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EDTECH 531: Blow up the gradebook

In 1996 I was a first year teacher for the second time (long story). Being the new teacher, I was given the classes that nobody else could teach or wanted to teach. This means I think I had 5 preps that year. One thing that I learned about the kids at this school was how thick the fear of failure was for them. They would rather fail because they did not try at all than to try even a little and fail, or possibly not fail. So many students just accepted they were going to fail no matter what they did. The system socially promoted them for 8 years so for many of them, in the 9th grade, they were actually being held accountable for their actions or inaction. I forget how many students failed the 9th grade and had to repeat it, but it was a high percentage. I did not want to see students who had been channeled into the non-college-prep track get stuck in classes with the unmotivated teachers. You see, if they failed my 9th grade physical science class, it was very unlikely I would ever see them as a chemistry student. Without taking chemistry in high school, the chances of getting into a public 4 year college in CA are very slim. Where am I going with this? I had to find a way to stop kids from giving up even before they had a clue how much cool stuff they could do, if only they would let themselves do some work.

I admit that I was the worst physical science teacher on earth my first semester (year on a 4×4) teaching it. I have the credential for it because I took physics  and chemistry in college, but at that time I completely stunk with explaining physics without equations. Physical science was pretty much non-math based physics. Putting numbers on the board shut down so many kids that I had to be very careful with how and when we did math in class. I had zero support from my teaching colleagues. They did not want me to be there, plus rarely did a science teacher last past one year so why would they want to invest any time, energy, or equipment in me. Pretty much for the first couple years of teaching, if I could find the items we needed for a lab at Home Depot or the grocery store, we were good for the lab. eBay did not exist yet.

When I was getting my teaching credential, one of my professors suggested that we do a grading system where everything was based on the lowest possible task we could ask students to do. For me, that was homework. Homework was always an effort grade. They got credit whether they did it correctly or not. It was a part of the learning process. I also put up signs celebrating mistakes, but that does not necessarily belong in this thread. For me, homework was weighted as 1x. Labs were weighted as 2x through 4x depending on how difficult they were and how much work was involved. Quizzes were usually 2x, and tests were often 8x or 10x depending on how much homework had been assigned. After about 5 years of teaching, I figured out how to map questions directly to content standards so sometimes the grading had content standards weighted instead of questions.

This sounds very confusing, doesn’t it? That was my point. I loved the way this grading system worked because the kids could not figure it out. To calculate a final grade, you add up all the points and divide by the number of x values you have. So final grades ranged from 0 to 4.0.  OH, I forgot to mention, with this grading, if students did A work, they got a 4 on the assignment. B work was a 3. C work was a 2. D work was a 1. F work or nothing turned in was a 0. As long as something intelligent was turned in, the student automatically earned a 1 for the assignment. With homework, the stamp for completeness was worth 4 points. If they did not complete it on time to earn the stamp, they could earn 2 points by doing the homework and turning it in on the day of the test. Earning 2 of 4 points seemed much nicer (?) than earning a 50%. There is more to this system, but I don’t want to go off topic of the prompt too much.

Why change the numbering system? These numbers don’t look at all like percentages so the students don’t know what to do with them. They would, however, see they had a 1.7 which was a D, but because 1.7 is so close to 2, they would not automatically shut down. They still thought they could get to where they wanted to be. It was possible. On a percentage scale, the 1.7 could have been a 40%.  Seeing 40% for a grade often shut down the students. Even if they only had 3 assignments turned in out of possibly 20 or 30 they would have during the quarter, seeing the 40% they decided they were failures and it would not be worth their time to even try. Going to what I referred to as a rubric based system, they were too confused to know if they should give up. Fortunately many students who otherwise would have given up seeing a 42% did not give up when they saw 1.7.

What Dr. Haskell does with quests is somewhat similar. It is a new numbering system that does not align directly to percentages. I do not know how he determines his breaking points for classification of status or for final grades, but it does not really matter. As his student, I know there have to be opportunities for me to earn more points because there are more levels of recognition I can gain. I pretty much know my status at any given time so how much I have progressed is obvious. Nothing tells me I’m at an F and have to work up to an A. I’ve been tricked into thinking I can move up the ranks as if I’m in the military. With hard work and determination, I can easily earn more points.

I have been in favor of destroying the percentage based grading system ever since I had the students who reeked with the odor of fear of failure. The logic of 60% being passing just makes no sense to me. I would love to see quest-like grading continue because the system I did is too complicated for most people to understand or accept it. Several years ago I heard Robert Marzano talk at ASCD, and was surprised to see his break offs for final grades are similar to mine. It turns out the system I developed is very close to what he promotes in his work. I can’t even take full credit for this idea because it was given to me as a student teacher. It was not my original idea.

I don’t know what type of system I will develop with my quests. For continuity sake, I may adopt a hierarchy similar to what Dr. Haskell does. On the other hand, maybe I will come up with science critters to represent various levels of evolving through a course. I’m not at that point yet with my thinking, so you’ll have to keep track of me to see what I eventually end out doing.

As for how quest based grading or my grading system would mesh with PowerSchool or any of those parent-friendly technology-based communication systems, I have no clue.

EDTECH 523: Communication Plan

This Communication Plan is supposed to cover:

  1. Routine Tasks
  2. Critical Thinking Prompts
  3. Management Issues and Strategies
  4. Online Discussion Forum Checklist/Rubric
  5. One original idea, category or thought

Routine Tasks:

  1. Check discussion forums daily to see if there are new posts.
  2. Check email to see if students tried to contact me.
  3. See who has turned in assignments.  If students who did not turn in assignments are on an IEP that requests they get additional nagging, nag them.
  4. Check to see what is coming up for due dates and post a reminder in the news forum or similar place.
  5. If there is a synchronous session about to happen, check my audio and video equipment to make sure they are working properly.
  6. Find a parent to call with good news.
  7. See if there are parents to call with less than happy news.
  8. Grade anything that needs to be graded.
  9. Write feedback to myself about how well things are working so I  can note what needs to be changed the next time I teach this topic.

Critical Thinking Prompts:

Starting discussions with leads like:

  • What do you think about…
  • How would you determine…
  • Why do you agree or disagree with…
  • Evaluate famous person’s quote.
  • Give feedback on the paper,- post a journal article or link to website for students to read
  • Why is person’s ideas realistic, successful, or other adjective?

Discussion Board Strategies

  1. Have students start threads so that they can have a variety of places to share their “reply” type of responses
  2. I liked Adam’s suggestion of using a discussion forum as a way to do a jigsaw. Have questions already posted, students pick one question to answer, then they respond to something someone else said.
  3. Send students on a mission to find something online. It could be a picture, an explanation, or a specific website that gives specific information about a topic. They need to come back and share what they found to the rest of the group.
  4. Like we do here in the EDTECH program, students can post their unique projects to a forum for others to evaluate and to give feedback or suggestions for improvement.
  5. If there is a challenge question, you can have the forum set up so that you can’t read anybody else’s posts until you make one yourself. So let’s say there is a dilemma and you ask students to problem solve it. Each person needs to put up their own solution before they can read everybody else’s.
  6. I liked Glori’s idea of doing case studies. People would propose their recommendations for their case study. Then they would examine what everybody else put up to formulate a better idea or guide their peers toward more in depth thought.
  7. Ethical dilemma- students brainstorm how to solve an ethical dilemma. This is similar to a case study, but far less involved.

Management Issues and Strategies:

I am not excited about managing anything- my classroom management is pure dumb luck. I would kill my kids with kindness and make them feel too guilty to cause trouble for us. Discussion boards are not something I am looking forward to managing because I expect students to avoid them. So, to motivate students to post to boards or to continue posting, I can try:

  1. Positive feedback with words in the forum or through a personal email.
  2. Bribery with extra points as an incentive to just get students to be on the board.
  3. Ask students to talk about themselves. Let the discussion area be student-centric at least at first. Let students take ownership of the space before you squish their brains by having them expand their content knowledge in a forum.
  4. Use icebreakers. Our class came up with some amazing icebreakers to get students to share something about themselves. My peers did a wonderful job of organizing work we have done in the class and collected our icebreakers here. 
  5. Do landscape style summary posts to recognize at least one contribution from each student up to that point.
  6. Although I will have a list of netiquette suggestions available in our first section, I want to invite students near the beginning of the class to share reasons why netiquette is important. I would also like to discuss what bullying looks like and why it is inappropriate. Some students may not realize that what they say is interpreted as bullying so I want to make sure students are aware of how to make our space safe. In this discussion I also want to include a review of what type of information is OK to put online, what information should not be shared, and the differences between where our class discussion happens and social media in general. Within this discussion I also want to point out why “I agree” or “Hello” posts are ineffective.
  7. In fact, we will have to have a forum where we set some ground rules, if I have not mandated them already. If this is my students’ first time in a discussion setting, we need to condition each other on to how to come to terms with too many posts to read. Part of the learning curve with online learning is to forgive yourself for not being able to read everybody’s posts. I want to discuss strategies with students about how to choose threads to open. I want to caution them about types of posts to make or not make if you want people to open your thread. I am an expert at turning people off in discussion forums so I know very clearly what to post to stop a discussion or truncate it before its time is exhausted. I can advise my students accordingly. We will have to have an introductory forum where we play with what to do and what not to do. I also want students to collaborate on strategies of what to pay attention to in our class’s LMS setting, what can be pushed aside until you have more time to spend reading, and what could possibly be ignored for a while without it causing too much trouble. (Number 7 is somewhat of a twist on what Palloff and Pratt say in chapter 4 of Building Online Learning Communities.)
  8. I want to have a survey always available for students to give anonymous feedback. I will address their feedback somewhere in the course so they can see that I am taking their suggestions seriously. If they know I care about their ideas and find them to be valid, maybe they will share more of them within the real forums?
  9. What is in chapter 7 will be very valuable. At the moment it is very difficult for me to hypothesize what my online classroom will be like because I have yet to experience an online classroom where I have freedom to make decisions like the ones that are described in many of the samples in chapter 7. I can make a list of what students can expect from me, though.
What students can expect from me, their instructor:
  1. Feedback from emails or phone calls within 24 hours.
  2. Honesty.
  3. Someone who cares about students’ academic lives.
  4. Someone who expects students to make mistakes and to use those mistakes as learning opportunities.
  5. Someone who has high expectations and therefore will push every student to succeed. I will happily listen to challenges students face and will brainstorm with you ways to conquer currently perceived obstacles.

Online Discussion Forum Checklist/ Rubric:

Discussion Board Rubric

My discussion board rubric tool:

I am using the PBS rubric and Alexis Alexander’s rubrics to guide my discussion board rubrics. These rubrics rely on students being able to physically start a new thread when they reply to a general question.  There is a diagram at the end that shows a graphic for how this type of forum can work.

What is expected in a post:

  • Minimum of 50 words; no maximum
  • Relates to the question posed or directly reflects what someone else said in response to the question
  • Sincerity
  • Unique ideas or properly cited if not unique
  • Proper grammar and usage of the English language

What could make up a post:

  • Additional questions that expand the breadth of what has been said
  • Personal anecdotes that relate to the question posed
  • Quoted responses from the readings with your interpretation of what it means
  • A respectful dissension of what someone else has said
  • Discuss a related issue about which you would like feedback
  • Provide an additional source that contributes to this topic that was not already provided in the course material. Tell us why you think this is appropriate.

Scoring Rubric:



Needs improvement

When did you post? Your first response starts a thread within 4 days of the forum opening. Your follow up two posts are within two weeks of the forum opening. You are not limited to only doing two follow-up posts; this is the minimum required. Your first response does not start a thread, but your posts stimulate discussion in the forum.


Your first response happens later than 4 days after the thread starts, but it still stimulates discussion.

Your first response does not start a thread, nor do any of your responses stimulate discussion.


Your first response happens after 4 days after the thread starts and it does not stimulate discussion.

What did you post? Initial post and responses are on topic, demonstrate thorough understanding of it, and stimulate other people to think. Initial post and/or responses are somewhat on topic, demonstrate some understanding of it, and/or stimulate some productive discussion. Initial post and/or response are off topic, demonstrate faulty understanding, and/or do not stimulate any additional productive comments because of the quality of what you posted.
Usefulness of posts? What you say contributes to other people’s schema. Others can use your ideas to generate their own, or to expand their thinking. You are able to get other people to consider a perspective that they may not have already thought about. What you say does not stop discussion, although there may only be a few people who can relate to your suggestions. Your posts are difficult to understand, do not provide concrete ideas others could use, or are very limited with their application.

Diagram of how forum responses can be structured:

image of how Melissa wants to set up discussion areas

A forum set-up so that discussions have threads.

DiscussionParticipation is a pdf copy of the diagram.

Naturally there are more than three students in the course. The idea is that each person does an initial post before writing a response post. You continue to write response posts until you run out of ideas.

One original idea, category, or thought:

Teaching presence- is it possible?

Several education scientists have published their views on how discussion forums work. They analyze what students say, when they say it, how things are said, and anticipate the learning outcomes based on this information. There are three main presences that have been described: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. Much of our discussion in this class has focused on the social presence because that is the perspective our book, Paloff and Pratt (2007), uses when they explain how they see online teaching and learning will happen. To be thorough, they mention other presences even though they do not go as in depth with them. In 523 we had the opportunity to try out the teaching presence. Although I am usually an advocate of putting as much as possible into the hands of the students, I do not advocate having students lead discussions. I know that it is essential for those who want to be discussion leaders to be trained in how to facilitate a discussion and for some people in our class, this was their first opportunity. I bet it was amazing for them and they will have learned skills they did not realize could exist. At what expense is this done to the other students?

For this class, participating in the discussions was not a priority for me because I kept doing it wrong and therefore did not get the validation I am used to having in online classes that have active discussions. I think this is my twentieth online class so I arrogantly consider myself to be very experienced with how to maneuver in discussion forums. As you can see above, I am very much in favor of giving students the responsibility of starting threads. Within their thread, they own the pathway if they choose to respond to people who reply within that thread. I see it happen often in the 506 posts- we put up our image and people offer suggestions or ask questions. A dialogue forms between the one who started the thread and those who choose  to volunteer their insights on the image that was posted. In a way the original poster can assume a teaching presence, although many of the replies to the original post are actually suggestions on what to improve and how to do it. In that way, a teaching presence can be seen in many of the posts.

In courses where the instructor oversees the path of the discussion, I rarely see a teaching presence allowed to happen by anybody except for the instructor. Even in some classes where students form their own threads, when the instructor posts in the threads, sometimes the discussion becomes one on one between the instructor and the person who started the thread. For me, I do not see that as being a productive use of time and space. Instead I think instructors should use email to directly address some of their questions designed to move a discussion forward that really only push one person to volunteer ideas. I see the instructor’s responsibility to help unify the group and interpret what others have said so that the ideas can get broader and more diverse. I am not convinced that students who have not had training in techniques that can be used to broaden discussions should be made the discussion leaders. Instead, I think students should be responsible for starting threads so they can have a microcosm of the discussion under their guidance. The instructor can still step in and offer engaging questions, but they do not have to be the only ones demonstrating a teaching presence.

Teaching presence actually has two “definitions”. Both have to deal with who is guiding a discussion, but one focuses on the teacher and the other focuses on the students. For the community of inquiry, the focus is on how well the students are able to guide the discussions. The research does not measure what a good job the instructor does of being the guide on the side. It measures how often or how well students step forward to cause inquiry to happen. In other words, are students posing the questions that guide future discussion or is the only one posting questions the instructor? Be careful if you decide to research the teaching presence because some people elaborate on how an instructor can manifest their presence in the discussions rather than how to get students to take leadership roles in the discussions. When students take on the leadership roles, then they are exhibiting a teaching presence.  Chapter 8 in Palloff and Pratt elaborate on how to get students involved in the class. They have sections called, “Dialogue as Inquiry” (p. 170), “Encouraging Expansive Questioning” (p. 171), and “Sharing Responsibility for Facilitation” (p. 173). Although they don’t publicize that they are giving strategies for creating a Community of Inquiry or for getting students to develop a teaching presence, their ideas in chapter 8 align with those theories.

Articles or publications that elaborate on developing a teaching presence in students:

Garrison, Randy D. and Vaughan, Norman D. (2008) Blended Learning in Higher Education.

Community of Inquiry- a website including explanations and papers

Video that addresses how to establish the course such that students are aware of the instructor- I did NOT create this video; it is just here as a resource for anybody who may be using this edublog for ideas

Slideshare- a presentation on face to face learning with a transition to applications online