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We just finished our first quarter with school-wide proficiency-based learning (PBL). Our most recent survey indicated that the majority of the staff believe in the principles of PBL, but nearly half the staff are struggling (and/or are frustrated) with our implementation.

Here are a few of the biggest struggles/frustrations I have heard or overheard and my attempt to answer them:

My grades are inflated

This was a common phrase after teachers entered their grades for parent-teacher conferences. I would follow this up with a question:

Did the assessments that students took or performed measure what I wanted them to know about be able to do? 

If the answer is ‘yes,’ then give your students (and yourself) credit for their hard work and learning. Is it possible your grades were deflated in previous years?

If the answer is ‘no,’then it is time to rethink your assessment design and make sure whatever test, project, etc is measuring what you want students to know and be able to do. Spend the time doing backwards design.

Shift in thinking: One of the main shifts in thinking in moving to PBL is accepting that (and working toward) all students can achieve mastery. It is unlikely that all students will achieve mastery in all standards, but the belief that they can and that their ability to do so is the central part of your job is an essential belief of proficiency-based learning. 

Students are gaming the system

It seems this is the same subset of teachers that believe their grades are inflated. Apparently students are refusing to take new assessments when they have a high score or a student has not come to class/school in awhile and their “M’s” (missing assignments in Jumprope) do not count against their score. I think a couple questions might be useful here:

Where is the assessment taking place–home or class? 

If most or all of what you assess is homework this works against students with challenging home lives or added responsibilities. You also may not be able to tell who is copying work from another student so that their level of understanding shown in their score would not be accurate. Generally, it is better to have students perform the assessment in class to avoid these issues.

Is it possible to have the student take the assessment they missed during class time? 

I know this is a tough call. Having the student miss new information in order to take the past assessment is not ideal, but is it better than having no information at all about where the student is? I think it is better. I have lots of review videos on-line for students who miss the interactive lecture so that is a good time for students to take assessments in class.

Can you articulate the importance of the assessment to the student so that they have a buy in to take it based on information they will get about their own level of understanding? Another option is to schedule the assessment during colloquium in order for them not to miss new material.

Shift in thinking: Another shift in thinking in the transition to PBL is that grades (or scores) are meant to be a conversation between the teacher and the learner. The teacher is no longer the supreme evaluator on high who seeks to reward or punish students with scores. Rather, the teacher is an advocate for the student’s learning and works to help the student understand why this learning is meaningful to them and what kind of feedback they will get when they perform the task assigned. 

This is too much work

I will not argue that this system is easy. It isn’t. Yet, the difference I found between traditional grading and PBL (aka SBG) is that the work is meaningful to both students and teachers. There is specific data to talk about the student’s level of understanding and specific actions to take to improve understanding and show new learning. To me, the work is worth it.

Shift in thinking: One of the main shifts for me to lighten my load a bit was that I did not have to assess everything. I structure my class with a lot of practice built in that is designed specifically to prepare them for the assessment they will take at the end. Students are growing in their advocacy of their own learning and asking questions they have about the material to be sure they are prepared for the unit assessment. There is a lot of front end work to give the learning back to students, but it is well worth it in the long run.