New Moves: Course Organization

Ever since switching to standards based grading, many components of my courses and classroom organization have come into alignment with my philosophy of teaching. Ideally, these align perfectly, but the realities of time and professional responsibilities can shift this alignment. My beliefs on assessment, on effective learning activities, and on using the classroom social space effectively have all come into sharp focus when my grade book aligns more closely with the learning that goes on.

There is one notable exception to this alignment.

My class notes and handouts, and therefore much of my courses, have always  been organized around days of class within a unit: Unit 1 Day 2 handout, Unit 3, Day 5 handout, Unit 5 review, etc. This has made it easy for someone that misses day three of unit two to know what precisely was missed during the day. It makes it easy for me to see how I organize the days within a unit. This is how I’ve done things for the past fourteen years.

In courses organized around standards like mine, a student should be able to see the development of content related to a standard from start to finish. The progression of content within a standard allows students to see ideas grow from simple to complex. A student that wants to review standard 1.1 needs to know which days covered material related to that standard. While identifying this is an important high level task, it doesn’t help struggling students know where they should look to know what ideas relate to a given standard.

This was the main reason I have organized all of my course materials this year by standard. Here’s a screenshot of a portion of my IB Mathematics SL Year 2 page on Moodle:

Each problem set or activity is organized under the learning standard under which it applies. When I post notes about a given problem or activity, it is put underneath the problem set to which it applies. Some days we work on content related to multiple standards, but I parse that information into different parts and organize it that way. When we do work that spans multiple standards, that work is posted above the standards and identified as such.

In the past, students have consistently asked to know the details of a given standard – now they can look for themselves for what types of problems relate. The materials are also generally organized in increasing level of difficulty or abstraction, so students know that the more challenging content is listed further down below the standard. I’ve also found that the types of activities I have students do is more diverse. I might send students to watch a video, do a curated list of Khan Academy exercises, or write a response to a prompt. Previously, the class handout was the one source of truth for what students should be doing at any one time. Now the materials have been expanded.

There is still a preferred order or menu of activities that I prescribe for each class. I post this as an agenda and refer students to it when it looks like they need some direction:

Students have reported that they have more freedom to do things at their own pace under this system.  We may not finish all of the material from Unit 2, Day 3 – that just means that the material can be moved to the next day’s agenda. Naming the tasks in this different way makes it easy for a student to move ahead or work independently. I can spend my time during the class helping those who need it and challenging those that are making good progress.

I really like how this has transformed the spirit of my classroom. I admit that the organization of the course into standards is artificial – the real world is not organized this way. Being deliberate and communicating how class activities serve the learning standards, and what relates to big picture unit-wide challenges, helps students understand the balance between the two. I know this isn’t the final answer, but it does seem to be a step in the right direction for my students.

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