Teacher’s Skill Sheet Is a Win (aka The September Sales Job)

The teacher’s skill sheet was a success (thanks, Dan).  Today was our third day with the first-year students, and my first time explaining skills-based-grading to an incoming class. Our reassessment period is Thursdays from 2:30 – 4:30, so in this morning’s shop class I dropped a skill sheet on their benches and we started using it.  By the time I started explaining how I grade this afternoon, they already had a skill signed off.

I handed out their skills folders and the first two skill sheets for DC circuits.  You should have seen their jaws drop when I explained that they can choose if, when, and how often they reassess.  They asked great questions and gave thoughtful answers.  We talked about how everyone progresses, the many ways of getting extra help, learning at your own pace, and the infinite ways of demonstrating improvement or proficiency.    They wanted to know what is proof of improvement (required when applying for reassessment), and had suggestions (quiz corrections, practice problems, written explanations).  They wanted to know what level 5 questions are, where to find some, and how to prevent them from getting too big.  Many of them had ideas in mind already and we bounced those around to see if they meet the criteria (at least two skills, and you have to choose the problem-solving approach yourself, so it can’t be the same as something we’ve done in class).

We talked about how and why you couldn’t get credit for level 4 until you’ve completed level 3.  I explained it in terms of employers’ expectations about basic skills.  One student explained it back to me in terms of “levelling up your character” in role-playing games.  We talked about feedback, from me and from themselves.  I gave examples of feedback that does and does not help you improve (“I need to figure out why V and I are different” compared to “I don’t get it.”).  We talked about how many points homework is worth (none).  My get-to-know-you survey tells me there are a lot of soccer players in the room, so we talked about practices and push ups.  “Do you get points in the league standings for showing up to practice?  What about for going to the gym?”  I asked.  Of course they said no.  “So why do it if it’s not worth points?”  They got this right away.  “It helps you win the game.”  “It makes you stronger.”

I enjoyed this conversation:

Student A: “So homework is just for learning.”

Me: “What are you talking about?  I thought homework was for sucking up to the teacher.”

Student B: “I thought so too.  That’s why I never did it.”

Student C: “I thought homework was for keeping kids in their homes at night.”


Once the questions had died down, I gave them a copy of a skills sheet that looks just like the ones I use to assess them, except that all the skills relate to my teaching.  I asked them to sign and date next to any items they had evidence that I had done.  I did this so I could find out if they really understood how to use the thing.  But it had unexpectedly positive side-effects.  From a quick glance, they could tell that I was going to get a “failing” grade.  It never occurred to me that they would be upset by this.

They had barely started reading when I started hearing gasps.  “You’re failing!” someone called out.  “Is our assessment of you going to affect your assessment of us?” someone else half-joked.  “Of course I’m not passing yet,” I replied reasonably.  “It’s the second day of class.  There’s no possible way I could have done 60% of my job by now.  That’s how it works: you start at 1, then you move up to 2.”  I walked around and peeked over shoulders to make sure they got the mechanics of what to fill in where.  I stopped a couple of times to talk to people who seemed to have overly generous assessments.  “How have I demonstrated that?” I asked.

We reviewed it together.  We got to practice technical reading in tiny, learning-outcome-sized pieces.  The highly condensed text on a skill sheet changes meaning if you miss a preposition.   Another unexpected side-effect: my students had noticed me doing things that I hadn’t noticed myself.  They had evidence to support most of their claims, too. There were a few that I disagreed with because I had only demonstrated part of the skill, and I modelled the kind of feedback that my “teacher” could have given me to help me improve.

Overall, they seemed very concerned about my feelings about “failing;” we calculated my current topic score at 0.5/5 and filled in the bar graph on the front of the skill sheet with today’s date.  I got a chance to model a growth mindset.  I made sure to let them see how proud I am of having achieved a 0.5 in only two days’ work, and mentioned that this is an improvement over two days ago, when I had a zero.  The usual running commentary of tongue-in-cheek jibes had a disarmingly earnest, reassuring tone.  “I know that you can improve your score the next time you reassess,” one student said.  Another student chimed in with “feel free to drop in to my office anytime if you want to get some feedback.”


    • Yes, I’m always a little surprised to find how much they do notice and appreciate the faculty (I don’t think I was as aware when I was in their shoes). The year has already been full of surprises — stay tuned.

  1. This is a fantastic idea. I love that you modeled the growth mindset, which I think is so important for students to learn–and that failing is something that they shouldn’t feel bad about, or something to be seen in a negative light. I also am tickled to see that last student’s comment (“I know that you can improve your score the next time you reassess”); my students often see reassessment as a bad thing, which comes from having a fixed mindset. What a great way to show students that learning is a journey!

    • I agree with you about “failing” (i.e. not having reached my goal yet). How discouraging it must be if you see yourself as a failure every moment that you are not at your goal. What a disincentive to set goals at all.

  2. Fantastic Mylene. It sounds like you did a great job motivating your SBG implementation to them. I am especially fond of your growth mindset line:

    “I made sure to let them see how proud I am of having achieved a 0.5 in only two days’ work, and mentioned that this is an improvement over two days ago, when I had a zero.”

    • Glad you liked it Joss — I’m darned proud of that piece of improv. Thank goodness for kicking these ideas around on the blogosphere until they are second nature, because I didn’t see this coming at all. In fact I wondered if students might find some satisfying payback in pulling a teacher up short. But no — they were kind of distraught. And it didn’t seem like “ugh, why am I wasting my money on a sub-par teacher.” They really seemed worried about me. Finding that incredibly charming is probably a bit patronizing on my part, and it’s not the only way I feel, but I can’t entirely shake it, either.

    • *laugh* I know, that last one cracked me up. Their gentle mocking (those last two quotes are, obviously, straight out of my mouth) was the most effective way I can think of for them to let me know that they had made sense of the ideas. After all, you have to understand something pretty well in order to make jokes about it that are actually funny. Maybe I’ll start encouraging comedy routines as reassessments.

  3. One of the teachers at my school is trying to do this with students, but is getting pressure from admin to report it differently. How does this translate into a grade for the students when it is time to report a grade for progress report or report card time.

    • Hi Tammy, my grading is pretty conventional. At the end of the semester, all the topic scores get averaged and converted to a percentage. It’s completely compatible with a typical grading scheme — not much of a challenge to the status quo, in some ways. More details of my particular system are on the page called How I Grade. Lots more resources for “standards-based assessment and reporting” are in the sidebar at left, under that heading. One great place to start is Dan Meyer’s How Math Must Assess. It’s applicable to a wide variety of subjects. Hope that helps!

  4. Mylène,
    My first round was a little non-descript: nothing popped that needed attention or discussion. And, somehow, though I had planned to give 2 per quarter, I’m in the middle of quarter 2 and haven’t given my second one yet … I found after the first one I didn’t quite have the energy to put the data into a form to present to anyone. Maybe if any of the scores change a lot between term 1 and term 2 there will be a story to discuss….

    How’s this going for you now that we’re a few months in?

    • Hi Dan, I didn’t continue with it after the first week. We did regular course evaluations (every 3 weeks or so) but I based them on the “rights and responsibilities” that we negotiated together. So I haven’t revisited the “teacher skill sheet.”

      Interestingly, although this way of introducing SBG generated a lot of excitement, there were very few reassessments in the early part of the semester. Many people left their reassessing until the very end of the semester; also, applications for reassessment were consistently submitted incomplete (for example, submitted without any practice problems, or other evidence of improvement). This makes me think that the introduction was good, but needed more followup: we should have done more practicing of the application procedure.

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