Setting assessment policies in the syllabus

Part two of the syllabus analysis I began earlier this week…

My sample syllabus (the culinary arts one) addressed assessment as follows:

Assessment Strategies Used: cooking labs in the kitchen, quizzes, tests, homework, and projects.

The instructor neglects to explain if they are using a total points system or are weighting grades based on category. There appear to be 16 course standards, divided into 2-3/unit, sometimes repeating in later units, over 12 units. I suspect that course grades are simply based on competency for each course standard, with each course standard being worth the same value in the final grade.

For example, for this course, Standard 1 is, “Demonstration of proper cooking techniques that result in a quality end product while employing safe and sanitary methods.” Standard 8 is, “Knowledge of food service equipment, including identification and use, mise en place, knife skills, and seasoning.” I am speculating here, but students might be asked to do assignments, tests, quizzes, etc. that give the instructor a piece of evidence/an article that reflects their learning as a competency for each standard–but that it would be at the instructor’s discretion, not pre-announced. The idea is to get kids to focus on learning, not just the acquisition of points.

The syllabus doesn’t actually confirm this thought though. It’s hard to say if it would be a fair assessment of student learning or if it’s qualitative/quantitative assessment without more information on how the gradebook is set up.

To me, removing the points-game is really important. The focus should be on learning, not jumping through hoops. And grades should reflect said learning, not ability to play the game. On the other hand, when students know how they are being held accountable, they have more ownership, which encourages the intrinsic motivation that we want learners to have and leads to real learning!

A look at the instructional design of a syllabus

This week, I chose to look at the instructional design of a syllabus from a high school culinary arts course. (Isn’t it cool that they offer this? It’s a year-long, two-period course.)

First of all, it is worth saying that high school syllabi are typically MUCH different from what people are used to seeing at the university level. Any teacher who is organized enough to lay out course activities/objectives for 180 days is 1) insane and 2) not as good of a teacher as they claim to be because they don’t leave flexibility for responding to formative assessments–like when kids need to be retaught something or to be taught in a different way. That said, I did once work with a middle school science teacher who had her outfits laid out from Christmas through Spring Break. She was 1) hilarious and 2) amazing, so I wouldn’t put it past her to pull off what I just declared impossible. She may have evolved since the outfit planning days. (I sort of hope she sees my shout-out to her here.)

While I appreciate having all of the information up front in a university course, where I’m planning out work schedules and other class demands, in a high school, I think it’s probably not the greatest idea. Kids aren’t usually comforted by information overload; they are stressed. So, if you want to deal with perpetually fielding multiple, individual complaints of “I don’t get it,” try giving all of the information at once. This goes for scaffolding a project just as much as a detailed syllabus. Also, if you want kids to be responsible for the information in the syllabus, you have to go over it with them, and when they sit through that 6-7 other times during the first week of a course, short and sweet is usually good advice. The five pages in my sample syllabus is pushing it, though the “meat” really consists of two pages.

The syllabus I looked at was divided into these sections:

  • course description
  • texts and resources
  • behavior/discipline
  • class units for 1st and 2nd semester (12 in all)
  • standards-based instruction explanation
  • assessment strategies
  • field trip policies
  • contact info

Our school is big on standards-based reporting, assessment and instruction. This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how RARE true standards-based reporting and assessment is after elementary school. Elementary schools actually do. Think about your report cards with different skills listed and all the Es, VGs, Ss and Us (or whatever your school called them)–this is standards-based reporting.

How do I know that secondary ed (and higher ed) don’t really do this? Because parents and students continue to be fixated on their percent and letter grade. Also the computerized grading tools out there (PowerSchool, Skyward, Infinite Campus, etc.) don’t really support standards-based reporting yet–though they are very good of showing a list of assignments with a percentage and letter grade. I also see a lot of tests in my role as a support teacher. There are also a lot of teachers out there still giving tests with one grade at the end–not several grades broken down by the standards-based skills.

That said, I believe that our school is ahead of the curve when it comes to standards-based assessment (though standards-based instruction is different–we are still a work in progress there). What I liked in this syllabus is that the standards were listed in the description for each unit, instead of a large list for the whole course (which is sort of what I do :/ for my own syllabi). Raising awareness to the foci of each unit as the unit begins is a great way to plan instruction, because students can reflection on their learning process (metacognition!)

The section on assessment strategies, though brief, was good too, since students want to know how they will be graded and held accountable. The contents of the explanation are pretty predictable, but sometimes students might be surprised by and hostile toward the appearance of an oral presentation or something if they haven’t been warned.

The discipline section is also very important for a high school course. This one refers to the school and district guidelines in the Student Handbook. While this is a sound and clear-cut approach, I think it might also be useful to reference some of the kitchen-specific safety rules in effect in this classroom. However, perhaps the signage in the room and orientation by the teacher to the facility is sufficient.

I already had a lot of respect for the caliber of instructor and the culinary program at this school and was pleasantly surprised by the design of the syllabus and course. If I had to give a “grade,” I’d say that this one’s an A, Exceeds Expectations!

Duchess of the Kohl Center

My first experience with badges was through iPhone apps like Foursquare and Yelp. In fact, my first check in was February 20, 2011, which was probably about a week after I got my iPhone. I was at the Kohl Center for a Badger men’s basketball game. I can’t say I use the apps a lot, but I would have to say that I’ve checked in more than a few times at the Kohl Center… I like watching basketball, what can I say?

At one point last season (2011-2012), I was named “Duchess of the Kohl Center.” (I think I’ve checked in like 10 or 11 times.) The best badge ever, as far as I am concerned. I wish I had a t-shirt. Too bad being Duchess doesn’t give me the power to keep the old people who sit behind us from talking about colonics and stuff…

Anyway, I don’t think I still possess the title anymore because I think other people can steal them from you if you don’t keep checking in and I don’t go to the Kohl Center in the summer. Technically, it’s probably not even a badge either, but a mayorship or something. Whatever, though, I figure it’s like being President–they have to keep calling you “President” even after your term is up, right?

Needless to say, my experience with badges so far has been pretty silly. I knew a guy once whose mom made his Cub Scout Den change his baby brother’s diapers to earn their “Diaper Duty” badge (High-five to his mom!) At least that badge actually acknowledged a real accomplishment. My Foursquare badge “I’m on a boat” wasn’t exactly hard–I drove my car onto a ferry and then waited.

Deep down, we all like to show off our accomplishments. Badges on a sash, medals on a Varsity Letterman’s jacket, patches and pins on a military uniform. With the exception of the military honors though, these types of recognition mean nothing to job world. So when I read about badges as an alternative assessment tool, I was blown away. I’m sold. As it turns out, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have known what they were doing all along! Maybe that cooking badge you earned as a scout doesn’t seem like much, but I bet for an aspiring chef, it might be quite a big deal to earn a badge for making a perfect crème brulée with a torch. In fact, a crème brulée badge might be currency someday for jobs in a high-scale restaurant.

Standards-based assessment has been all the rage in K-12 public schools lately, especially with the Common Core Standards coming down the road. It’s a major paradigm shift for a lot of teachers to change their grading scales and philosophies from “points” to “competencies.” It’s not because teachers really believe that 84% actually reflects the amount of mastery a student has made–for a lot of teachers, it’s more a question of how to enter a competency into the computer gradebook and have it still spit out a B+. Unfortunately, it is still expected that we use GPAs as a factor in college admissions or scholarships. Sometimes, I’ve felt like it’s futile to even try to change to a standards-based assessment system when higher-ed is going to insist that we boil a kid’s learning back down to a percentage anyway.

UC-Davis sees things differently, however. This year, they won an award for their development of digital “open badges” in the Digital Media and Learning Competition supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla.

Students will be able to customize learning goals within the larger curricular framework, integrate continuing peer and faculty feedback about their progress toward achieving those goals, and tailor the way badges and the metadata within them are displayed to the outside world. Students won’t just earn badges—they’ll build them, in an act of continuous learning. (Carey)

As Kevin Carey puts it in his article,  “A Future Full of Badges,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Compared with the new open badge systems, the standard college transcript looks like a sad and archaic thing.” He’s right–years later, when you look back at a college transcript, that A- you earned in English 271 doesn’t say anything about you, what you learned or what you can do.

I started digging a little bit to find out more about how organizations can get involved and start implementing badges. Mozilla is really at the epicenter of the badges movement with their Open Badge Infrastructure, so that seemed like a logical place to start. It’s actually quite easy to create your virtual backpack as a learner who wants to start collecting and accepting badges. As someone who’s not very good at programming and customizing Open Source tools, like WordPress, the process of creating a badge seemed a bit over my head. I worry that unless I start working on that deficiency (Hey! Maybe there’s a badge out there I could earn…), I might not be very useful to a library as a tech-savvy young person after all.

Canton Public Library and Ann Arbor District Library‘s use of badges in their summer reading programs was incredible. (Thanks to Greg Landgraf for showcasing their programs in his article, “Summer Reading Levels Up!”) But again, I got to thinking, “Well, crap! Where on earth am I going to get the skill-set to help bring something like that to a library or school near me?!”

Librarygame is cool and seems to be ready-made (no skill-set necessary), but for something as experimental as the OBI movement, it seems a little risky to invest the money into quite yet–better to mess around with open source…

I continued my research though and came across a couple of points of light. BadgeStack is an open-source platform that organizations can use to launch a badge program. I actually think I can handle this one. I could at least play around with demo. I also ran into MouseSquad. It’s a 21st Century Skills Training system that prepares and supports students to establish their own technical support help desks in their schools. Basically, kids join and they can earn badges and receive the training they would need for a pretty meaningful project (all the while, they are stealthily being taught a bunch of information literacy!)

Now, this is something that I can advocate for–now! Standards-based assessment doesn’t look so daunting when it’s gamified. Yeah, yeah, there are arguments that gamification is really bad for motivation, but really, for a lot of students, once they hit high school, education is about playing the game and working the system. I like the idea of students pursuing their education by earning badges for achievements and skills that they deem valuable. Being Duchess of the Kohl Center might not be real useful, but Duchess of the Tech Support Desk could be!