Feedback and Project Based Learning



I had my Intro to Engineering students turn in an “up to now” version of what will become their final presentation for the project we are currently working on. I wanted to write a bit about it because it is shaping up to be a very important assignment and I’m learning a lot about project based learning through it.

First, I love that the assignment requires them to think through what they’ve done so far because it is open ended. I didn’t include a rubric like I would for other assignments. So they didn’t have a checklist of what to include, they had to come up with it on their own (although they are on teams, so of course they can talk to their teammates about it). Now that I am giving feedback on the assignment, I’m getting a variety of slide decks and it’s giving me some insight into how the students see the project so far. Some are focusing just on the Inventor modeling they’ve done and less on the construction and some are the exact opposite. And with Classroom’s grading tools, I can quickly give appropriate feedback to everyone. The screenshot above shows one example where the student has a good mix of evidence, but even then there is always room for improvement. You can see in the screenshot that I am giving individual comments on slides and then an overall summary as a comment on the assignment. So it’s this assignment that’s giving me the place to help the teams process what they’ve done so far but then also guide them toward next steps.

I’ve also learned that PBL is very hectic and managing it requires deadlines like the one for this assignment. What I mean is that it is difficult to have a deadline for one specific part of the project, like 3D printing a part for their automaton, because different groups are reaching that point at different times. Some groups have laser cut, some haven’t. Some groups have consulted with their artist several times outside of class and some haven’t. So an assignment like this allows for the teams to show me what they’ve done so far and a good entry looks different for every group.

One thing we obviously need to work on is documentation of ideas. We do plenty of work practicing brainstorming and then actually brainstorming, but most slide decks I’ve seen so far have no evidence of it. It could be that they have it in their notebook and just didn’t include it in the slides and so I commented to most of them that they should include it. But for some, I think they are forgetting to document brainstormed ideas altogether and so we need to work on that. Maybe we could create a template of some sort to make it obvious that it needs to be documented? We’ll see. Always improving!!


What Are We Making Today?


Introduction to Engineering Design:

We are attempting to complete the entire Automaton project in the first semester, so we’re in full swing now! It has been an amazing learning experience for me on project based learning. Some skills get front loaded and others wait until they are needed. And we can make some plans but we also have to be flexible as new difficulties come up.

So the first big skills push was for Autodesk Inventor. I did the usual set of tutorials and let them have a decent amount of time to explore and learn on their own. Some students took it upon themselves to learn assemblies with no real help from me (except for a quick question here and there). I think what prompted them to do it is that I put out a list of things they needed to create and an assembly for their box was one of them. Some students will wait for the lesson on assemblies before they really get into it and that’s ok. 🙂 We’ll do them next quarter as we start to test our cam mechanisms in Inventor. One of the coolest things has been the students help each other with this. Once they realize there is only one of me, they just start doing it!

Before I let them construct anything for their Automatons, I wanted to see a drawing of the part with dimensions. This makes sense logically because I want to be able to check their dimensions on everything (especially 3D printed parts, so we don’t have to reprint if it’s wrong).  But we get the added benefit of learning lots of skills in order to make the drawings. We learned a good deal of the dimensioning techniques that we’ll for the whole year; last year we didn’t get to those until way later. Once they got drawings coming off the printer, they started pulling out the tools. I trained students as we went on various hand tools and power tools. Then, I relied on my interns to help with getting students set up on the 3D printers. It was a good call to put the slicer software for each of the 3D printers on every computer. Ready to print? Get Autumn to help you set it up! Surprisingly, I had a student who already knew Adobe Illustrator basically teach himself how to run the laser cutter. All I had to do was give him the password! He’s already teaching other students how to run it as well. 🙂

In one section of the class, our art collaboration is also in full effect! We’ve had three meetings in the library where my engineering class meets with the 3D Visual Arts class and they were spaced out to be at different points in the process.  For the last meeting, my students had mostly finished their boxes and many had planned out the mechanisms as well.  The art students had their sculptures (or at least parts) done as well.  So they discussed connection details such as dowel diameter, glue or other connection methods, and movement of different pieces. This is the arts integration we were looking for!

This year’s HUNCH project is finally up and running as well. Our NASA mentor Bob Zeek (pictured below) visited to talk about this year’s projects as well as help fix our nice printer that is on loan from them. The students say they are still interested in working on the radiation jacket – which should be a good opportunity to learn about 3D printed textiles. But we also decided to look at the tool belt and the washing machine projects. All three will have at least 3 students working on them, so I’m excited to see what they can accomplish. I just to work on giving them more time in class to work on it. There’s always so much to do. 🙂


Engineering Design and Development:

One team in this class is really stepping up their game. With a little help from me, they have secured funding for their project from Chevron! The team plans to create an automated method for planting grass in marshlands to help prevent coastal erosion. The only problem is that Chevron needs the project completed by the end of December, so their timeline has been cut in half. But it’s a pretty amazing group of seniors and so I think they’ll be fine. I requested that a few members of other teams join up with them at least for now to help, including one who will keep them on schedule.

There are plenty of other great projects getting started, but I probably can’t fit them all in here so I’ll save that for another post. But I did want to write our mentor matching event which PLTW is helping us plan. Next week, we plan to have 10-20 engineers come in after school and they will meet with each of our EDD groups for about 5 min. They’ll rotate “speed dating” style and then at the end of the night, we can exchange info so for any teams that found a good connection with one of the engineers. I’m really excited about this event and I’ll have to write another post once it’s done to recap.

Students Pay Students


That blog title sounds ridiculous! But if you’re reading this you probably see what I’m getting at here. I’ve got lots of thoughts on TpT, but nothing revolutionary that hasn’t already been said more eloquently by countless others. Make stuff because it makes you better, share the stuff so others can get better too. Seems obvious. But whatever.

This Twitter thread really got me thinking today, thanks to Val Brown for starting the conversation. The article she’s linking to is about teachers making money on Instagram by selling their stuff, mainly on TpT.  If you hadn’t seen the article or this thread, click through, scroll down, read a bit and then come back.

Reading through the replies made me think a lot of things, but the one that stuck with me today and forced me to sit down and write is this: if our students’ “jobs” are school, then aren’t grades their “pay”?  I got here because the concept of “good teaching” came up and the general convo is about teachers making more money in various ways.  So logically, why not pay more for better teaching right?  I love this concept! I get better all the time, so MONEY PLEASE!



But as soon as there’s money involved, everyone wants objectivity. And “good teaching” is not that. You can’t rubricize it! Well, you can define a few things that good teachers do and then try to tie salary to those things. But as soon as you get specific on anything you’ll just start getting a lot of that thing and less trying new things, less innovation. So circling back around to students, the same thing is true for them and their grades. The more I try to define specifically what I want to see from them in exchange for a good grade, the more I see of that thing and the less I see trying new things, less innovation. And this is harmful to kids. Not all kids learn/grow the same way, the same pace, the same amount. And so trying to box it in is futile and dangerous. That’s exactly what grades do.

So putting it all together, here’s my thoughts on both problems:

  1. We have to pay teachers. Duh.
  2. Paying more for “better” teaching is only going to get us more of the same when we know that’s not actually better teaching.
  3. Therefore, pay teachers the same reasonable salary and give them freedom to do what’s best in their classrooms without fear.
  1. We have to give students grades. (I disagree, but it’s my current reality anyway.)
  2. Paying more for “better” learning is only going to get us more of the same when we know that’s not actually better learning.
  3. Therefore, pay students the same reasonable grades and give them freedom to do what’s best in their classrooms without fear.

These positions are not revolutionary. They are simple concepts. Of course the whole thing gets derailed as soon as someone shouts “but that’s not fair!”.  Neither is what we do now, friend. Neither is what we do now. 

Prove it!


An exchange with a few students today got me really upset and so I wanted to write about it to get my thoughts out. The students were questioning their grade on a project. They both had gotten a C but *wanted* a B. The project has a rubric but the translation to a grade is subjective, so I told them that they could explain to me why they thought they should have a higher grade. It wasn’t the fact that they wanted to argue for a better grade that bothered me, it was the way they went about it. They were basically arguing that since they felt like they had worked hard on it that they should get a B. And they were really trying to make me feel like I was judging them unfairly with the grade I gave. One of them even used the term “biased”. But when we looked at the work, it was clear that they did not complete all the requirements and when we looked at the rubric, they didn’t meet many of the criteria for a successful project. So then they wanted to know *exactly* what I wanted them to do in order to get a B. And I wasn’t sure what to say at that point. It started to become clear that they were not going to do the work I wanted them to do, which is to look again at the project requirements and the rubric criteria and then improve their work until it was closer to meeting them. So we kind of left it there, I told them I would be willing to look at any additional work they put in and change the grades accordingly. But in the meantime, I went and looked at their overall GPAs (relevant detail – they are both seniors and today is their last day). I noticed that neither of their overall grades for the course would change if I made this one grade change. So I told them that and they both *immediately* said some version of “oh. well I don’t care then, nevermind.” It didn’t hit me right away but after some thought I realized that this was them admitting that they didn’t really disagree with my assessment of their work. They just didn’t like the C that came with it and this made it difficult for them to argue for a higher grade.

It is sometimes hard to pinpoint my problem with grades, but this interaction is a great example of it. I feel like the students were basically being dishonest in that they were arguing that their work was high quality and that they had tried their hardest when I don’t really think they agreed with that. If they were being honest, they would admit that they had wasted plenty of class time just chatting or looking at random videos while I wasn’t looking. And if they were being honest, they’d agree that their work did not meet the criteria from the rubric. So what is making them be dishonest?

I believe it is the fact that they feel the need to get the grade, whether or not they do the work or learn anything.

So what changes if we take the grade away? I don’t think they would’ve done *less* work than they did, and that’s the main argument I hear from other teachers – that the grades are all that’s motivating some kids. But I do think it’d remove the reason for lying in a scenario like this. With descriptive feedback only, they wouldn’t feel the need to try to guilt me into anything because it’s not a transaction the way grades are. They’re not trying to get anything out of me. The only thing to be expected of me is honest feedback and I already gave that. Of course you can disagree with feedback, and if you really do disagree, then the only thing to do is provide a counter argument – and that is what I was looking for them to give all along!

Where do the learning targets fit?


So I’ll just start this post with my big revelation: Asking students to figure out where to turn something in and then also asking them to explain their learning was too many things all at once and they didn’t have time for it. Ok what does that mean?! Here we go!

So my Google Classroom setup looked like this up to this point in the year. Students would complete activities and then instead of turning them in to an assignment named after that activity, they would find a learning target that matched the activity and turn the activity in there. Then I would give feedback and return the assignment so that the student could either fix it or include another artifact. But a few pieces of feedback that I’ve gotten from students are that they don’t have enough time in class to navigate the learning targets and then also explain what they learned, and also for some this process was just too confusing to begin with (and consequently these students weren’t doing any of the meta cognitive reflection that I wanted to see happen). I realized that we could still have the focus be on reflecting on what students have learned, but organize the assignments by activity. So for iteration number 2 I am reorganizing it to look like this:

So students are still required to submit an artifact showing me that they completed an activity and also explain some aspects of what they were trying to learn from the activity. But the difference is now we’ve taken away any confusion about where to submit that information.

I’m also going to include due dates so that they know a general timeline for when I’m expecting things to be submitted. I am 100% sure that someone will ask about “points off” in class tomorrow, so that will be a nice segue into how I’ll also be adding a score to each assignment when they turn it in. The plan is to put a number 0 through 4 on any assignment that I’ve looked at. I’m not thinking of this number as a grade; it’s more like a signal that there is something still to be done. A lot of feedback that I gave first quarter was either unread or not responded to. I think by putting a two out of four on something it may prompt the student to read the feedback and respond to it in order to get the number up to a four. It also should make our one-on-one conferences in class go a little quicker because we can look at the whole list of student work and see which ones are fours and which ones aren’t there yet.

Then coming up with a grade should still work about the same way. I’m still interested in whether or not they’re completing activities and keeping everything organized and I’ll be able to see this in their notebook and in Google classroom. And I’m still interested in whether or not they’re mastering the skills of the class. This is the one that is slightly different because I’ll still be basing this assessment on their explanations in classroom, which will no longer be organized by learning target. But what I’m hoping is that we should still be able to come to a reasonable conclusion about their mastery of the various skills even if we don’t have the portfolio organized by learning target. Maybe this means it will be nice to have a printout of some of the learning targets on my clipboard when we do the conferences? We’ll see. Either way I think this will improve the feedback cycle of students submitting work, getting feedback, and then resubmitting once they’ve improved. If this means we sacrifice a bit on the SBG side of things, I think that’s okay. We’ll figure it out as we go. 😉

Here’s How I’m Doin Grades Now


Been awhile since I wrote here. If you follow me and wanna check in on my classes this year, I’ve now got 180 blogs here and here for Engineering and Comp Sci respectively. But I wanna make this blog a place where I write about the big ideas, so here goes.

I haven’t put a grade or score on a paper in over a year now and I’m never going back! It’s awesome. My students and I focus on learning much more and I never get questions like “how much is this worth?” or “can I get some extra credit?”. Well I can’t say I never get those, but when someone asks one, they pretty much already know my answer will be something sarcastic like “oh that one is worth 2300 points, better make it good”. I say “POINTS!” at random things that happen throughout the day like when a kid makes a shot into the recycling bin from across the room. So we joke around about it, but at the end of the day we do still need to put a grade in the online gradebook. What I’ve come to realize – and I hope my students are starting to realize as well – is that the grade isn’t really for either of us. It’s for their parents, their other teachers/support staff, and prospective colleges. As such, we shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about it. But with that said, the grade isn’t meaningless and so it’s unfair to those other stakeholders to just make something up. So what do we base the grade on?

I’ve read a lot about what is wrong with grading and many articles including this one by Jenny Anderson contain a similar refrain. It goes something like this:

Guskey writes that there are many problems with traditional grading systems, including the fact that they combine way too many factors into one, including students’ achievement, attitude, responsibility, effort, and behavior.

So my thought was “why not make those categories into a rubric and come up with a grade based on it?”. So I made one. I was thinking that 4 categories was a good number; not too many to keep track of (or for parents to follow along with) but not quite as reductive as a single number or letter. Here it is:

UPDATE 8-27-17: I’ve already changed it since writing this post yesterday. Decided to go with three categories. The embedded spreadsheet updates automatically, so this’ll always be the current version even if I change it again (which I’m sure I will).

The way I describe it to kids and parents is like this:

I wanna know these four things:

  1. Are you doing your work?
  2. Is it reasonably well documented?
  3. Are you learning anything?
  4. Are you being productive in class?

I haven’t used the rubric yet; we just finished our second week of class (5 meetings). But my hope is to start using it this week. I plan to meet with each student for about 5 minutes. We will reserve the last 30 min of class for these meetings every day, so I should be able to get in about 5 students per day, seeing everyone in the class in about two weeks time. With those 5 minutes we will answer the 4 questions, decide on a score for each one using the rubric, and then decide on a grade together. The students with whom I’ve discussed this seem to like the idea of an average. So two 4s and two 3s should be an “A” they said. I think I can get on board with that logic, especially since it gives the appearance of some objectivity in a system that is trying its best not to be. But I’ll reserve the rights of the student or teacher to veto in favor of a different grade if it makes more sense after our conversation. Then I’ll post to the online gradebook the four scores and the overall grade. This way parents and other stakeholders can see the category scores (with the rubric descriptions) and also how they translate to one letter.

So how do we fit that into five minutes? Well they will have seen the rubric ahead of time, so we won’t be going over what it all means. Also I will already have seen a lot of the student’s work by that point. I don’t lecture very often, most of my class time is spent looking at student work and giving one-on-one or small group feedback. So I figure most of our conversation can be focused on the big picture. We’ll answer the first two categories – Organization and Completion – by a quick flip through their notebook. We circle the scores for those two and move on quickly (maybe one minute or two if we need to talk about how to improve). If I give specific feedback such as “pages 7-10 are not signed and dated”, then they’ll write that down on a post it and stick right on that page as a reminder. Mastery of Skills will be tracked in Google Classroom. It has a new feature where I can look at one student and see all their activity in the class. And since I’ve organized it by Learning Targets not activities, we are basically looking at a standards based gradebook. We’ll be looking for a particular number of skills to have evidence posted (only one or two to start next week). For each new piece of evidence posted, we’ll do a quick glance to see if they’ve explained how the artifact shows what they’ve learned. As I write this, I am realizing this could get tough – timewise – when a student has submitted many things since the last time we talked. But I still think it’s going to work because I can ask them to choose which ones to show me. As long we are looking at a few per meeting, we should be ok. And since the posts are in Classroom, I can always do a more thorough check later if I need to. Fitting this into the allotted 2-3 minutes will probably be the hardest part of the meeting. But we’ll be using a timer and will cut the convo short when we need to. Then finally we’ll spend the last minute of our time talking about “Use of Class Time”. This is the one I told myself at the end of last year to not throw out. We need to talk about this and it should be tracked over time. So I have a spreadsheet that I’ve been using to quietly note when a student is off task during class (and whether they were disruptive to anyone else in doing so). I tell students that one or two times will be fine, but any more than that and it probably affects their quality of work – which is the whole point of tracking it and talking about it.

Ok woah that was a lot to write. Fitting this into five minutes will probably be a challenge. But my students generally like the idea of the feedback only classroom, so I think they’ll be willing to help me out tweaking the process until we end up with one that works. After all, iterative design is one of the learning targets, so they can document their input and wouldn’t that be delightfully “meta”. Nice.


Reflections 2016-11-4


Computer Science:

It is really hard to let some students fall behind, but I don’t really see much of a solution right now that’s not going to slow other students down. Like I could make everyone follow along with an activity at a set pace and I think this would be helpful to some students, but then it means that I am not available for individual attention at all. The flip side being what I am doing now which is mostly giving individual attention to students who are working though the activity at a reasonable pace, but other students are really taking their time, not focusing as much as they could, and not learning as much as a result. It’s a tough call and I’d like to get some feedback from other teachers on specific lessons. I think I may use the “tuning” protocol described here.

In other classes (Algebra especially) I’ve been much more in favor of slowing everyone down in order to bring a few students up. However, there are a few differences that have changed my philosophy in this class. First, everyone is starting from pretty much the same place in a way that they don’t usually in math. Only a few students have any real CS background coming into the class, so while they are all different students obviously, they are starting from the same place coding-wise. Also, this class is an elective with mostly seniors in it. And so far I feel like the material is very hard to understand if you don’t have any desire to learn it, so I am trying to stop myself from forcing it on anyone. But like I said, it’s really hard.

Reflections 2016-11-2


Computer Science:

The struggle between collaboration and focus is real. We started out ok with just a little talking but it was not enough to mess up someone who was flowing with the activity.  But after about 15 minutes I noticed that the noise level had increased to the point where it was impossible to ignore. How did I notice this? Because it was impossible to ignore! 😉 Maybe the lesson is that 10-15 minutes is a magic number and we need to stay within that time frame for activities in here. Or we might try 10 minutes silence, 2 minutes talking or some other time strategy like that.

We are trying to do our daily reflection in silence in our notebooks today (as opposed to the spreadsheet on the computer) so we packed up the computers and wrote for about 5 minutes. I think this class knew the drill for the most part because they are mostly Engineering students. I think that maybe I should start writing my own reflections in my Engineering notebook as well; that was the point, to model the process right?



Reflections 2016-11-1


Computer Science: 

We started learning python today. As expected, it would have been totally impossible to lead the class through the first activity. Everyone was at a different pace and there were a lot of technical difficulties. So it was a good thing that the activity is well written so that they could follow at their own pace.

Mini lessons included:

  • using the up arrow to retrieve the previous command
  • variable types (python assigns them for you)
  • .py files are text files

Intro to Engineering:

I realized today that there is a big skills gap between students who took the Gateway classes and those that didn’t. I don’t think I need to modify the activities in the automaton project, but they will need more time to learn the skills. We continued with the manufacturing a box activity, but no one finished it because they were learning skills and then trying to apply them right away (as opposed to the “Gateway” Ss who have the skills and are just applying them).

Reflections 2016-10-31


Introduction to Engineering:

This class is really high energy and we discussed this again today. Strategies we discussed included taking a break when you need one. I think this may be an opportunity to work with breathing techniques with a few students. Because I think that they need a redirect more than once or twice per class, so taking a break by leaving the room might take too long.

I also think the Automaton project is going really well. We are using the “manufacturing a box” activity to learn assembly constraints in Inventor. They are making box joints like the one below, so they’re making the sides as part files and then assembling them.