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As I get ready to launch into my second September, I’ve gone over the feedback from last spring.  If you’ve read since the beginning, you know that last December, half of my class was failing and  the rest were bored. There was a lot of “why do we have to learn this?” and “is this on the test?”

By the end of this semester, no one failed, and there were some remarkable changes in our classroom culture.  One of my colleagues said “when I check labs now, they show me which findings they think are important, instead of waiting for me to tell them what important things they should have found.”

I did some informal evaluations (I stole these questions from Robert Talbert at Casting Out Nines, and they worked well.)  I started getting feedback that sounded like this.

What do you like/dislike about the grading system?

Like: Keep trying skills until you understand it

I’ve actually grown pretty fond of the skill system.  I like that you actually make us demonstrate our knowledge of the individual skills, it actually helps me remember better sometimes, specially when going over quizzes.  The only thing I don’t like is that to get a skill checked off, mainly in the shop, it can take a long time.

The grading system works very well although I think using the skills for every aspect of the course is a little too flexible.  Using skills for the lab and going back to regular marked assignments.  I need more room, I will talk to you later.

Skills for quiz bad idea.  I had no ambition to study for test/quizzes.  I like the shop skills tho.

I dislike the unstructured feel of it, simply because I do better with the assignments/tests, but I do like the ability to retest on a skill if you don’t get it the first time.

Independent learning project was fantastic and incredibly valuable in the long run.

I really appreciate you trying something new, and already there is a huge improvement.  I hope you continue to innovate and improve the system.

I think the skills are very straight forward, they let us know exactly what you’re looking for.

It all encourages independence, which is great, unless you’re unmotivated.

There needs to be more communication.

Without marks to fuel my ego, I lost my drive to excel.

I think it helps focus more on the important stuff, and less on just completing useless lab stuff.

I was able to learn more with a smaller [work] load.  This gave me time to play and experiment, by approaching labs in a way that was helpful to me.

Yes.  It’s taken the good parts out of the lab book and made them easy to learn.

It certainly kept me on my toes to make sure that I understood what was needed to do the labs and the tests.

Yes.  Previously, I would be missing a small piece of the “puzzle,” this way I know what I need to do.

What do you LOVE about this course?

A lot more feedback this semester, understand concepts easier

The learning environment, the flexibility…

I love that I am actually doing well in this course…

The ability to work at your own pace (even though you have to remember not to procrastinate)


Designing my own labs

I feel that education has in general become stagnant, and I was delighted to have a teacher who was willing to try something new.  I know this takes courage and a lot of hard work.  Having 25% of my mark based on a project I was able to pick and have it graded in a way that suited me was a blast.

Electronics 🙂

All the freedom

The instruction and the easy feeling that one understands what is being taught.

I liked the independent learning project, even if I had been a bit too ambitious in my designs and dreams

What do you HATE about this course?

I wouldn’t say I hate anything really except there’s a lot of work sometimes.


Quizzes! don’t do well on them, if get one part wrong, all wrong

Other students asking questions on things we have already covered in class, then interrupting the instructor when trying to respond

If you could change ONE THING about this course, what would it be?

More level 5 questions on tests.  It is necessary to go above and beyond to get 100% on most modules.

Give assignment due dates.

More availability with students during lab time.

Harder deadlines, required milestones for the self-directed project

Level 5 questions: being bonus because sometimes difficult or busy time schedules to get one ready and do research

Include marked assignments somehow

To have a mix of skills and assignments

Points for homework so I’m more motivated to do it

More hands-on and practicing circuits

Any other comments about the course or the teacher?

Keep on getting better, you are doing a service to your students by furthering education.

I really enjoyed the year.  I just wish we had the skill program for the first year as well.

I like this semester better than last semester.  Keep up the good work!


My students are awesome, and almost as invested in developing me as I am in developing them.

Students really get reassessment.  Not a bad place to start when introducing the “sales pitch.”

They want more feedback, and they’re asking for it explicitly.  This is fantastic.  I require work samples as part of an application for reassessment now, so that should help.  I’ll also be experimenting with BlueHarvest.

Reassessment changed the concept of “studying.”  I think this is a good thing.  I suspect that what they mean by “study” is “do a long series of identical problems until you’ve got the procedure memorized,” and I’m ok with letting go of that.  At the same time, I need to spend more time helping them learn to test themselves, so that they’re not relying exclusively on my tests as a way to diagnose and learn.

It made them look hard at who they are, what they want, and why they do what they do.  I need to be ready for that.  Students probably could use some preparation for it too.

It exposed the squirming, seething reality of the differences between my expectations about teaching and their expectations about learning.  Dan Goldner’s got a great idea about how to clarify what the teacher’s job is, and I’m going to try it.

But hands-down the most fascinating thing that happened this past semester was that my students begged for homework.  Many interesting conversations ensued (post about this forthcoming).  Removing points for homework may have been the single most useful thing I did all year.  To be continued.

Can my students use their skills in real-world situations?  Heck, can they use their skills in combination with any single other skill in the curriculum?  When I was redesigning my grading system, I needed a way to find out.  It’s embedded in the “levels” of skills that I use, so I’ll explain those first.

What are these “levels” you keep talking about?

For every curriculum unit, students get a “skill sheet” listing both theory and shop skills.  Here’s an example of the “theory” side of a unit of my Electric Machines course.  (For a complete skills sheet, showing how theory skills correspond to shop skills, and the full story of how I use them, see How I Grade).  If I were starting this unit over, I would improve the descriptions of each skill (“understand X, Y, and Z” isn’t very clear to the students) and make the formats consistent (the first four are noun phrases, the last one is a complete sentence; things like that annoy me).  But this should give enough info to illustrate.

AC Motor Skills

So, about synthesis…

Realistically, all skills involve synthesis.  The levels indicate complexity of synthesis, not whether synthesis is involved at all.  My goal is to disaggregate skills only as far as I need to figure out what they need to improve — and no further.

L2 Example

For example, in the unit shown above, wound-rotor induction motors are at level-2.  That’s because they’re functionally almost identical to squirrel-cage motors, which we studied in the previous unit, and the underlying concepts help students understand the rest of the unit.

Quiz question: List one advantage and one disadvantage of wound-rotor induction motors compared to squirrel-cage motors.

Danger: a student could get this wrong if they don’t understand wound-rotor or squirrel-cage motors.  But the question is simple enough that it’s pretty clear which one is the problem.  Also, I have a record of the previous unit on squirrel-cage motors; both the student and I can look back at that to find out if their problem is there.

L3 Example

Synchronous, split-phase, and universal motors require a solid understanding of power factor, reflected load, and various ideas about magnetism (which the students haven’t seen since last year, and never in this context) so that puts them at level-3.

Quiz question: Synchronous motors can be used to correct power factor.  Explain  in 1-2 sentences how this is possible.

L4 Example

The level-4 skill in this unit is to evaluate a type of motor for a given application.

Quiz questions: “Recommend a motor for [scenario].  Explain why.”  Or “you need to replace a 3-phase AC motor.  Give 3 questions you should ask to help you select the best type.  Explain why.”

Why this is an improvement over last year

Last year I would have put only the level-4 problem on a test.  The solutions were either excellent or incoherent.  I couldn’t help people get better, and they couldn’t help themselves.

Level 5 Questions

You’ll notice that there are no level 5 skills on the skill sheet, even though the unit is graded out of 5.  Level 5 is what others might call “Mastery,” where Level 4 might be called “Proficiency.”  I teach up to Level 4, and that’s an 80%.  A Level 5 question is the name I give to questions that are not exercises but actually problems for most of the class.  There are a number of ways to get a 5/5.  All of them include both synthesis and a context that was not directly taught in class.  So the main difference between L4 and L5 isn’t synthesis; it’s problem-solving.

I occasionally put level-5 questions on quizzes; but not every quiz.  I might do it to introduce a new unit, or as a way of touching on some material that otherwise we won’t have time for. Other ways to earn a level 5: research a topic I haven’t taught and present it to me, or to the class.  Build something.  Fix something.  I prefer these to quiz questions; they’re better experience.  So I put examples of project topics on the skill sheet.  I also encourage students to propose their own topics.  Whether they use my topics or theirs, they have to decide what exactly the question is, how they will find the answer, and how they will demonstrate their skill.  We’ve had a ton of fun with this. I’ve sometimes put questions on quizzes that, if no one solved them, could be taken into the shop and worked on at your leisure.

I wrote lots in this post about level-5 questions that are independent projects, not quiz questions.  But I didn’t give any examples of level-5 questions that are on quizzes, so here are a few.

Reduced Voltage Manual Starter

This is a reduced-voltage manual starter on a DC shunt motor.  If I gave this question now, it would be trivial, because we’ve done a whole unit on starters.  But it was on a the second quiz of the semester, when the students had barely wrapped their heads around DC motors.  It’s a conceptually tough question because the style of drafting is unfamiliar to my students, there’s an electromagnet sealing-in the switch that doesn’t make sense unless you’re thinking ahead to safety hazards caused by power failures, and we hadn’t discussed the idea that there was even such a thing as a reduced-voltage starter.  But we had discussed the problem of high current draw on startup, and the loading effect that it causes, and the dangers of sudden-startups of machinery that wasn’t properly de-energized.  Those are the problems that this device is intended to solve.  One student got it.

Here’s one that no one solved, but someone built later in the shop.

Draw a circuit, with a square-wave power supply, where the capacitor charges up almost instantly and discharges over the course of 17 ms.

You may use any kind of component, but no human intervention is allowed (i.e., you can’t push a button or pull out a component or otherwise interfere with the circuit).  You do not need to use standard component values.

This requires time-constant switching, which means combining a diode and a capacitor.  They had just learned capacitors that week in one course, and diodes the previous week in a second course.  The knowledge was pretty fresh, so they weren’t really ready to use it in a flexible way yet.  But the diode unit was all about time-constant switching, and it’s a hard concept to get used to, so this question got them thinking about it from another angle.

Other examples: find total impedance in a parallel circuit, when all we’ve studied so far is series circuits.  If  they followed the rules for parallel resistance that we studied last year, it will work out; but they had just learned vectors, many of them for the first time, so most people added the vectors (instead of adding the inverses and inverting).  Or, find total impedance of a resistor-capacitor-inductor circuit, when all we’ve studied is resistors and capacitors.  Amazingly, most of the class got that one.  I was really impressed.  Again, it’s a question where the conclusion follows logically from tools that the students already have; but they might have to hold the tool by the blade and whack the problem with what they think is the handle.

It’s the end of the semester.  My students are starting to think about their final grades.  Some decide it’s time to scramble and get those numbers up, for various reasons that I may or may not agree with.  In the past, scrambling to get the numbers up had the following top-two effects:

  • asking for “extra work” that would compensate for missed deadlines
  • giving up — they feel so far behind that there’s no point trying to do well on the rest of the semester either

The new grading scheme means that the top-two strategies are no longer even in the top ten.  The end-of semester scramble now results in students, get this, going back over their semester’s work with a fine-toothed comb to improve their grasp of underlying concepts.

That’s because underlying concepts are “Level 2” skills, and they can’t get credit for a unit’s higher level skills until lower levels are complete.

Consequence: struggling students are uncovering their misconceptions and misunderstandings and practising their basic skills.  They’re also injecting new insight into group discussions; students who “got” those underlying concepts way back in January may not have thought about them explicitly since then. Since the struggling students are talking about the basics that they’re working on, the rest of the class is seeing the basics again, through their new “Semester 2” eyes, and having important revelations.  (One of the top students in the class just realized today that everything is always in parallel with an open circuit).

I might stop hating the end of the semester.

But not until after I finish making up 20 reassessments for tomorrow.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by VasnetsovMy plan for this semester was not to do battle with the four horsemen of the curricular apocalypse (Time, Textbooks, Tradition, and Tests).  I knew they were out there, but I was ignoring them.  I was going to create a smaller, simpler project for myself.  One that would result in a sensible amount of sleep and possibly even the occasional pretense of a social life.  I vowed that I would tackle only the grading piece of the eschatological pie, changing to what I call a “skills-based” scheme.

Now it’s a month into the semester.  We’ve barely cracked the textbook or the lab book.  My lesson plans have radically changed.  Time-management has radically changed, for me and the students.  And tests… well, they’re smaller, lower-stakes, and can often be replaced or supplemented by shop demonstrations.  I didn’t mean to do it.  But the changes in the grading scheme started a snowball that changed lots of other things too.

Textbooks (Or Lack Thereof)

I created a list of skills that students had to demonstrate to complete a topic unit.  That meant I had to think hard about what skills are actually indispensable.  That in turn made me think hard about why I teach what I teach, and why the textbook includes what it includes.  I asked myself lots of questions like “Why do they need this skill?  When will they need this skills?  In what context will they use it?”  I ended up being much more focused on our goals.  Last year I questioned whether the textbook treatment had too much depth, or too little, or on the wrong things.  This year I was able to start answering those questions.  Now that I have more information, I can’t bring myself to not use it.  That means the textbook and lab book are more like dictionaries and less like instruction manuals.

Tradition: Lesson Plans

Once I realized that the textbook didn’t lead where I wanted to go, I had to develop some lesson plans in a hurry.  This rubric for application problems helped a lot.  Developed by Dan Meyer for math classes, it helps students find the meaning behind the math, and connect it to what they know about the real world.

Since I’m especially concerned with synthesis and problem-solving, I’m looking for ways to help students find meaning in links between ideas.  Kate Nowak’s guidelines were the best, most concrete suggestions I found.

Time and Tests

Well, you can retry a test question any Wednesday afternoon.  Or, you can show your mastery of that skill by building a circuit, if you prefer — either during shop period or in open shop time on Tuesdays.  This has opened up lots of interesting conversations.  For one, many students have discovered gaps in their fundamental skills that neither they, nor I, suspected.  A second-year student blurted out in class last week, “Is the cause on a graph always on the x-axis?!”

Having some very basic questions on the test has helped me figure out how to coach them.  Some students who have never approached me for extra help are talking to me after class about why they didn’t get credit for something.  Theory: if you get a small, simple question wrong, you can ask the teacher a small, simple question.  If you get a big complicated problem wrong, it seems futile or maybe impossible to even figure out what question to ask.  The easy questions at the beginning of the test also reduce test anxiety, I think (can’t prove this).

In order to get 100% for a unit, students must complete a more in-depth problem, develop their own problem-solving strategy, and combine two or more topics.  I throw one of these questions on each test.  They aren’t necessarily difficult — just unfamiliar applications of familiar skills.  But they’ve become a great way to introduce a new topic.  On each week’s quiz, the “Level 5” question is a simple problem from the next chapter.  Result: most of the class is attempting problems that I haven’t explicitly taught yet.  Even if they don’t get the right answer, the process helps them clarify their assumptions.  At the end of the quiz, they’re dying to know how it works.  This leads to some of our best conversations.

The students hand in an answer sheet at the end of the quiz, which I later use to data enter their scores.  They keep the quiz paper, which (if they followed instructions) has all their calculations, sketches, etc.  Then we immediately grade the quiz as a class.  Ideally, they know instantly what they got right and what they need to work on.  Realistically, they hate writing comments on their quiz papers, so they quickly forget which ones are right and which are wrong, or why they’re wrong.  (Why? Is it because it forces them to face that they made a mistake?)  Then, they can’t tell what they need to reassess.  So, for the last test, I asked them to pass their quiz papers in to me so I could see the feedback they are writing to themselves, and write back to them about it.  I was dismayed to see how many students, when forced to actually grade their papers, wrote incredibly negative comments to themselves (“Don’t rush you moron!” or “Stupid stupid stupid!”).  Wow.  Good for me to know, but I’m not sure how to address this, other than to write back with a comment that I won’t stand for my students  being insulted in my class — not even by their past selves.


About half of my class has a hard time seeing the connections between different ideas (the rest of the class is bored to tears if we spend any time on it).  It’s been hard to figure out how to handle this.  But some interesting results have surfaced this month.  Whether they’re due to the changes in the grading scheme etc., we’ll never know.  Example: my colleague is introducing filter circuits in a very different context than the one in which I teach them. Most students don’t even recognize that it’s the same circuit at first.  He had barely put the circuit on the board when a student announced, “Isn’t that just a low-pass filter?”  Another student created a circuit that demonstrates time-constant switching — foreshadowing next week’s topic.  Then there was the who student thought they had found a sneaky loophole in my new grading scheme.  “Can I use a buffer circuit from Digital class to demonstrate that I understand op-amp gain for Solid State class?”  I refrained from weeping from joy or jumping up and down.  “I suppose,” I agreed.

Skills-Based Grading: Transformative learning or edu-fad?

A number of people have written about the idea that changing a grading system does not magically improve learning or teaching.  That’s true.  But I think it’s also true that redesigning a grading scheme while focusing on skills (or “standards” or “outcomes” or whatever they’re called) provides a lot of information that can be used to improve learning, or at least to find out where the problem areas are.   For me, at least, the more of that information I had, the less I was able to continue doing what I had always done.

4 courses (that I teach now) 

+ 3 weeks (into the semester)

+ 2 ways to assess (quiz or shop)

= 1 overstuffed gradebook


I got over the urge to stuff 24 skills into each topic.  How did I kick the habit, you ask?  Easy.  I gave myself permission to indulge in it.  The resulting tired crankiness lowered my level of motivation just enough — from “I can do anything, I don’t need sleep!” to “let’s be reasonable here.”  A wise teacher once told me that “when you are tired, that is the time for practice.”  He didn’t mean to work into exhaustion until you injure yourself.  He meant that you can harness your natural laziness to teach yourself efficiency.

The new format retains the things I like:

  • Clues about learning progression (do this first)
  • Clear boundary between quiz skills vs. shop skills (I assumed they would know.  I know.  I know.)
  • Guidance about which parts are “forest” and which parts are “trees”
  • Clear sense of my expectations
  • Help with formulating questions (students are starting to ask questions like “What does it mean to use a Bode plot to support an argument?”  Jaw still hanging from that one.)

At the same time, it prevents quizzes from ballooning to 25 questions, and helps students recognize themes within the topic.  I’m using it in a slightly different way, too.  I now make sure there’s at least one Level 2 shop skill that most students can figure out on their own (there’s been some interesting autonomous experimenting going on, and I want to feed it).  Also, students perceive “hands-on” tasks as less intimidating, so they like to start with one.  If all the shop skills are in the 4/5 category, it looks like a scary wall of theory that you have to scale before you can get to the “easy” stuff, which makes people put off getting started.

The students only get the first two pages (on a double-sided sheet).  The last page is where I jot down Level 5 questions when I think of them.  Feedback so far has been good.  Making the quizzes will be a good test.  Seeing the students do in the next unit (the one that depends on their understanding of this one) will be a better test.

Some surprising conversations happened during the first week of the semester.

HAMEG Instruments HM404-2 40MHz Analog Oscilloscope

Oscilloscope: Wolverine in Disguise

Why Don’t You Just…?


In AC Circuits, I gave the students a list of all the controls on their scope.  Mission: find out what they do.  They got them all except for the difference between AC and DC coupling (notoriously difficult for beginners to understand).  By the end of the class, not only had most people applied the idea to a measurement, but several students proposed alternate ways to do it: “Couldn’t you just adjust the volts/div?”  “Couldn’t you just adjust the vertical position?”  Understand, too, that this was not coming from the advanced students who’ve had a scope in their basement for years — it was the students who until last week were treating their oscilloscope like an angry, injured wolverine.  The following day, a student was demonstrating some oscilloscope skills with lots of confidence.  I asked if she still saw the scope as a rabid animal.  “No,” she replied, “it’s a fluffy little bunny.  It’s only occasionally badly-behaved.”

They talked to each other.  They strategized.  They struggled.  They noticed effects they’d never noticed before and gave them names (AC coupling is now called “the bounce effect”).  In the following lab, the students invented the three diode approximations.  I was just about to open up some questions about how to analyze diode circuits when a student cut me off to say “why don’t you just” use the knee voltage?  And lo, the 2nd diode approximation was born again, for the first time.

Theory: the skills list seemed to help them cut loose and experiment.  They spent all afternoon turning knobs just to find out what would happen.


Three students turned in homework (not required) — sometimes the same homework over and over.  In each case, it helped me figure out what misconception was holding them back.

One of them redid his practice problem and showed me his new answer, which was correct.  He asked if he had to pass it in.  I said no.  His answer: “Good, I have to go check my skills list and see what this proves.”  My goodness, thinking about the meaning of practice problems?


Some students are working through the lab book during shop time.  They keep a constant eye on the skills list to figure out what’s important.  They could do this just as easily by reading the purpose — that thing printed in bold on the first page of the lab.  Reality: they don’t read the “lab purpose.”  They do read the skills list.  Someday I’ll have a clear theory about why.

Most students are not working through the lab book.  They’re picking out one skill at a time and trying to find a shorter, easier way to prove that they can do it.  In the process, they are designing experiments.  Sometimes they get to the end and realize that so many variables changed, they can’t demonstrate any one thing.  They go back and do it again, with controlled variables.  Seriously.  Several times it has ended up being the same circuit as in the lab book.  On two occasions it resulted in burnt resistors.  Good conversations resulted.

They’re even tackling “quiz-type” skills in the shop.  I give them no guidance on this.  The upshot: they create test questions for themselves, either on paper or by finding ways to translate paper skills into hands-on circuit skills.  Again, nothing was stopping them from doing that before.  In fact, last semester, bribed and bartered and begged them to do just that.  This semester I haven’t even had a chance to bring it up.

Time Management

On Friday, a student asked for the next topic skills list.  That’s never happened to me before.  He proposed to integrate this unit’s skills with the next unit in order to get a 5.  I accepted.

Gaming the System

The “game layer of education” mostly makes me feel like someone’s dragging my teeth across a chalkboard.  But this is something I should have learned from casual gaming years ago:  make the first few tasks very short.  It sucks people in.  Note to self: find 1-2 short, simple skills that most students can complete without any help.  List them first on the skills sheet.


Our first quiz was this week.  We reviewed it right away.  Several students were surprised to find out that this “counts.”  They asked me when the “real test” was.  I asked them what they thought was a better basis for their grades than their skills?

I was pretty nervous about springing this new plan on the students.  My 2nd-year students, in particular, have had a lot of upheaval and are understandably a bit cagey about change.  I ripped off most of this welcome letter from the author of Sarcasymptote (with his kind permission), and wrote a version for each class group.  Here’s what the 2nd-years got:

With each group, we talked for a while about what this meant.  I had the 1st-years fill out the Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students (more as a way to open conversation than anything else, since I’m not sure what I’ll do with the data).  At the end of class, I asked them to jot down their first impressions about these questions:

  • How will this help you learn?
  • How will this make learning harder for you?
  • What suggestions do you have for dealing with the hard parts?

Here’s a sample of responses.

It will allow me to learn at my own pace and give me time to properly absorb the information

I am encouraged with the detail, if only one skill needs tweaking then that can be addressed, as opposed to an entire lecture being given again and again.

I might be a slower learner than [classmate], but as long as we know what we’re suppose to by the end of the semester theres no reason why either should lose credit.

I’m liking this new marking scheme so far, less pressure on due dates and more making sure the topics are learned.  The breakdown of basic and above skills is nice to see exactly what needs more attention and I can go back and top up skills I may have missed at any time.

You’re getting rid of the numbers, aren’t you.

I get it, when you grade people’s homework, isn’t that punishing them for practicing?

The new grading will may be take a lot of stress off my shoulders

Sounds like a good way to make sure we fully understand the material and hopefully will help me with learning more on my own

The new grading scheme will help me learn more efficiently and effectively because it is real world focused.

An individual skill doesn’t require a lot of motivation to attempt so it will be easier to fill small time slots.

It help me learn by allowing be to learn at my own pace and learning things more in the lab rather than on assignment.

This new system should make me learn better, by going at my own pace and not rushing through everything and not understanding.

Number of responses that mention that they will have to improve  their time management: 68%

I guess this is part of that idea I keep hearing about: “the one who does the work does the learning.”  If I’m doing the time management, then they are not, and they know it.  Several students requested that we do skill-building around time management.  Unreal.  If I had proposed that idea 4 months ago, they would have rolled their eyes or gone into mental screen-saver.  Maybe they still will.  But now I have a lever.

The first-year students made this photo-collage of themselves at the end of last semester.  What’s cool about this isn’t the stuff they’re doing in the photos (well, that was great, but.)  What moved me about this was that they took the photos themselves.  That may not seem earth-shattering to anyone who’s seen 20-somethings share inappropriate photos with hundreds of acquaintances.  But it’s important here because, at the start of the semester, many of these students were so cool that they could frost up a whiteboard from the back row of desks.

Always Formative wrote that “the thing that’s always appealed to me about [using a portfolio to collect examples of your work] is having students self-select what he or she perceives as quality. Developing the [skill] of self-evaluation is probably the most important thing I want a student to get.”  But that requires students to dare to be proud.  At the beginning of the year, they wouldn’t have been caught dead admitting that school was interesting or fun, much less documenting in video that they felt strongly about their craftsmanship.  Can you imagine a student posting photos of their homework to Facebook?

D-shell connector soldered by student

D-shell connector soldered by a student

Fifteen weeks later, they take turns holding the camera while someone mugs with some small thing that they made with their own hands.  If you’re concerned that services like Animoto make the wrong things easy, I mostly agree with you.  Except that in this case, digital storytelling was not the difficult skill that the students were trying to master.  Cracking out of their protective shell of indifference was orders of magnitude more painful and challenging.  They watched themselves in this video over and over.  I watched them as they watched it.  They were seeing themselves as skilled, in a way that wasn’t real until they saw it from the outside.  All of us were proud.

Update: the most recent version of my grading policy has its own page, “How I Grade,” on a tab above.

The new assessment and reporting plan is done… for now.  Here’s the status so far.

The Rubric — Pro

If you score some level-3 or level-4 questions, you don’t get credit for them until you’ve finished the level-2 skills.  It doesn’t invalidate the more advanced work you’ve done; you don’t have to necessarily do it all over again — it’s sort of held in the bank, to be cashed in once the level 2 stuff is complete.  It doesn’t penalize those who choose a non-linear path, but it doesn’t let basic skills slip through the cracks.

Choosing Skills — Con

Oh boy, this is definitely ridiculous.  As you can see, there are way too many.  It actually got worse since my first draft, peaking  in version 0.6 and coming back down in the one linked above.  These guidelines helped me beat it back.  I’m telling myself that the level 2 skills will repeat in each topic, and that it won’t end up being 100 items in my gradebook.  On the other hand, this program has 6 semesters-worth of material crammed into 4 semesters-worth of time.  It is like being carpet-bombed with information.  And yet, when our grads get hired, there is always more their employers wish they knew.  The previous grading system didn’t create the problem; this new system will not solve it.  The whole project would be frankly impossible without SBG Gradebook, so bottom-of-my-heart thanks to Shawn Cornally and anyone else involved.

Re-assessment — Pro

Re-assessment can be initiated by me (quizzes) or by the student (by showing me that they’ve done something to improve).  Grades can go down as well as up.  I took to heart the suggestions by many people that one day per week should be chosen for reassessment.  We’re blessed with 3-hour shop periods, which is typically more time than the students need to get a lab exercise done.  So shop period isn’t just for reassessing shop things any more; you can also reassess written things then too.

Synthesis — We’ll see

Some synthesis skills I consider essential, like “determine whether the meter or the scope is the best tool for a given measurement”.  Those are  level-3 skills, with their individual parts included as level-2 skills.  That means you have to do them to pass.  It also means I have to explicitly teach students not only how to use a scope and a meter, but how todetermine“.  Seriously, they don’t know.  Sometimes I weep in despair that it’s possible to graduate from high school, maybe even get a job, work for a few years, have a couple of kids, and still not know how to make a decision strategically.  (Or at least, not be able to call on that skill while you are physically located inside a classroom).  Other days I stop tilting at windmills and start teaching it, helping students recognize situations where they have already done it, and trying to convince them that in-school and everywhere-else are not alternate universes.

Other forms of synthesis are ways of demonstrating excellence but not worth failing someone over; these become level-4 or 5 skills.  It still tells the student where they are strong and where they can improve.  It tells me and their next-semester teachers how much synthesis they’ve done.  That’s all I need.

This directly contradicts my earlier plan to let students “test out” of a skill.  But, because level 2 and level 5 are now different skills, I don’t have to write 5 versions of the question for each skill.  I think that brings the workload (for the students and me) back down to a reasonable level, allowing me to reassess throughout the term.  The quizzes are so cumulative that I don’t think an exam would add anything to the information.

Retention — Too soon to tell

It’s important to me to know how you’re doing today, not last month.  That means I reserve the right to reassess things any time, and your score could very well go down. This is bound up with the structure of the course: AC Circuits has 6 units, each of which builds directly on the previous one (unlike a science class where, for example, unit 1 might be atoms and unit 2 might be aardvarks).  Con: a missed skill back in unit 1 will mess you up over and over.  Pro: provides lots of practise and opportunities to work the same skill from different angles.  With luck, Unit 5 will give you some insight on Unit 2 and allow you to go back and fix it up if needed.

Feedback — Pro, I think

This will be tough, because there’s not enough time.  The concepts in these courses are complex and take a long time to explain well.  The textbook is a good reference for looking up things you already know but not much good at explaining things you don’t know.  That means I talk a lot in class.  At best, I get the students participating in conversations or activities or musical re-enactments (don’t laugh — “Walk like… an ee-lec-tron” is one of my better lesson plans) but it leaves precious little time for practice problems.  I’ll try to assign a couple of problems per night so we can talk about them in class without necessarily doing them in class.

I’ve also folded in extra feedback to this “weekly portfolio” approach I stole from Jason Buell.  Each student has a double-pocket folder for their list of topic skills.  There are a couple of pieces of looseleaf in the brads too.  When they’ve got something they either want feedback on (maybe some especially-troublesome practice problems that we didn’t have time to review in class) or that they want to submit, they can write a note on the looseleaf, slide the documentation into the pocket, and leave it in my mailbox.  I either do or do not agree that it sufficiently demonstrates skills X, Y, and Z, and write them back.  We did a bit of this with a work-record book last semester, and the conversations we had in writing were pretty cool.   I’m looking forward to the “message-board” as our conversation goes back and forth.  I hope to keep the same folders next year, so we can refer back to old conversations.

It’s official: I submitted the new plan for feedback and grading.

Since V0.1, I have gone through about 7 more versions, experimenting with a dizzying array of variables.  My final result is pretty different from my original thoughts, but I think I’ve struck a balance I’m happy with.


I chose a “topic-oriented” scheme ripped off in large part from Always Formative, because it clarifies which skills go together.  I also used his scoring system: you can’t get a 3 until you’ve completed all the level 2 stuff (although I switched to a 5-point system, for reasons that have not changed since this post).  I like this setup because it suggests an order in which to tackle things.  At the same time, it doesn’t prevent you from attempting harder problems, or recognizing that you’ve already done harder problems.  So, it has scaffolding and flexibility at the same time.

Here’s what the tracking sheet looks like for the topic called AC measurement (a first-year course).  Note that the students get the first two pages; the third page is a bank of level-5 questions that I may use if students ask for them.

Skills Are a Yes-Or-No Question

I also like the “yes or no” approach to the skills.  Each skill is not graded on a rubric; you’ve either demonstrated the skill or you have not.  I think this will grades feel less like a “moving target” to the students, cutting down on time-wasters like “I got that question mostly right so I should get 4/5 instead of 3/5.”  Now, that question is a skill.  You either demonstrated that you have the skill, in which case you get a YES; or you did not, in which case you try again.

Finally, I chose this system because it is similar to the frankly excellent system that was set up by my predecessor.  When I started a year ago, the students were already working at their own pace, each on their own project, demonstrating when they were ready, and re-demonstrating if they weren’t satisfied with the first time… but only in the shop.  I’m looking forward to extending those benefits to our classroom time.