What is the point?

cheering crowd

Cheering Crowd by Michael Streat

The win! The cheering crowd, the champion cup, your team won! How do you know?

EASY. Look at the score board.

Is the educational game to determine the winners and losers so we can “fairly” award the victors?
Is learning an event that can produce data with mathematical accuracy?

Point Collection Culture

Point collection is both pervasive and invasive in school culture; assessments (tests, quizzes, assignments etc.) are designed to maximize the efficiency of point harvesting and not necessarily to provide relevant information around learning. Point collection, more than any other consideration in high schools, determines the selection of the summative assessment tool. Learning in high school happens in spite of point collection but not as a result of, or guided by, point collection (the main form of assessment in play in high schools).

Points are the currency of value and are what students work to acquire.

Students often see learning as a waste of energy as it may inhibit maximum point acquisition. Many students become desensitized to recognizing or identifying what learning feels like after being exposed to point allocation for non-learning activities over long periods of time. Point allocation for worksheet completion, word counts or even the wearing of a team jersey on spirit day, informs students that they should concern themselves with mastering point acquisition over learning strategies. Overall, points carry clout and value in the school setting and trump learning.

Point Driven Mindsets

Teachers in the name of efficiency are driven to collect as many points as possible in the shortest period of time. Points (and the collection of) are used primarily to determine how effectively the teacher transferred a fixed body of knowledge to the student (focused on what the teacher has taught). Point collection does not describe the student’s conceptual development of a subject and is limited to the highly prescribed curriculum. Most assessments reveal what a student does not know rather than reveal where students have mastered. The common student laments “I understood topic X perfectly but it wasn’t on the test”, “I studied all the wrongs things” and “But you never even taught us that!” all speak to this perspective. As points are deducted from students this that will determine the students overall average in a course, the focus avoiding mistakes at all costs.

Essays, projects and tests are often given to students with the “I need to collect marks” mentality as raspberries in season that need to be harvested in haste before the birds get to them. Rather than the consideration of the student’s learning and progress as the deciding factor, a pre-set date for harvest dictates when a student will have the chance to acquire points.  The school calendar dictates harvest dates and not the progress of the child.

Does this in any way improve the next crop of raspberries?

Point Driven Strategies

Over the course of their school careers, students develop highly sophisticated point acquisition strategies to succeed. These strategies generally reward students who are socially well-connected and those who know how to negotiate. Students who are willing to hound the teacher often benefit from more points (this speaks to personality rather than mastery of content).

Knowledge or understanding of content beyond material that will be tested is deemed “useless.” The common refrain “Will this be on the test?” speaks to this mindset. Students want and demand from teachers perfectly worded answers which are easy to mimic and memorize in order guarantee point acquisition.

Demonstration of learning is done so as to avoid error; errors are permanently costly in an averaged point acquisition set up. Evaluation is separated from the learning process and has nothing to do with the student themselves. “What did I get?” is the most commonly asked question of the classroom teacher instead of: What did I learn?; How can I improve?; Can you help me figure this out?

Students are routinely given the message that they should trust a number over what they feel and know about themselves as learners. “I thought I knew it better than that” reflects a student ability to self-access which is ignored in a scantron world “Well that’s what the bubble machine score showed us.” Regardless of wording, nuance or interpretation of questions, the scantron is given absolute authority over determining the student’s learning or lack there of.

The end game

What is in fact our end game in education? When our students exit the building in their final year with their school record what do we hope that record speaks of and speaks to about that student? When parents receive their child’s report card at the end of the semester and this is the only piece of information that they will receive about their son or daughter what do we want the piece of paper to communicate about this child?

At the moment report cards are the end game that drive the cattle home so to speak, all roads lead to report cards. When we work back from these it explains and decodes many of our schools habits and mindsets. Final exams, exam periods, and midterms exist in many cases to create and justify a final letter grade.

What do we want to be able to communicate in regards to student learning? What are we hoping to convey? Who is it for? Who is to benefit?

Do we as educators have a moral imperative to consider and begin to advocate for assessment that empowers learning?


Looking for feedback: Assessment & Grading Guide


‘Money reduces trust’ in small groups, study shows

It’s Time to Stop Averaging Grades

Grading Practices that Inhibit Learning

Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading

Everything Formative.

Back in the heyday of my addiction to point collection I would look over my columns of neatly entered numbers with pride and deep satisfaction. More columns proved I knew EXACTLY how the students were doing and like a heart monitor on a dying patient, the data could tell me the exact line between life and death…beep, beep, beep…

The final number my computer spit out WAS mathematically based (numbers had been entered, weighted and averaged correctly) but the number failed to accurately represent the student who was walking out the door of the course. In fact I had no clue about who that student was; the final mark was a blur of data that I had extracted primarily to hold students accountable and/or to present an airtight case if I was held accountable.

Over many years I had been exposed to AFL (assessment for learning) and as result I could provide solid definitions for formative and summative assessment. However, I was unable to translate these words into practice.

Maybe it is the same for you?

Things have changed. Now I have very few numbers in my day book and even when I do, these numbers are always in flux; they are a fleeting snapshot of the student right now and not a concrete prediction of where the student will be at the end of the course.

What do I mean? To explain I thought I would use a specific example to show what it looks like in practice. While this example is for Biology 12, it is the marking schema I am trying to highlight and not the biology. This example is from the first unit of the year, cell biology, and is based on the standard below, which is one of two standards (read more here and here about where standards come from) for this unit:

A2. I can explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from a cell in the human body.

The various assessments for this standard are outlined in the table below. Note these are the formal assessment opportunities and do not include the many informal opportunities for feedback. As well students can apply for a re-do of any unit assessment.

Task Type Student prompt summarized Feedback provided Formative or Summative
Quiz Outline the overall production of a protein, starting with the RER. Students use 4 point scale to self-assess. Written & verbal feedback provided by teacher.

 Formative. Students     self track. Teacher records number from self- assessment.

Assignment-Done in class with help from teacher & peers. Explain how the following 5 cells organelles of a pancreas cell would work together to make and export insulin. A diagram may be used to support your writing. Organelles: RER, vesicle, Golgi complex, membrane, nucleus. Students self assess using    4 point scale.  Written and verbal feedback provided. Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Formative. Students self track. Teacher records number.

Test Explain the production and processing of a protein that is exported from a eukaryotic cell. Begin with rRNA and end with the release of the protein from the plasma membrane. Tests returned to
students to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.
Formative or Summative.
Midterm Explain how the function of RER, Golgi complex and cell membrane are relate. Tests returned to students
to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment. Teacher uses
4 point scale.
Formative or Summative
Final Exam Explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from
a cell in the human body.
Students can pick up final exam the week after finals. Written feedback given.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Everything formative allows for:

  • Ability to cycle back through the course several times, we review (as a class and in groups) at each test, the midterm and again at the final. Each time we review we do a different type of activity.
  • Multiple entry points are provided for students into a topic and there are always opportunities to catch up. Entry points for each standard vary (i.e.: a lab, a group activity, an interactive white boarding activity, a review game, a writing activity), but come at various times. I call it ‘cycling back’ when talking with students.
  • Few surprises for students when students challenge the midterm or final.
  • Reduction of student and teacher anxiety.
  • Students to take high stakes assessments when they are ready.
  • The target to stay the same over course of the semester.
  • Building lasting schema by exposing students to the same key ideas more than once and in various ways.
  • Activities to be designed for learning not point extraction.
  • Conversation shift to one about learning and not about points.
  • Students to be able to explain their mark and we are not reliant on “well that is what the computer told me so it must be right!”
  • Feedback related to how student can improve instead of “remember you did not hand that in so…”
  • The assessment process to be human. I found the years of point focus dehumanizing.

Would love to here how you are using formative assessment in your classroom!

Writing Standards for the Knowledge Age.

I began writing standards in the summer of 2011; I took the provincially mandated curriculum and re-wrote learning outcomes into ‘I can’ statements to describe what students should be able to do. For example, for the Cell Unit in Biology 12, the standards I created were:



Core A1. I can recognize and explain the function of cell organelles.
Core A2. I can write, work with, and explain the balanced chemical equation for cellular respiration.
Advanced A3. I can relate the role of organelles to the specialization of cells in various organs of the body
Advanced A4. I can explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products.

For comparison purposes the original learning outcomes for this unit are included at the end this blog. As I began to work with standards I have to admit I had a number of long-standing assumptions about student learning.

Some of my OLD assumptions were:

1. Curriculum as ladder. The curriculum was a ladder that students needed to climb and only some would make it to the top. The bottom rungs were the knowledge pieces that needed to be mastered to reach the top rungs, which were the application, synthesis and creation ones. And if you ask just about any high school content teacher they will generally tell you: students must master ALL the knowledge pieces BEFORE attempting higher order understanding and application. Others have considered the implications of this point of view, see Scott McLeod’s Do students need to learn lower-level factual and procedural knowledge before they can do higher-order thinking?

2. Penalty for slow start. Early lack of success in the course was a reliable predictor for student’s overall ability to challenge the course (The course was like a ladder as well; if the student did not start climbing early and do so continuously, the student could not make it to the top).

3. All standards must be in play. Students needed to master every single standard; all standards had value and relevance to the overall fabric of the course.

4. Only goals related to the individual mattered. Success or lack thereof was all about student’s capabilities as an individual.


Over the last 4 semesters (2 years), standards have produced pointed conversations, observations and reflections for both students and me around the process of learning. These opportunities revealed trends that did not match my original assumptions.

Observations that contradicted my long-held assumptions were:

1. Mastery of knowledge pieces not needed for creating big picture understandings.
This is not to say knowledge is not important or unnecessary!

When presented with a big picture that had relevance and significance, students on their own, reached for relevant knowledge pieces when and where appropriate. For example, students were asked to consider different organs of the body and relate the cell structures to the function of that organ; they had to create ‘stories’ about the organs’ life. When students built story like schema they independently selected and placed relevant knowledge pieces into their schema. The act of weaving the knowledge into a larger schema gave roots to the knowledge pieces; the pieces were imbedded into a vibrant medium, not lying inert in a useless heap in short-term memory. The creating of big schema created questions (empty spaces) that were meaningful and held by the student which allowed them to place content pieces into the empty spots.

In the cell unit mentioned above, I would traditionally begin with mastery of the functions for all the organelles (Standard A1 in the table above) and THEN progress onto understanding how the organelles worked together as a team to make products inside of cells. By the time student had waded through all the minutiae, many had already lost sight of the big picture (why are we studying cells? how are cells relevant to the study of the human body? how do cells work as a unit?). The student might master PLO A1 but the cognitive load of doing so was so great that when they tried to apply this knowledge the student was trapped in a maze of unrelated trivia. Moreover none of these individual pieces had relevance to the student (unless the student had significant prior knowledge).

2. Learning not a linear process for all students.

Early lack of success did not predict lack of success in the course. Some students experienced long periods of no apparent growth or learning (I call it ‘flat line’ learning). Based on test results, conversations and observations, it looked like the student was not being successful in the course. However, all of a sudden (and sometimes months into the course) these students would have a breakthrough and master large amounts of the course all at once (I call it ‘all at once’ learning). In fact for some students it was the entire course in the last week of the semester, after several months of ‘flat line’ learning.

3. Prior knowledge and personal interests gives students different perspectives and working knowledge. All students do not need to know the exact same knowledge pieces to become experts.

When students acquired knowledge where interests and personal perspective took them, they would dig deeper into a specific topic. Rather than knowing many unrelated facts (example know every single organelle function) they discovered interconnected knowledge around their area of expertise and interest.

4. Individual learning did impact the success of the overall group; learning could benefit both the individual and the community.

When students worked as a collaborative group each member was able to offer their knowledge pieces to the group and allow for overall success of the group. That individual growth significantly and positively impacted the class community and as such should be recognized and made evident. As opposed to breeding a culture of ‘every human for themselves’ or ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, collaboration needs to be embraced as a viable and important way to succeed. Just as pieces of knowledge are inert when amassed in a random pile, students, their ideas and thoughts, are not inert vessels to be kept in isolation from one another. The culture of the room needs to encourage constant and consistent cross-pollination of ideas, thoughts and understandings.

When students worked as an interconnected team to co-construct meaningful schema around a topic, each learner brought their expertise and perspective to the table; individual success advantaged the group and vice-versa. The learning is enriched and extended because of the interactions that occur. Each learner does not need to know all the specific knowledge pieces to work collaboratively on solving a larger problem. Groups that were diverse were able to generate creative and unique schema over groups that were more homogeneous. Learning is then viewed as a process that occurs as collaboration occurs.

Based on these observations I decided to tinker with standards and their application once more to:

  • Fold smaller (Googlable) knowledge standards into the larger, power standards (knowledge pieces would be implied by the power standard) and reduce the overall number of standards presented to students even more. (For example in Unit A I reduced the standards to the 2 advanced ones).
  • Work with students to develop re-occurring schemas (big pictures or ‘stories’) for the course. Extend the curriculum to make it relevant to the student.
  • Let go of students knowing the same knowledge pieces and encourage specific knowledge to vary from student to student.
  • Encourage public collaboration at all points in the learning process.
  • Circle back through course several times (more than 5 times) and in several ways to activate and allow for multiple entry points for flat line learners.
  • Summative assessment at the end of course that allows students to show what they know and advantages their overall mark (any units that show improvement could completely replace old outdated evidence).
  • Provide daily opportunities for shared experiences that invite active participation and are low risk (no summative assessment, for ‘fun’). Exploration, creation and personal connection are upfront.
  • Daily and consistent focus (in terms of conversation, activities and fewer summative assessments) on the process of learning over and above the products.

Without educational alternatives that expand and diversify meaningful life options and pathways available to young people, we risk reinforcing an educational system that only serves the interests of elites, breeding a culture of competition for scarce opportunities.

                                                              Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design


Further Inspirations:

Shelley Wright’s:  Flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy

Larry Ferrlazzo’s:  The Best Resources For Helping Teachers Use Bloom’s Taxonomy In The Classroom

The Knowledge Age


Original PLO’s – (Source www.bced.gov.bc.ca/irp/pdfs/sciences/2006biology1112.pdf)

Describe the following cell structures and their functions: cell membrane, cell wall, chloroplast, cytoskeleton, cytoplasm, Golgi bodies, lysosomes, mitochondria, nucleus (including nuclear pore, nucleolus, chromatin, nuclear envelope and chromosomes), ribosomes (polysomes), smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum, vacuoles and vesicles

State the balanced chemical equation for cellular respiration.

Describe how the following organelles function to compartmentalize the cell and move materials through it: rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, vesicles, Golgi bodies, cell membrane

Identify cell structures depicted in diagrams and electron micrograph.

Getting started with #SBG in Bio #flipclass – Not perfect YET!

Last summer I worked to rewrite learning outcomes of Biology 12 into “I can” standards  and move away from point collection. I wanted to have student friendly language that described what the student should be able to do by the end of the course. I say by the end of the course, as all standards are in play all semester and students may demonstrate mastery of standards at anytime.

I divided the standards into core (students need to show mastery in all these for B range) and advanced (into the A range). I decided on this division based on what students have struggled with in the past. When we cycle back (as I do several times throughout the course of the semester), some students have breakthroughs and are able to put it all together in a flash.

We established 4 levels for the standards: Mastery, Progressing, Starting, and No Evidence.

Note – This student used BLUE instead of GREEN.

I then gave all the standards to students in a duo-tang so they could track their progress throughout the semester.

Students used highlighters to track themselves (red=stop, yellow=caution, green=go) and the duotangs were the catalyst for our “hot seat” conversations as a student headed into an assessment.

Example of standards for cell biology unit:


A1. I can recognize and explain the function of each organelle. I can relate the role of the organelle to parts of the body.
A2. I can look at micrographs and diagrams of organelles and correctly id them.
A3. I can write, work with and explain the balanced chemical equation for cellular respiration.

A4. I can explain how organelles function to compartmentalize the cell and move proteins and lipids through the cell.

I like how she moved to colours in the second column.

What worked well:

1. Students used standards to have conversations with each other.

2. Students could ask for help in specific areas.

3. Students have a strong awareness of where their weaknesses and strengths lie.

4. Students focused on what they could do rather than on their mark.

What I want to improve:

1. How to do justice to the standards and generate a meaningful percentage.

2. Standards are still too “raw” and obvious, which leads to students consuming content in bite size pieces rather than knitting it together into something of more depth, interest and meaning.

3. Find a way to use standards to communicate with parents in a meaningful manner.

4. Let go of more of the trivia of the course and replace with enduring understandings.

5. Increase my confidence when working with SBG. I still was shaky on how exactly it was going to work; students DO NOT like that.

Note: My work on Standard Based Grading is modified, blended and adapted from @kellyoshea, @samevns,  @bennettscience and @mrsebiology and I thank them for their diligence in documenting and sharing their work.