Sending the Right Message

Creating a Coherent Curriculum in a Science Classroom

The atmosphere was bubbling with excitement.  The aroma of biochemistry was thick in the air, with products of biological decomposition facilitated by heat and the distribution of anaerobic fermentation bi-products providing the distinct smell only a popular local brewery can.  Free State was experiencing a typical summer evening, but for the people at the KABT table in the back the evening was something new.  We met with a simple goal:  to discuss the role of feedback in our classrooms.

After a pleasant evening of discussion we had identified the direction wStudy Hall #1 Picturee wanted our classrooms to take.  We said grades should reflect competency, not a student’s willingness to comply with a set of demands.  We said that for a student to be successful in such a classroom they would need frequent formative feedback to ensure every student has the opportunity to succeed when grading does occur.  We said that inquiry requires risk, and to encourage students to take risks and explore the material they needed the freedom to make mistakes early.  That freedom would be provided by removing the penalty for struggles during formative assessment periods.

Grading Based on Competency

There is a significant population of students in school today who want to succeed.  In most settings success in school is measured in terms of the grade assigned in the course.  Knowledge of these two conditions has led some teachers to use grades as a form of classroom management.  Some classrooms have used grade punishments to obtain compliance in behavior, such as:

  • Be quiet or you lose ten points.
  • Take notes and I will give you ten points.
  • Complete this paper and you can have an A.

These practices create an attitude in students that getting points equals learning, when in reality it is the opposite.  In the ideal classroom an A in the course means the student fully understands the material.  If a grade can be inflated from only compliance with teacher requests, the final grade no longer has meaning related to learning.

To address this problem a successful unit in Biology should return the focus to learning.  Activities should be done for their learning value alone.  This requires the use of procedures to make the students’ learning visible in order to convince them of the value of performing those tasks.  Making learning visible to students with undeveloped metacognition skills is difficult, so frequent formative feedback must be provided.

Make the Learning Trajectory Visible

Most high school students have not yet developed the skills required to assess their own understanding.  In an environment where their grade is based only on their competency, they will need assistance in reaching a level of mastery.  Feedback at every step of the learning process should be provided so students can monitor their own understanding and develop ownership of their grade.  Thorough record keeping, automation of grading when possible, and leveraging peer review are all ways to provide that feedback without overburdening the instructor with an unmanageable amount of grading.Learning Trajectory Full

Coherence across assessments is just as important as the timing of the feedback.  Students need to develop a clear picture of their own learning trajectory throughout the process.  Effectively meeting this need requires consistency across the unit organizational materials, the formative assessment opportunities, and the final unit assessment.  Students can then trust that their performance on the earlier practice tasks will accurately predict their performance on the weighted assessment tasks.

Freedom to Grow

When students can effectively track their learning and predict their growth, they can transition their attitude toward daily classroom activities away from a need to accumulate points and toward a desire to learn the content.  This transition is best facilitated by removing the penalties for exploration and failure during the learning process.  Assigning weight only to summative tasks, which students encounter after multiple exposures and opportunities to learn the material in a risk-free situation, opens the door to allowing inquiry and creativity to exist alongside a strong feedback-based curriculum.

With this in mind the KABT Task Force set out to create a unit that exemplifies this system of coherence.  In the attached package linked below there is an entire unit laid out that uses both inquiry experiences and frequent feedback to learn Energetics in a general biology class designed for 9th and 10th graders.  This unit is meant to show how a teacher’s existing materials can be used to fill out a highly coherent unit that integrates feedback, inquiry, and the new NGSS standards that are being adopted across the country.

The Next Generation Science Standards will prompt many teachers to re-evaluate their curriculums and make changes in response to the system of standards.  What better time is there to integrate more feedback and stronger grading practices that facilitate student ownership of their own learning process?  This unit illustrates a path that each individual teacher can use to create their own unique program.  We hope that these materials can prompt a discussion in your department and your district regarding how to take advantage of this unique opportunity we have with NGSS adoption.   This transitional time is an exciting chance to improve our curriculum with both more inquiry and better student feedback.

Michael Ralph

Olathe Each High School

These materials were developed by a group of educators that teach across the state of Kansas, in traditional and virtual settings and in both city and rural areas of the state.


KABT Coherent Energetics Unit Package – Takes a moment to load, please be patient.



2 thoughts on “Sending the Right Message”

  1. This is a great idea – the approach that you incorporate multiple and varied assessments is not new, BUT the unit organization and the justification for when you want to assess for learning is critical. I listened to this presentation and am very impressed with the organization and implementation of a complete unit with assessments. The use of constant feedback in this process is great to enable the student to take some “ownership” in this process. I really enjoyed this approach and it definitely triggered some self evaluation of how I am assessing whether or not my students are learning. Good job to the team that produced this unit.

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