  • Lab report improvements: Less focus on formal lab report writing and greater emphasis on flexible formatted lab write ups.
  • More flexible hot seats: students decided how to show they understood the standards rather than answering questions from me.  

Upcoming this year:
  • Personalized learning continuum: as I continue to work on voice & choice and differentiation, there will be entire learning cycles that all students will be able to choose. Rather than only offering this choice to students who finish the course earlier than others, there will be two stopping points where all students will have to select a learning cycle from a menu of topics.
  • Claim Evidence Reasoning: as I moved away from the traditional format of lab reports, I was proud to see improvements in overall quality, yet many students needed more direction. I will use the technique of Argument Driven Inquiry, also known as Claim-Evidence-Reasoning for lab assignments. As a department, we agreed to adopt Claim-Evidence-Reasoning for lab reports because it helps to focus the students on the important elements of experiment analysis.

I am happy to report that the journey started as part of my shift to flipped learning has opened avenues for the course that I would not have predicted. These changes have led to a more engaging, rigorous and authentic experience for students.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Straddling the Asynchronous - Synchronous Line

Perhaps the greatest sense of pedagogical innovation and challenge of my course is the desire to offer differentiated pacing. The last few years, my flipped course has been asynchronous. 

One on hand...
It's been a great experience. Students have learned to become more responsible for their learning and self-directed. Asynchrony has also allowed students to slow down when they struggle with the content and speed up during other times. This has given me an opportunity to work with individual students on their particular needs. Excelling students can learn content beyond the scope of my course if they finish the course or particular units quickly. Struggling students no longer have to worry that their questions or misconceptions are slowing down the rest of the class.

On the other hand...
I've found in past years that the majority of students who work from behind are due to time management and motivational issues, rather than profound challenges with the content. The reason for moving to an asynchronous class is to allow students to learn at the speed which helps them learn most effectively. Unfortunately, while asynchrony has benefited the excelling and struggling students achieve this goal, it has been a struggle for some of the middle students with executive functioning and motivational issues. In essence, I've given these students the opportunity to slack off. In a synchronous class, these students would have been forced to learn more. 

Another issue is when students are learning and struggling together, it bonds them in an inspiring way. It creates a class culture that is hard to recreate in an asynchronous class. 

On both hands...
Last year I made a conscious effort to recreate some of the synchronous experiences in the asynchronous setting. Students responded to warm up and exit ticket prompts in their journals at the beginning and ending of lessons. We played formative assessment games and did peer instruction at the beginning of other lessons. Students planned out their week at the beginning of Mondays and reflected about their week last thing on Fridays. These were helpful strategies to develop student metacognition. But I've found this year's cohort do not require the same level of reflection and for the most part can handle the content with ease. Therefore, these ideas are not as helpful. 

This year, I've made some changes that I hope will better serve these students. Rather than giving away complete autonomy of pacing, my suggested course calendar represents the slowest speed allowable. Students have permission to move ahead but cannot fall behind. After students fall behind beyond a time frame (every 8 days), I send home academic notifications. When it becomes obvious that a student is in jeopardy of falling behind, I try to send a warning email to the student prior to sending home a notification. Since students are no longer required to map out their week, I do not start Monday's with the planning activity. In fact, I try to give the students as much asynchronous time as possible since I'm holding them more accountable to work at a certain pace. This also means doing away with the journaling. Instead, I've been more strategic about how to use synchronous times in class. 

So far, I've kept the formative assessment games and peer instruction when it appears necessary based on how well the students are grasping the material. In addition, I've reinstituted the Socratic seminar discussions. Perhaps I hastily gave up the seminar discussions last year - they are a true joy. They breathe a life into the class that was missing last year. Students report enjoying the discussions because they find the articles and controversial issues interesting. They also enjoy switching to full class activities once in awhile. To facilitate optimal engagement, I give students a heads up of the scheduled date for the seminar and encourage students to be ready to talk by that date.

The final synchronous exercises I've reinstituted is the full class exam and common due dates for lab reports/write ups. As I predicted in a previous blog article, these deadlines have helped keep students accountable for pushing through the curriculum at a reasonable pace. The biggest deadline is also at the end of quarters; students must earn level 3 on specific "I can" statements by the end of the quarter. 

I'm hoping the suggested pacing calendars and the synchronous scaffolds of quarter, semi-weekly, test, lab report, and full class discussion deadlines will provide enough structure and accountability in my asynchronous course to help students who need traditional elements of schooling. I also hope that these attempts of support will still allow students to learn at their own pace instead of being rushed through the curriculum. In essence, I hope I'm successfully straddling the synchronous-asynchronous line. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

From Paper to Paperless to Paper?

I remember a time when educators on Twitter and other social media cheerleading paperless classes. I've been paperless for years without it being an explicit goal. Don't get me wrong, it does have some advantages. No longer do I have to worry about loosing a student's assignment or carrying a stack of papers during winter break. I'm even more grateful that I don't have to make photocopies before class or print out extras for students who loose their first copy. Similar to the  "real world," students can gather more materials on demand without needing a mediator. In many ways, going paperless has shifted responsibility over to students - missing a note sheet or handout, go online and get it yourself! 

I do worry about potential issues. If students can get more copies of handouts on their own, then what encourages them to keep track of the first version? When I was a student, I had to organize my papers and when I failed to be responsible, then I would have to face my teacher's disapproving expression. I wonder to what extent I'm enabling the students who could otherwise be organized.

The other issue is related to learning. The research is clear: students learn more effectively when they are writing on paper, rather than typing on a screen, and reading from paper than from a screen. The move to paperless is counter to the current data on memory and learning. I suppose the appropriate response is the sum total of human collective knowledge is readily accessible via mobile devices, at lighting fast speeds; therefore, education should shift from memorizing facts to higher order tasks - a fair response indeed. But I can't imagine these advocates would argue against students memorizing any facts. The question, rather, is how many facts ought to be memorized.

I tried this year to move back across the aisle to using paper. At the beginning of the year, I told students they had to print the video note sheets and hand write their notes. We also briefly talked about the research that supports this mandate. I also provided binders, free of cost, to students who wanted them. I have to admit that I haven't been enforcing this mandate. I have no idea how many students are taking handwritten notes. Guess it's time to find out. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Challenging Assumptions: A Post Flipcon15 Reflection

John Armato // Flickr
The last few years of teaching has forced me to challenge normal assumptions about teaching and learning. I’ve done a great deal to test these assumptions, whether through my work on flipped learning and standards based grading. This year’s FlipCon showed me that there is still much work to be done.

The great Paul Andersen of Bozeman Science gave a wonderful keynote and workshop on the first day. I must digress for an interesting observation; Paul Andersen’s Blended Learning Cycles are similar to my Mastery Learning Cycles. At first, I thought I may have unconsciously borrowed from something I read or watched about his course. But I soon realized that we had similar inspiration. We were both inspired by the mastery flip class movement, as well as Ramsey Musallam’s criticism of mastery. Ramsey, another flipped educators, argued that inquiry should play a large role in science instruction; therefore, exploration should happen before direct instruction from video - hence the creation of flipped learning cycles. A second similarity between our models is the mandated small group or one-on-one discussions with students after the first year of experimenting with our flipped learning cycles. Both Paul and I experienced a disconnect from the learning of our students when we incorporated asynchronous learning in our respective courses. We both saw the need to fix our courses by putting us back into our courses. 

This is where Paul’s insights have helped me going forward. He advocated the use of design thinking in education. He bluntly, and correctly, argued that teachers need to accept responsibility for fixing issues in our courses. If the class is not working, it is most likely the teacher who is the issue. Just as Paul and I identified and responded to a major issue after year one of our flipped learning cycle, teachers need to redesign their courses to address problems. Whenever something is not working in my course in the future, I will remember Paul’ challenge to use design thinking to fix it.

Kate Baker and Lindsay Cole led an engaging discussion about grading practices during their presentation. It dovetailed with my presentation with Amanda Meyer about standard based grading. Both sessions touched on assumptions about grading practices. I was pleased to see that there is an appetite in the flipped learning community to rethink what we grade, how we grade and the purpose of grading. In the polls conducted by Lindsay and Kate, a majority of the teachers were in favor of flexible due dates and allowing students to redo work. Even though I consider myself progressive about grading, I am still trying to figure out how to discourage students from taking advantage of my willingness to make accommodations. Specifically, Aaron Sams raised the question of making students feel the sting of procrastination without contaminating the grade, which should reflect learning.

The final workshop I attended was also led by Lindsay Cole. She discussed the use of student generated content. She advocated letting students teach other students through the creation of content. Lindsay made an important distinction between student projects and content. Projects typically cover content already covered and are typically made for the benefit of the teacher to evaluate the learning. On the other hand, student generated content is generated for the purpose of teaching other classmates. Of course, projects are typically shared with classmates during presentations but student generated content is intended to actually teach or cover the content of the course. This topic is of great interest to me. Some of my students who strive for level 4 on some learning targets create similar projects that I use for remediation for other students. Lindsay’s presentation showed me that I haven’t pushed the envelope enough. Rather than relegating the student mastery artifacts to the remediation library, these projects can be the main vehicle for teaching the content. I do wonder if students, especially middle school ones, will be able to internalize the content while creating the projects and whether the audience will effectively learn the content. The final obstacle is Lindsay's structure seems more consistent with synchronous rather than asynchronous courses. However, I am encouraged by Paul Andersen’s challenge, I’ll have to redesign the course such that student generated content is a viable option - moving to synchronous learning for certain units and having student groups initially learn from learning cycles before teaching to other students are ideas that come to mind.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Looking Back on My Second Year of Asynchronous Learning

Due to specific issues in asynchronous learning last year, I started the year by scaffolding mastery. The scaffolding seemed to help students learn the organization of the course before attempting the challenge of asynchronous learning. This year, students were closer together at the end of the year, than in the previous year. While most students were successful, the students who lacked motivation and follow-through continued to struggle.

The most frequent piece of advice my students left for next year's students have to do with keeping up in an asynchronous class. To help students stay afloat, I will mandate cumulative exams. I hope the exams will act as deadlines without completely taking away independence, which many of my students valued. The added benefits of cumulative exams is preparation for final exams and it provides more data for me to evaluate student progress on learning targets.

I tried differentiating the final exam with three versions based on percent of the content covered: 90%, 97% and 100%. After some protests from students, I let students choose which final to take rather than mandating the version. The overwhelming majority opted for the most difficult exam and averaged a "B+." Unfortunately, the students who opted for the lower exams performed poorly, with only one student earning a respectable "B." Aside from a few marginal passes and the lone "B", the handful of students who opted for the less rigorous finals failed. I wonder if announcing there will be different finals altered the study ritual for struggling students. In addition, all but one of the struggling students worked from behind and used a lot of effort in the final weeks to play catch up, rather than prepare for the final. Another confounder is these students also failed other final exams.

Earlier in the year, I missed the synchronous discussions of past years like Socratic Seminars. Perhaps along the way, I got use to doing without them but I no longer see them as a great loss. If I'm being completely honest with myself, these discussions weren't as transformative and powerful as I know they are in some other courses. At this point, offloading these discussions to online forums in the engagement segment at the beginning of learning cycles, seem to be an appropriate decision.

I do, however, need to refocus on offering some synchronous activities like formative assessments to build a sense of community and maximize opportunities for students to collaborate and help peers. In an asynchronous class, group member choice is limited to the students working on the same step. Including more of these synchronous assessments and learning opportunities, students can collaborate with new group members.

The asynchronous debate is still the biggest source of concern and pride. In the exit surveys, many students cited the independence as their favorite part of the course, while roughly the same number cited it as the most challenging aspect of the course. Right now, I plan to continue running an asynchronous course, not only for reasons cited in previous blog posts but because so many students never have to opportunity to learn how to work independently, set priorities and manage their time. These skills are needed by adults but are infrequently developed in primary and secondary schools. I'll continue to fight the good fight...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Looking Back on my First Year of Standards Based Grading

The move to standards based grading solved many issues from last year. Conversations shifted away from percentages to learning. When a student struggled, we talked about specific learning targets rather than scores or whether an assignment was turned in or not. Equally as significant was the shift in my role. I wrote at the end of last year's reflection blog post, I felt like a study hall monitor, spending the bulk of my time checking off assignments. This year, I'm proud to report I spent most of my time answering questions, giving feedback and challenging students as they tried to convince me they understood learning targets. 

I had a better clue about what my students knew and did not know. I was better able to communicate the progress of each student and many students had a much clearer idea of what they needed to work on.  Admittedly, a number of my students shared they didn't pay attention to the "I can" statements. I believe a solution is to change the hot seat discussions; students will decide how they want to prove to me they understand an "I can" statement before gaining permission to take a summative quiz. 

The tracking system and grade book were clear and helpful. All activities were aligned to learning targets. In previous years, students argued they could learn without completing certain assignments - this was not as much a criticism this year. Even if some students did not pay attention to the "I can" statements, students were aware of what they needed to do and why they needed to complete certain assignments.

Most important was the buy-in of my students to revise and redo assignments. Many of my students appeared to have or develop a growth mindset regarding science class - or at least, this particular science class. Of course, some students didn't want to do quiz error forms and the obstacles I put in place for permissions to redo quizzes, but they all wanted the redos. 

Given that some students paid very little attention to the standards, it's no surprise that only a handful of students opted for mastery level on the standards. Some students shared reluctance in completing the projects because they were fearful of falling behind. Students also questioned my prohibition of using class time for these projects - a decision made to encourage students to move forward and not fall behind, which I am currently rethinking.

There are other tweaks that come to mind. I wonder if I should require students to earn a perfect score on the quizzes to earn proficient, instead of 80%. The argument makes sense. If students really understand the concept, they should be able to answer 5 out of 5 application level questions. This would require expanding my question bank and opening quiz attempts to five, instead of three. I would have to adjust my retake policy to account for the increased attempts. Alternatively, the most recent, not the highest, score on a summative assessment will stand. If a student retakes a quiz and earns a lower score, then that score will be used to evaluate the student. Again, if a student truly understands a concept, they should be able to pass a similar assessment a few days after a previous attempt. If they earn a lower score after a subsequent attempt, then arguably, the student did not really understand the learning target.

The most important adjustment I need to make is crafting the learning targets that span over several units. This year, I focused on the content standards specific to certain units. This was a decision of convenience. Unfortunately, the result was inconsistent and informal tracking and assessment of the important science process skills like organizing and analyzing data and using evidence to support claims. 

Even though I'm rethinking some of the finer details and execution of standards based grading, I have enough evidence that the model works. I look forward to a second year of standards based grading.