Standards Based Grading, Final Exams and Thinking Outside the Box

Mentos and diet coke at different temperatures

“What are we doing to help kids achieve?”

This has been a difficult year. On any given day, teachers have to expect the unexpected more than ever before. How many students will I have face to face? How many students will be out of the classroom for a few days and need to attend virtually? Are my virtual students getting an education that is fair and equitable? Now that the end of the schoolyear is in sight, how can I prepare an exam that will challenge all the students? It is the last question that I want to focus on.

The goal for exams is to do the best when assessing a student. This might be the year to think outside the box. What if the circumstances were such that we could develop assessments that are comparable or better than the traditional multiple choice and free response type exam? My principle encouraged us to do that this year and this is a description of one attempt that you might find useful.

A coworker offered the idea as we were brainstorming during a departmental meeting. What if we did what they do at some colleges? Provide students with eight to ten free response questions two weeks before the exam. The day of the exam, they must answer two to three of the eight questions. Students will not know which questions until the day of the exam.

The more I thought about this idea, the more I liked it. As someone who does standards based grading it was easy to go through and write down the standards we covered. This provided eight to ten topics within minutes. Students had access to the same eight to ten topics and as with all standards based grading assignments, they had a simple mastery scale on how they did for each topic. My next job was to come up with questions for each topic. Some of the questions turned into mini projects. 

Video 1: Gas Law Question #2


I had a gas law apparatus demonstration that I was able to turn into a video (see video 1 above). Students had to collect data from the video and provide reasoning and evidence to conclude if the apparatus actually worked as it should. I was inspired by Tom Kuntzleman’s work with Diet Coke and Mentos. This led me to create my own mentos and diet coke video (see video 2 below). Students had to watch the mentos diet coke experiment, collect data, create a graph and draw a conclusion while referencing kinetic theory of matter. I still had a few topics left. I started to search the American Association of Chemistry Teachers website. I was able to look through a multitude of activities and projects for many concepts such as the periodic table and lab safety to name just a few. I made the level of questions a bit more challenging than usual given that students had two weeks to work on them.

Video 2: Mentos Diet Coke at 3 Temps


As the exam got closer, the level of questions from the students were better than I expected. It was less of “what do I need to do to get an A” and more about the actual concepts.  Exam week was crazy. Some students were face to face. Some students were virtual. Some of this changed minutes before class. I found that I could vary the questions based on the circumstances. Some questions led themselves to work better virtually, such as the video questions. Others were better face to face, such as the periodic table card sort. All students had exposure to all questions.

Ultimately, I was content with the outcome. I have to accept that it was the best I could do during a difficult time. Most likely, we will be facing round two in about a month and a half. I plan on working on a similar style of exam again. Do you have an idea for an exam? A lab practical? Please consider sharing...we are all in this together.