News from the pathway to student self-assessment

Students must take ownership of their learning. That’s what it all boils down to.

That concept is new and challenging to many, if not most, of them.

I began this school year on a new path to implement a no-grades school year. Students would receive continuous feedback from me, both verbal and written, the written occurring on Google docs, on hard copies of their work, even on sticky-notes, as it turned out. This feedback – with no letter or number attached – would provide them the real information they needed to improve their work, continue to develop their skills, to shoot for the target again. Isn’t that how we learn most things, from riding our bikes to manipulating our parents? When something doesn’t work, we apply the feedback (skinned knees or lectures), and we go back to the drawing board (or back on the bike), and we try again … and again. Soon we’re flying down the street with a trick or two to show, and we have Mom thinking it was Dad’s idea and vice versa. Feedback helps us grow and develop much more than does a number like 72, and that’s how I explained it to students and the (very) few parents who inquired.

And so it began.

Working with the students

Yes, students did the work – at least the students who would have done the work anyway. So grades are not the driving force behind getting kids to work. There were a few, as there always are, who didn’t do the work for one reason or another, and grade or no grade, they did not complete assignments. Some loved the opportunity to re-do content until they got it better and better, learning from feedback how to construct better sentences, what to capitalize and where description can improve a piece. Some simply appreciated it on a simpler level. Some followed procedure (or not) and mostly did what the teacher wanted. For those few, it was hard for me to tell whether they preferred this do-over at no cost over one-and-done with a grade.

Knowing reflection was a big part of what I wanted to implement, I “assigned” reflections, showing them by example what I expected. To say some got it and some didn’t is pointless, because that’s how everything is in the classroom. The real problem here, was that I was still providing feedback on the assignment itself and didn’t follow-up well on the reflection portion, so not everyone did it. Since I didn’t follow-up, I lost credibility.

Posting to the gradebook for transparency

When I posed my plan to my principal, I described how I could create the assignments in our digital grade book (we use Infinite Campus) as I always had, using standards as tasks (instead of homework, daily work, tests, etc). But then, instead of posting a grade, I would make the assignment worth zero points and mark it as either “Incomplete”, if they were revising from feedback, or “turned in” when they were finished. In the comment section, I would compose a tweet-sized remark based on Mark Barnes’s SE2R feedback system, with a more complete explanation on their document. That all actually worked for the most part. I did fall behind in posting what I had planned, just like many of us fall behind on grading. For some classes with more specific assignments, it was easier. For some, creating the “assignment” is what held me up, as three of my classes are very differentiated.

Teaching reflection and self-assessment

Though reflection had been an issue earlier, I did require it at the end of the semester. Taking an idea from Sarah Donovan, I had them write it in the form of a letter to me, reflecting on the main standards our work related to, describing that work, their experience and how it did meet, did almost meet or did exceed the standards, and assessing themselves for a grade. I provided a guideline for what constitutes an A (over and above), a B (on target, basically), C (might not have finished everything or done all revisions), D (did some work, but too little to assess well and little revision) and F (no evidence). Then I began meeting individually with them. I have six classes, five preps, but relatively small class sizes, so I was able to get through all in about three days. My classes are Reading for Fun, two sections of Intro to Journalism, Newspaper production, Yearbook production and Digital Communication.

Conferencing with students

In the conferences, I would pull up their reflection from Google Drive (had usually already read through them and offered feedback) and we discussed it. This gave me a chance to talk to them about what assignments they enjoyed, what they found tough, why some were never finished (I had a list on a clipboard showing what assignments were finished or not for each student. For DigiComm students, I just had to pull up their blog as evidence of what was/was not done; for Reading, I used their Gdrive reading log). I even asked some of them what they thought I should add or drop to make the class better. In most cases, they were pretty spot-on with their grade. The fact that they had to cite evidence from their work to back up their grade request is where owning their work comes in.

When my old grading self wanted to creep in and make me second guess my strategies or how accurately the students had assessed themselves, I reminded myself that, learning cannot be measured. If I’ve been arguing that grades and grade-point averages do not reflect real learning, then why would I now worry that the grade the student and I have settled on isn’t accurate? Everyone is different, so their learning will be different. What’s important, I believe, is how they approach learning. That’s where I want to make an impact.

Lightbulbs

Though we went through the entire semester with feedback instead of grades, and each student either took advantage of learning and progressing or didn’t, at the end of the semester, they had to be the judge of how they did, and I think that was the right way to do it. They saw that they had had control of their learning, their grade, the entire time. Some realized it early on; some not until that conference. If they did have to give themselves a C or even a D, I asked what they could do differently next semester to learn more, improve skills, complete work, meet deadlines. The answers usually came from them, but I could make some suggestions when it seemed they didn’t know how to improve, how to use resources to their advantage. They have control, and that’s what I wanted them to see. One told me he wanted a B, but figured he deserved a C. We talked about his work, what he had and hadn’t done, what others had helped him with or taken over for him, what he could have done differently. It was a good discussion. Then we looked at the grade guidelines again, and the difference between a B and a C was unmistakable. So I asked what he could do differently next semester to earn that B or even an A – he’s perfectly capable. He made suggestions that were all pretty good. With that, it was resolved that, though he accurately assessed himself at a C this time, he could easily do better. I know he wanted me to “give” him a B, but then he’d have had little motivation to do differently next semester. He gave himself the grade he knew he’d earned. And he gave himself a plan to do better. #owning.

A few students who had not taken responsibility for producing their content, also did not take responsibility for writing the reflection or assessing themselves. These were not at school for their conference. I am left with no choice but to assess for them, and this displeases me. I want them to own their experience like everyone else has.

Making improvements to the plan

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. I do believe feedback instead of grades is the better way to go. I believe self-assessment is a good eye-opener. But as I reflect on my part in all of this, I, too, have goals for the coming semester:

  • Talk up front about owning, about controlling their own learning experience. Make expectations more clear.
  • Plan ahead better. Avoid flying by seat of pants from time to time on lessons or about when the deadline is expected.
  • As I plan lessons, post assignments in Infinite Campus so I can more easily post feedback when it’s time.
  • Get feedback to students sooner. It’s more effective if received right away.
  • Make sure I’m not just working with the squeaking wheels. Too many try to fly under the radar. They count, too. May have to keep a blank roster spreadsheet on a clipboard and note when I’ve connected with whom on what assignment.
  • Set aside time every week to post to the gradebook. This will mean that I have to tell students who have dropped by to ‘hang out’ and visit that I have work to do, but I have to do it. Students hang out in my room at lunch, before and after school and even during my plan period. I want my journalism lab to be open for my journalists and for students who need to catch up, and I want to be a listening ear for students who need one, but I have to draw a line. I have a commitment to the students in my classes for timely feedback and a proper learning environment.
  • Finish some critical reading:
    • Finish Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. This is an all-in-one, simplified version of what I’m trying to do. Much of it, I already have implemented, thanks in no small part to my friendship with Starr and her openness to sharing what she has learned, but I haven’t had a chance to finish reading.
    • Starr Sackstein’s Teaching Students to Self-Assess. I got it late in the semester, too late to get a good plan for teaching reflection in place.
    • Finish Erik Palmer’s Well Spoken. We’re at crisis level getting students to present or even speak within small groups. Too much cram and test. We’re not teaching life skills like communication, and I want my students to have this advantage. I want to implement more, early, easier opportunities to speak before presentations.
    • Finish Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius. In another post, I discussed my disillusionment with Passion Projects in my digital communications class this semester. It’s too valuable to scrap, so I need to fine tune. I need my own passion back.
    • Read George Couros’s The Innovator Mindset. Amazon’s one-click has nearly gotten me in trouble, but I think this one will be valuable. Just need to find the time to read so I can improve my capacity to motivate my students to create and innovate!

Do you have experiences to share, advice to offer or questions to ask? Let’s get a conversation going.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

2 Responses to News from the pathway to student self-assessment

  1. Joy Kirr says:

    I chuckled when I read “Amazon’s one-click has nearly gotten me into trouble…” You and me both, sister! 😉

    What I really need to do is what you suggested here: “Make sure I’m not just working with the squeaking wheels. Too many try to fly under the radar. They count, too. May have to keep a blank roster spreadsheet on a clipboard and note when I’ve connected with whom on what assignment.” YES. I have my own scores on a sheet, but I don’t have the conversations any place. I need to have those conversations with ALL students, not just the ones that ask me every day about what they can do to improve, but those who don’t ask me a thing. After midterms, I was able to chat with each child about whether I would agree with their initial assessment of their grade or not, and that helped this quarter (I didn’t have this in place last quarter), but spread throughout the assignments would work better.

    I also need to make sure we have time for these discussions. I see what you say about not seeing students all periods of each day… tough stuff! Maybe set certain hours for meeting with students and some definitely for yourself? Thank you once again for sharing your reflections!!

    • Thanks for commenting, Joy. As I tell my bloggers, blogging is social and you should create conversations. Yes, I think the under-the-radar kids are where I really need to make an improvement. That’s a top priority. Harder with bigger classes, so I don’t know a solution for teachers with regular sized classes. I’m about to move up to 24 or so in my reading class, but most average at 14-16 because of my computer lab limitations.
      Let’s stay in touch and keep comparing notes. So great to have others working toward the same goals!

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