Saturday, January 22, 2011

Standard Based Grading : helping eliminate academic fear and failure

Following from the discussion SBG and the Circle of Courage,  I would like to consider SBG in relation to the work of Andrew Martin - a leading education psychology  researcher on student motivation and engagement.   Here's my interpretation in stick figures (with apologies!!) of Andrew Martin's most recent book Building Classroom Success: eliminating academic fear and failure.  While the book doesn't have stick figures, it's extremely well written and a great asset for teachers.

Students build a view of themselves that works like this:

As a consequence, students build many clever but often maladaptive behavours to protect their self-esteem. So for example: I only got 20% because last night I was playing games on the internet instead of studying - but really I could do it if I wanted to - it's not about my competence. In fact, the student is terrified they will fail, and so to protect their self-esteem, they make sure they play that game all night. We need to help students break the tight linkage they make between performance, competence and self esteem:

and instead help students see the role that effort, strategy and attitude play:

Observe also that knowledge and skills are identified as distinct from competence. They are developed through effort, strategy and attitude - and these are all factors the student can control.  We then extend the view to show that failure is not a direct link to competence; that competence can be developed; and that self-esteem can be built on more than just competence:

Andrew Martin goes on to encourage us to help students focus on mastery of the subject, rather than dwelling on performance compared to other students, and to show how effort, strategy and attitude will help gain mastery. Most importantly: to show students that these factors are actually under their control.

So where does Standards Based Grading [SBG] fit in this model?  Let me count the ways ... here are just a few:

Most importantly, SBG smashes the simplistic correlation of performance to competence. Instead of providing a single figure "you passed, you failed" therefore "you are smart, you are not smart", it highlights individual elements of knowledge and skills the student has mastered and has not mastered.  So long as we have the discussion carefully, we never impune the student's competence: we have a discussion about what they know, not how smart they are.  And note this works for the advanced student as well as the less successful student: they don't get "87% great!", they get "you understood this, now lets focus on these...".

SBG helps show students that performance depends on prior mastery : Academic success doesn't just happen because you are smart - it's built on successfully mastering earlier work. SBG makes this very clear - because mastery of previous knowledge is explicitly recorded and tracked.

SBG helps turn failure into feedback for future growth : When students encounter failure in assessment, big or small, they get specific information on where and how they might improve.

SBG provides a mechanism for having the discussion about effort, strategy and attitude : A concept that has come through strongly in the SBG discussion is that before students can ask to be reassessed on a standard, they have to actually do something to help master it, and demonstrate this effort, before we offer them the choice for reassessment.

SBG allows us to customise appropriate success goals for each student: For each student we can help them define mastery goals to extend them from where they currently are. We can also help them track improvement and personal bests, building their self-esteem in the process.

The take home message? SBG as it's being discussed in the blogsphere seems well aligned to best practices recommended by leading ed psych research for maximising academic success. Andrew Martin's work suggests we need extend the SBG process to look carefully at the "what happens next?" question: once we have determined where the student is at for each skill on the SBG chart, what sort of discussion do we have with the student? What can we do to support increased effort, appropriate strategy and positive attitude as the student prepares to either reassess a standard, or move to the next set of standards?  It seems we need to think carefully with the student which of these elements will benefit from further attention - and then help them find ways to progress.


  1. I love the visuals and the importance of asking the question - WHAT NEXT? Superb post!

  2. This is fantastic! will you consider submitting it to the SBG Gala 5?

  3. Tremendous focus on what needs to be worked on for each student to reach the next level!

  4. Thanks for the post - a great reminder.

  5. First of all I would like to thank you for the great and informative entry. FEAR OF FAILURE

  6. Its a great pleasure reading your post.
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