# An Approach to Specifications Grading: Guest Post by John Ross

I have been involved in a lot of discussions about assessment strategies lately. There is a bit of a swell of young faculty who are rethinking their assessment strategies carefully. For some, this is a first serious step to rethinking their jobs as educators, and for others it is further step into the details of how to be effective.

Today we have a guest post by John Ross of Southwestern University. I met John at the Legacy of R.L. Moore meeting this summer, so I already know he is interested in effective teaching methods. This past weekend he mentioned lightly on twitter that he is using a new assessment setup. I wanted to hear the details, so I invited him to write about it. I am very pleased that he accepted my challenge.

## My Version of Specs-Based Grading

###### by John Ross, Southwestern University
This semester I am running my calculus class using a specifications-based grading system. The decision to do this was made after discovering Robert Talbert’s blog and reading the many informative things he had to say about specs grading. If you’re unfamiliar with this style of grading, I’d recommend starting there (http://rtalbert.org/blog/2015/Specs-grading-report-part-1/).

# Integrated Course Design for Euclidean Geometry, III

Today I finished grades for all of my Fall 2014 courses, so it is time to get back to planning next term. As my last “pre-holiday” bit of work, I’ll finish the course design template for Euclidean Geometry following Fink. I previously did the initial design phase which consisted of “building strong primary components” in Steps 1-5.

## Intermediate Phase: Assemble the Components into a Coherent Whole

### Step 6: Create a Thematic Structure for the Course

Fink encourages us to find 4-7 segments of the course, each focusing on key concepts or topics. I think I have five, or maybe four. It depends on how you want to count them. The first one on this list might be two things.

1. Polygons, and the axiomatic method, conjectures, and definitions. This is mostly about using triangles to study other polygons. But there is a little mini-unit on arguments with parallel lines mixed in here.
2. Circles
3. Straightedge and Compass Constructions (as an efficiency game!)
4. Area and the regular pentagon

Segment 1 is really long, it can take half a semester. Then segments 2 and 3 are shorter. We almost never finish segment 4 completely, but the fastest class I had finished 4 and started another (bonus) segment!

### Step 7: Instructional Strategy

I have no desire to make changes here. For ten iterations of this course I have used a flavor of Inquiry-Based Learning called a Modified Moore Method. Really, I have done something called The Extreme Moore Method (EMM), which I have written about before. Students will spend their time out of class finding and composing arguments for conjectures. We will spend class time presenting and critiquing this work. Then students that will write papers for the class journal. Oh, just go read the other post.

### Step 8: The Overall Scheme of Learning Activities

Here Fink wants the instructor to think about the variety of activities the students should do, and when. Also, how does the sequence of tasks for before, during, and after class meetings mesh together? This is all pretty well decided with my EMM.

## Final Design Phase

I won’t be able to finish all of this tonight in detail, but I can generally get through the rest of the guide.

### Step 9: How are you going to grade?

Well, I have been thinking about this a lot lately. For years. Next term, I will try something called “Specifications Grading” following the work of Linda Nilson. I have been part of conversation about this for a few weeks now. Go find the work Robert Talbert has been doing in this direction for a list of places to start.

I will wrap up work on this and make a new post soon.

### Step 10: What Could Go Wrong?

I have run this class often enough that I only have one worry: The new grading system is (a) not a solution to my problem, or (b) actively messes with the other parts of class which were working fine. I guess (a) isn’t too big a deal. I’ll just keep looking in that case. But I worry about (b). So far, the assigning of grades has been kinda vague, and this pushes students to keep working. (It is just like the real mathematics community.) And I want to make things more reliable and, I hope, more “fair.” But I don’t want students to start micro-managing publication counts instead of trying to solve more problems. For now, I need an experiment.

### Step 11: Make a Plan for Communicating with Students

Fink writes this as if the big deal is to just write a syllabus. Well, yes, and no. I see these tasks ahead of me.

1. Rewrite my syllabus
2. Rework my first day handout (which is like a mini textbook)
3. Update the course web page (which is like a digital syllabus and record of class).
4. Flesh out the detailed specifications for the grading system. In particular, this means I will have to update

* The class journal style guide
* the instructions for referees
* specifications for the “non-mathematical” writing assignments (reflections and essays)

### Step 12: Make a Plan to Assess your Teaching

This is a challenge. How many of us do this with such foresight? Well, my plan is this: I will use a simplified SALG instrument at final exam time to assess student satisfaction and understanding of the new grading system.

# A reminder to myself: Sell the process

Here is a short report on the big experiment for this term, and a related note on a realization from today with wider applicability. I expect that this will start well, and then ramble on as I fiddle with some ideas.

# First week through Guided Practice and Peer Instruction

I have completed the first week of classes. I also took a good 36 hours to sleep and play with my children, so I am feeling up to getting back to work. The retooling of my liberal arts mathematics course to handle 70 students involved a lot of work. My usual work pattern involves long stretches of thinking and indecision, followed by a short, intense burst of actual production. I had to repeat this for every class meeting this week, so I was very tired on Friday. Labor Day weekend is well-placed for me this term.

So, how did the big experiment with Guided Practice and Peer Instruction start? More after the jump. Continue reading

# Update on that big IBL class:

A little over a week ago, I posted a plea for help on Google+, and a note here. I will soon be running a mathematics for liberal arts students (“math for those who might not wish to be there”) course. In the past I have run the class as an IBL experience, using group work heavily. This was working at an acceptable level for sections of 30-40 students. This semester I have 68 enrolled. And my friend Doug Shaw has two sections of 72 each.
After reading and thinking it through, I will take the combined advice of Bret Benesh, Robert Talbert and Vincent Knight. I can’t quite count on my audience to be as self-directed as Vince’s, but I am happy to stay within the family of student-centered, active, social-constructivist teaching techniques and use a form of peer instruction/guided practice. (Is that your term Robert? Or did you borrow it?)

### Poll Everywhere

As a practical matter, I will be using www.polleverywhere.com as a student response system to help run classes. UNI has a site license which will make it possible to use polls with more than 40 respondents. The advantage of PollEverywhere is that it allows the use of any web enabled device or any cell phone with a text messaging plan to post a response. That will bring the number of students who don’t already have a useful piece of technology down near zero. I hope it is zero. I am working on a back-up plan in case the number is not exactly zero.

The downside to Poll Everywhere is that questions are only really allowed to be short strings of text. At least, that is what fits in their web app naturally. I can imagine times I want to ask questions based on a picture or a graph. fortunately, they allow you to embed a poll into any web page by generating a little snippet of javascript. I will be investigating this tomorrow to see if it is useable without destroying all of my prep time.

### Other Materials

The other big hiccup is that I was planning on using an IBL script. This isn’t appropriate for my new course structure. But it is far too late to order a textbook as a reference. So it looks like I will be writing a different style of course notes this term. I think I want to keep the “discovery” feel. (I doubt I can get all the way to “inquiry” with this many students.) So, I shall be looking through the materials on the Discovering the Art of Mathematics site for inspiration, but not outright plagiarism.

When I get moving, these materials will start showing up in my github repository for course notes. Feel free to follow along.

At the moment, I still plan to discuss Cantor’s theory of the infinite, something significant about probability and statistics, and something topological. I usually lead a unit on classifying surfaces, but I might switch that up for something about knots or tangles. Frankly, anything past Monday feels so far away, I am unqualified to talk about it.

Here goes nothing.

# MathFest 2013: Hartford

Yeah, Hartford was not that exciting, but I still had a good experience at MathFest 2013. It was a very full week, so I have lots of things to share—way too much to fit in one post. I’ll pick out one thing or another and try to write a little bit for the next few days as I process.

The first thing on my mind is my Math 1100: Math in Decision Making course for the coming fall. I had a few discussions with people about this course during the conference. In particular, David Pengelley encouraged me to make the course more tactile. This seems a good idea. I have no doubts that with some work I can realize this for my unit on topological ideas.

Also, I got to thinking that a major problem isn’t so much what my students know, but rather what they “know” that isn’t true. This is especially acute during the probability and statistics unit. I am reminded of the approach taken by Derek Mueller in his Veritasium series. He points out the importance of confronting misconceptions in order to encourage genuine learning. In fact, watch this TEDx Sydney talk he gave.

So, I want to design some sort of hands on probability & statistics unit that puts common misconceptions front and center. Now I just have to figure out what those are.

I have attempted to teach this course 3 times, and I have had classes with enrollment between 30 and 40. This is large for a “presentation based” IBL style, but I adapted some group work. I figured for this coming semester I would try out a version of Dana Ernst’s felt tip pens structure. But today, I checked my enrollment.

I will have 68 students.

I emailed my comrade Doug Shaw. We have embarked upon this experiment of teaching Math in Decision Making in parallel. (I’d say together, but we don’t talk often enough. Seriously, Doug. We should chat more.) His two sections are 72 students each.

Time for rethinking.

Robert Talbert and Matthew Jones dropped some tips over on Google+. I’m going to investigate some peer instruction ideas, some details about using classroom response technologies, and even more group work flavors of Inquiry Based Learning. I have to design something that will work.

If you have ideas, I am happy to hear them.

# IBL and Flipped Classrooms compared

Last weekend I went to the MAA Michigan meeting to participate in a discussion of “innovative teaching techniques.” The session was organized by Robert Talbert from Grand Valley State University, and the other presenter was Dana Ernst from Northern Arizona University. This was a long trip, but I enjoyed going. It was especially nice to meet Robert in person (as we had only interacted on the internet before) and also to make the acquaintance of his colleague Matt Boelkins. (Dana and Matthew had planned a breakfast to discuss Matt’s open source book Active Calculus, and they graciously allowed me to sit in.)

Earlier today, Robert posted to his blog at the Chronicle some musings on the following question:

Is the modified Moore method an instance of the flipped classroom?

You should probably go read that post for context. Read it: Robert’s blog is good stuff.

I have been thinking about this all day. I am still uncertain about my feelings, partly because I don’t know enough about the “flipped classroom” approach. Anyway, here is my take on the essential similarity.

It seems to me there are great differences between IBL and the flipped classroom, but they have an essential nugget of commonality: to be effective, switch things around to make the students focus their energies on sense-making activities. Certainly, many IBL teachers do this as Moore did, by minimizing the amount of time spent on raw information dissemination from instructor to students. At least, that goes for class time. An important component of running a successful Modified Moore Method/IBL class is getting the sequence of tasks or activities structured _just so_. A great deal of the information transfer is actually buried in the class script. In fact, I want the important ideas to come out of the students work, so I must structure my questions so that
1. students are eventually led to the ideas they need and come to a full understanding, but
2. students really do have the experience of having those ideas for themselves.
It feels like a fancy magic trick. You want to give each student exactly what he or she needs to do it for himself or herself, and no more. The first run at this is communicated to the students through the careful choice of questions to answer and conjectures to prove or disprove.
Of course, even in a really strict traditionalist Moore Method style there is time for conversation and discussion, and any time that an instructor participates in this it serves as a vehicle for more information transfer. It is not quite the “this is a fact” kind of transfer, but still that is how it is done.
###### One Other Thought:

It seems that proponents of flipping a class think about things this way: move the routine information transfer stuff out of the classroom and take class time for rich mathematical activity.

As an IBL instructor, I strive for something a little different: move almost all of the student work out of the classroom, and use class time for discussion. Now, this is a rich mathematical activity. I see it as different, because I hope students spend their time “figuring things out” outside of the classroom, and I use class time for formative assessment and feedback. The whole class takes part in that process, in the open. Students explain and defend their ideas, and we all work on evaluating them and giving constructive feedback. It is a very particular flavor of mathematical activity.