Assistant Professor of Mathematics Tulsa Community College

Making Grades Meaningful

what does a c in calculus mean anyway?

Back in 2015, a grade of 75 might have meant a student earned a C in my traditionally graded calculus course, but it didn't tell me whether the student understood limits, derivatives, or antiderivatives. The 75 didn't communicate whether the student was good at computation, or struggled with applications. It didn't tell me whether they understood the Fundamental Theorem, or knew how to interpret integrals as net change. The 75 didn't tell me much - except that the student earned a C. The C students in Calculus I often became D students in Calculus II. Some passed through gathering the right amount of points, but they didn't necessarily know the material they needed to know to be successful. 

I wanted grades to be meaningful. I wanted the grade to tell me something about what the student understood, so that the student and I could focus our attention there. I wanted to work alongside my student, to help the student to grow. In Fall 2015, I stumbled upon a blog about SBG posted on Facebook by either the Mathematical Association of America or American Mathematical Society. I tried it for the first time in Spring 2016, and I haven't looked back.

Standards Based Grading, AKA Mastery Grading, is a mastery-focused assessment and teaching approach. SBG grades are specific, and the specificity makes them meaningful. If I want to see how a student is doing, my gradebook tells me what the students has and hasn't yet mastered. It tells me what they know and where they could grow. If you google this or mastery grading, you'll see that every faculty member handles SBG differently. A key component of SBG is the opportunity to improve grades through reassessments of course standards. In my version of SBG, 

  • Core content is divided into approximately 30 major topics called standards
  • Each standard is graded on a 4.0 scale.
  • The students interpret their average the way they interpret a GPA.
  • Students have the opportunity to reassess
  • Students seek tutoring during office hours, and reassess when they feel ready.

If a student doesn't like a grade and hopes to improve, the student has the opportunity to learn from mistakes and try again. We don't just take tests and forget material anymore. When students fail to learn something by the corresponding quiz, they can study and try again. We tend to have more conversations about math, and fewer conversations about points. Their grade is entirely in their hands. Through studying, learning, and demonstrating that they've learned, students can improve their grades. In the process, they learn math.

Students completing an assessment.

Related Presentations and Submissions

I entered an Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges GIFT (Great Ideas for Teaching) contest describing SBG, and gave three presentations on the topic. My contest submission essay and the PowerPoint presentations are linked below.

SBG Course Standards

I've been teaching calculus and DE using SBG for ten semesters. My current course standards for each course are shown below. To see sample quizzes, view the corresponding course pages. Please keep in mind that reassessments tend to be more thorough, and cover every variation (or almost every variation) of the standard shown on these lists. 

In the future, I hope to redesign TCC Precalculus I and Statistics as SBG courses as well.


Questions about teaching with SBG? Message me.