Measuring Growth, Part 1: Origin of the Self-Evaluation Rubrics

Nov 28, 2012   //   by Dimitri   //   Blog, Physics Education, Teaching Philosophy  //  1 Comment
Status rubric governing document

This is one of the early documents that later evolved into the status rubric. Character traits (top level) are developed by practicing skills (middle level) in the context of developing ideas and using scientific processes (bottom level). Major learning goals include developing traits and skills useful for scientific thinking. This happens in a classroom characterized by respect for individuals and ideas.


Introduction by Dimitri Dounas-Frazer

This post is the first part of a two-part story about how Compass encourages students to measure their growth using tools developed by Jon Bender, a former Oakland middle school teacher who has since moved away from the Bay Area. Jon’s training is at the high school level, as is most of his teaching experience. His background also includes teaching courses at the University of Alaska Anchorage and through CalTEACH.

In Fall 2011, Jon shared with Compass two rubrics that he developed for measuring his students’ growth: the status and progress rubrics. These rubrics include a bunch of qualitative behaviors and skills, e.g., persistence, communication, skepticism, and self-compassion. They can be used in two ways: (1) by teachers to provide feedback to students, and (2) by students to evaluate themselves. Jon has taken both approaches, whereas Compass uses the rubrics primarily in the context of student self-evaluation.

In order for students to gain a rough understanding of the skills, each skill is accompanied by a list of defining questions. For example, one of the questions that accompanies persistence is: what do you do when you’re frustrated? A particular student’s proficiency can be ranked as either beginning, developing, or succeeding according to the rubric. The stages of proficiency are described through qualitative statements. For instance, the rubric characterizes the beginning stages of persistence by the following statements: I tend to try one or two things; and, I give up more easily than I should. On the other hand, succeeding at persistence is characterized by look[ing] for new ways to think about a problem.

In this post, Jon shares with us the rubrics’ origin story by outlining the history of their development. In a following post, I’ll talk about how the rubrics have been adapted for use in the Compass classroom.

Without further ado, here is Jon’s post.

Origin of the Self-Evaluation Rubrics by Jon Bender

The status and progress rubrics were part of an ongoing attempt to remove layers of abstraction inherent to traditional grading, thus bringing students more directly into contact with the learning experience. I wanted to focus more on what makes good science and effective learning than on what makes traditional “A” students.

One of the driving motivations behind creating the rubrics was to foster a growth mindset in my students, rather than a fixed mindset. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, recently described these mindsets as follows:

In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it. (source)

My hope was that monitoring the development of skills according to the status and progress rubrics would help students adopt a growth mindset.

Framing the problem: Promoting growth and assigning grades

In my teaching experience, the most inspiring moments were when students discovered something, either about the world or about themselves. To encourage more of this, it seemed like it would be best to remove myself (the default central authority) from my students’ learning process as much as possible.

As a first step towards creating a more student-driven, growth-oriented classroom, I refused to provide direct answers to most questions. Instead of giving students information, I asked them to create information themselves. By “creating information” I mean applying scientific thinking and processes to problems in order to generate conclusions. Thus students inform themselves, as opposed to being informed by someone else. Most of the time when students asked me questions, my default reply was, “What do you think?”  If they were uncertain in their conclusions, I would ask them to do some testing to increase their confidence. Information, after all, is in a perpetual state of development. Based on my experience, understanding tends to be much more complete and enduring when it’s achieved through this type of constructive process.

But there were still two problems. First, I needed more of a clear guide for myself, something that would articulate the values and skills that I hoped students would develop through discovery. Second, as a teacher, I needed to assign grades. I wanted to do so in a way that didn’t feel arbitrary or reductionistic and that avoided the generally harmful psychological impact that grades typically have on students. Basically, I wanted to create a grading scheme that supported the growth mindset rather than the fixed mindset.

Developing the rubrics

With help and consultation from a few colleagues, I drafted several documents to try to distill the key principles that would guide my instruction. These early iterations, like the one above, eventually evolved into the status rubric, which I feel is a more complete description of what I want students and teachers to work on during investigations.

Virtually any education puts some emphasis on things like organization and communication–though not always multiple modes of communication–and these skills also ended up in the rubrics. However, my first priority was helping students be more intellectually adventurous.

I found most students lacked a willingness to take risks. They were trained to pursue righteousness over truth. As righteousness is immediate and certain while truth is merely approachable, the scientific process can be intimidating if you’re accustomed to the security of the concrete and unchanging. So I included the skills of courage and persistence in my rubrics.

Similar deficits exist in training for effective collaboration, particularly as students approach the end of high school. But if I were to choose one skill that is the “no brainer” to include, it would be self-assessment, or reflection. Extracting the most out of each opportunity for learning is one byproduct of good reflection. But more importantly, the primary difference between those who grow and learn their whole lives and those who get stuck living in a time long-gone is whether or not they have developed an appreciation for, and skill with, reflection. Thus reflection is a key ingredient of growth.

Assigning grades

There was still the issue of grades. In an ideal world, grades are not needed. They are a contrived motivational tool, used to drive certain behaviors when intrinsic motivation is lacking. Grades are born out of the sense that whole groups of students are in need of specific sets of information and skills, regardless of personal relevance or interest. While they can be functional in the short term and with simpler tasks, grades ultimately seem (to me) to undermine our inherent, biologically driven desire to explore and understand. Perhaps more importantly, grades seem to work against our collaborative nature, and to impact our confidence, as they are often interpreted as a ranking.

The other unfortunate aspect of grades is that as a feedback system, they offer little information, leaving it up to students to independently construct a practice of reflection that supports growth. And this development is further inhibited by the traditional authoritarian relationship between teacher and subordinate student.

The extreme opposite to occasional, impersonal grades is perpetual, highly detailed and individualized feedback. In most cases, this presents a logistical impossibility. Thus, the most effective methods of assessment are also the most complicated and time-consuming, employing sophisticated algorithms to account, as much as possible, for students’ complex attributes as learners and individuals. But with traditional grading, a balance must be struck between the authenticity of assessments and the time constraints inherent to instruction.

My attempt at resolving this challenge was to adopt a twofold approach. First, because I still ultimately had to assign grades, I worked out a point system with variable emphasis on status and progress depending on where students were in their development of each category. Needless to say, my Excel spreadsheet was rather complex!

Second, I wanted to provide a common structure within which to apply subjective assessment and to instruct students in the practice of self-assessment, thereby giving them the equipment to generate feedback as needed. As you can imagine, there is a weaning process with this that involved moving students from dependence on external feedback toward independence and empowerment. I also endeavored to capitalize on peer-to-peer collaboration to support this transition, working from the model of peer review: students would help one another draw conclusions about the development of their scientific habits. The biggest challenge with this is that soliciting peer opinions about one’s own personal development is a highly vulnerable activity, one that requires careful community building.

Self-assessment: Nothing is constant except change

The rubrics were instrumental in getting students to evaluate their own growth. Each quarter, they began by identifying one area that they wanted to work on. They then constructed a plan with specific benchmarks, dates for check-ins, and signatures from peers to ensure that their community support system was on board for their growth. I also required them to write a flattering statement about themselves to accompany every self-criticism. Finally, I accompanied reflection days with discussions about growth, brain development, and so on, to further emphasize the idea that their habits and nature are not fixed.

The fundamental idea behind all this is that science is a particular framework for exploration, and that good science is good process. That is, meaningful results necessarily emerge from good process. Therefore, it is much more important for student scientists to focus on their process. The keys to this are: (1) identify essential elements of the process, (2) assess your aptitude with these elements, and (3) construct an organized plan to develop as a learner.

The progress rubric is an attempt to lay out a structure for habit modification. As most of the status elements are, to some extent, ingrained and habitual, many students find developing these habits challenging. In order to formalize this aspect of student self-assessments and reflection, I tried to incorporate the best research I could find on habit formation. Much of it came from the Greater Good Science Center at Cal, where Christine Carter has compiled some outstanding work on the science of habit formation and modification.

I am glad that folks at Compass are finding this resource valuable, and welcome any thoughts or ideas that might help to further improve it. In particular, modifications that would support more specific applications would be wonderful, as would examples of how you are using the rubrics effectively.

Thanks to Angie Little (PhD student at UC Berkeley and co-founder of Compass), Brad Moore (physics/math teacher in Bellevue, WA), and Stamatis Vokos (physics professor at Seattle Pacific University) for their continued inspiration and their contributions to this project. Also thanks to Christine Carter at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley for compiling research on habit formation and development.

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