First Day of 2010/11: Introducing SBG

For those of you who have secretly been giving dirty looks to me, because you’ve been in school forever, and I’ve been on summer vacation forever: hey, I’d do the same. But lucky for me, those looks can stop, because we officially have started classes. Today. Of course we have tomorrow (Thursday) off because of Rosh Hashana. But then we have classes again on Friday.

I’d like to talk about how I introduced the new grading system in calculus. Basically, the answer is: I took a little from each of you. Not only in the development of the system, but how I talked about it. We had a meaningful back and forth a few times, where I asked them some key questions, and got them to reflect about the system.

Here’s the general setup – in words. I’ll include my slides at the end if you want to go through them.

Students come to the classroom, see the seating chart projected on the smartboard, and sit down. They have at their desks large index cards which they make a little “name tent” so I can learn their names. I talk with them as they arrive, and I get them in a boisterous and joking mood. I’m already in a giddy mood anyway, so this isn’t hard. I’ve taught a bunch of them before, and I know others from this thing or that.

Then we go into the course. I talk about historically the problems students have had with calculus — from all teachers I’ve talked with. The big thing separating kids from calculus is a giant mountain of ALGEBRAIC SKILLS. I talk to them about how we’ll work around this by doing algebra bootcamps for the first semester. (I’ve written about this before, I hope, right? I can’t seem to find it in the archives… hm…) I talk about how calculus is actually quite simple — just a few basic conceptual ideas — but the thing that bogs students down is not being super solid with the algebraic undergirdings. So we’ll just get the relevant algebraic skills out of the way beforehand so we can focus on the calculus in each unit.

I then polish off a few logistical things (e.g. no eating and drinking in the classroom, since it is a designated lab classroom), and then I intentionally lie to my kids.

Here’s where the magic comes in, I believe. I have to lie to my kids, for the new grading system to make sense. I had to raise their anxiety about the course, to mimic the anxiety they’ve had for all their other courses. I want to play on their emotions. It’s a little cruel, I know.

So I made up a fake grading system: 90% assessments, 10% homework. 3 tests per quarter, so each test is worth 30% of their final grade. I make it a point to tell everyone that there are no retests.

I talk about how “THIS IS CALCULUS” and “IT’S SERIOUS BUSINESS” and “IT’S HIGH STAKES.” I also talk about how I don’t want to make it high stakes because I’m a meanie, but rather, I feel obligated to get them prepared for college.

I actually am super convincing, if I do say so myself.

I really emphasize that this is a do or die class, but I do so with some humor. They all laugh at the right places (see the slides below for full effect), but I can tell some of them are freaking out.

I tell them the date of their first assessment is in two weeks.

And then I ask for thoughts.


Then, when the pause is pregnant enough, when the tension is just about at its height, I say “JUST KIDDING.”

They don’t know what I mean, so I explain to them that everything I told them was a lie. I tell them that we’re not going to be grading that way, and that I just wanted to make a point — which they’ll see later. Then I asked Shawn Cornally’s question:

“What do you do if you bomb a small quiz?”

I also got some priceless, heart-breaking, answers, like Shawn did:

“Crumple it up and shove it in my bag, hoping to never see it again”
“Forget about it.”

Of course, I got some non-depressing answers too, like “Meet with the teacher” and “Go over the material again at home.” Some kids know what they think I want to hear — so these responses could be that. But I know some of these kids, and some genuinely have a lot of these learning skills down already — about being proactive and on top of their learning continuously.

So I talk about how them not learning material they missed hurts me, because I am a math lover, and I want them to know everything! And I want them to have the opportunities to learn things and be recognized for that.

Then I introduce the grading system. Pretty much how I outlined in the handout. I explained how it worked, I explained the wonders of it, I explained how it’s about them learning how to learn effectively, not just getting a zillion second chances.

I talk about my own concerns with it: the amount of work it’s going to be for me, the fact that I’ve never done it before. And then I get them to talk about their thoughts about the system. What they like about it.  That goes easily. We also talk about the meaning of grades.

Then I ask them: what might make this system hard for you.

They come up with some great things: retention, grades going down, no classroom engagement grade to “buffer” their grades, etc.

I then introduce the idea of how their quarter grade is calculated: it’s all skills. And how homework isn’t included in their grades (though it is required). I ask them again: what difficulties or situations do you think might arise with this?

They again are really thoughtful and realistic in their responses: all variations on “I might not do homework.”

I then pace around the room, saying histrionically “I’ve told you my big concern for me — the work involved. Now I’m going to tell you my concern for you…” I lay out a story about it being 10 or 11 at night, and they have two or three unfinished assignments. They decide to forego the homework in calculus because “well, Mr. Shah might give me a disappointed look, but he isn’t grading me on homework.” And how there is a chain effect, with how things can quickly build up. Procrastinators beware. And how I’m here to help, but “WITH GREAT FREEDOM COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY.” Yadda yadda yadda.

Three comments, of quite a few, that were said by students that stood out for me, were:

“Mr. Shah, I want you to know: this is the best first day presentation yet!”

“Wow, this just makes so much sense.”

“Did you come up with this idea on your own?” (No.) “Where the heck did you find this thing?” [I said on math teacher blogs. I saw some snickering.]

Then I pretty much dove into, verbatim, David Cox’s spiel about knowledge, community, and sharing.  I even stole the pictures.  And this quotation from his blog:

I love my kids, but I also love the fact that I think this form of grading makes sense to them, philosophically and emotionally. I don’t know what will happen as this gets implemented. But I suspect I have gotten the buy in because of this first day presentation.

Full presentation here:



  1. Sam,
    I love this (especially the medium sized stakes bit). It’s the perfect blend of humor and honesty that I think gets the kids on your side from day 1. I made made a similar presentation, but not nearly as funny. Here’s a link to my description:

    My experience, having tried this for a year in the private school setting is that kids really appreciate discovering that there is another way to think about grades other than the stick.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I really liked your opening activity, and your PPT. I might just *borrow* that activity for class and *borrow* that second PPT slide with the graph for my parent night presentation.


  2. Sam- I am so impressed with your whole approach: with your commitment to buy-in on all sides, with your obvious passion for their learning. I especially love your commitment to algebra boot camp, which is exactly what I’m envisioning for my/our Algebra 2 students (only where you put “algebra” visualize “arithmetic skills”).

    Keep us posted. I can’t wait to hear what comes next!

      1. Please keep us up to date about SBG. I remain very concerned that it is so SKILLS focused. Shouldn’t students get some measure of their more global understanding of mathematics, or their ability to connect two topics together? SBG means an entire year of never having to think outside the skill boxes to get an A. Or maybe it doesn’t, and I just don’t understand SBG, but it feels like a student could pass a course with SBG assessments and still not have a clue how mathematics works or how to think about a problem that wasn’t like the ones on the SBGs. What am I missing about it??

        Best wishes to all teachers for the new school year.
        – Bowen

      2. Bowen,

        That is a hot button issue. Some ppl have discussed it in the comments here:

        I plead “you’re right” – kinda. In my class, what you charge may be true (though we will be having “problem solving days every so often”). But that’s not true in all classes (read a bunch of to see an alternative classroom environment).

        Also, some people use SBG for part of the quarter/semester grade, and projects/portfolio/problem solving for another part of the grade.

        SBG – if it works – will be something great in the classroom. The advantages are numerous. The way I will be doing it won’t solve your concern. But the way I used to teach/assess didn’t do that either.


  3. Be confident that you have their best interest in mind. However your version of SBG ends up being implemented will be best.

    I’m curious to know how a group of calculus kids responded to the classroom culture (aka questioning) spiel.

    1. Eh, I just gave it – and then we moved on. It was just a two minute thing, instead of the long talk and discussion you had with your class. I didn’t have the time to do that (I wanted to get started with content on the first day), and also I don’t actually yet have the skills to have the same sort of questioning environment that you have. (Though, to be super clear, I’d love to have that.)

  4. i’m becoming increasingly more interested in structuring my system around SBG, but one thing that i worry about being a limitation is class size. i’m curious: how small are your classes? i teach at a NYC public school with classes of (approximately) 33, 35 & 10 – the last being a precalculus class, which would be the no-brainer place for me to experiment with SBG.

    considering the extra time commitment required, how do you think this would fare with larger classes?

    thanks for sharing your experience developing and presenting your system. it’s given me a lot to think about and possibly the courage to implement it, at least in one class.

    and now, about that algebra boot camp…

    1. Hi Amy,

      I’ve got a total student load of about 140 this year which is slightly lower than usual. Last year I think I had 150ish. As for time commitment, I’ve found, and I think others who have stuck with it would agree, that the huge time suck occurs up front. Designing your scales, re-aligning your assessments and classwork, planning in remediation time and creating multiple assessment types/versions. Once it gets rolling though you save a bunch of time because the actual feedback process is much quicker than the tallying points hell that normal grading is.

  5. Bowen-

    I can’t speak for everyone else (well I can, but people seem to frown on this), but I don’t think SBG in and of itself implies just focusing on skills. For example, my “standards” for this semester include 9 skills categories, 6 concept categories, and 10 habit of mind categories. The kiddos are being assessed on all 25 areas. Right now each of these assessments looks like a 10 minute-or-so quiz, but I’m thinking a lot about how to diversify the types of assessments I give.

    I worry much more about SBG under-emphasizing connections with its attempt to separate everything. Personally, I’m dealing with this by talking about connections all the freakin’ time in my class and using “tests” as my summative assessments for connections. So instead of a test on the fractions unit, we’ll have a test on “October.” We’ll see how it goes.

  6. One way I’ve found helpful when thinking about SBG is as a floor rather than as a ceiling — i.e., that it constitutes around 70% of the grade for the class.

    To me, that means that if a student were to do nothing all term but (a) ace each skill/concept quiz twice and (b) get it signed off, s/he could be assured of earning a ‘C’ for the class.

    Of course, for those of us who have busy lives and other interests which could be derailed by a grade lower than a ‘C,’ not doing anything else for the course all year long would be a HUGE risk to take. You would have to have an ironclad 100% inner certainty that you could ace each skill twice in the time allotted in your busy for . And that means that one false move (or error, or personal failing) and you drop right off into ‘D’ territory, and we all know what that means (so much for participating in , , . *groan*

    But it’s your choice.

    By the same token, if you are a discouraged math learner (and I speak here as one), this approach gives you a serious safety net. It’s the teacher’s way of being accountable to the student by saying, if you do your part, I will do my part to make it possible for you to get AT LEAST a ‘C’ in this class. But if you’re willing to make the commitment, you could very well earn a ‘B’ or an ‘A’ in this class — maybe for the first time in your math-learning life.

    But it’s up to you. And here’s what that will mean *hands student the skills/concepts checklist and hopes for the best.”

  7. Sam,

    This is an old post of yours, but I’m still commenting on it with a question since i can’t find a more sensible place to ask it.

    What do you use to process your grades?

    In my first life as a teacher, over the course of the first semester I ended up developing a pretty involved excel spreadsheet that adhered pretty closely to Marzano’s grading structure in one of his earlier books (published 10 years ago or so, now). Power rules for estimating current abilities, etc. It even had macros for generating progress reports with grade matrices aligning graded assessments and learning objectives. It was kinda sweet, actually, and allowed me to really play with weights.

    But that’s gone now. I left the classroom for 6 years and I don’t know where that spreadsheet went. It was too complicated anyway. Not to mention that in my second life as a teacher, we’re required to use the district grading program (currently Engrade, a free online program which isn’t too bad, but we’re switching to a new student database system next year to consolidate all services, Aspen. Not sure if this is worse or better).

    My problem with all of these pieces of software are that they can *only* calculate grades based on points earned divided by points possible. This I find restricting. and even though your system (at least last I saw on this blog) calculates a summative course grade by such a quotient of points, you also use the last score for each standard. I’m wondering where you keep track of these things and in what system. I use the last score counts for any set of (re)assessments, but haven’t gotten very fancy about it yet. Consequently, I don’t think there is a strong connection in my students’ minds between learning objectives (standards or whatever) and the assessments they are getting back.

    anyway, long comment for a simply question – what software do you use to keep track of your grades and calculate course grades?


    1. Hi Dylan,

      It’s a good question! So many teachers use different things. I now use ActiveGrade which is an online grading program that is *designed* for SBG. It’s powerful and although I find it has a slight learning curve (because it’s so customizable for the many flavors of SBG), it’s pretty fantastic. I couldn’t imagine doing SBG without it.


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