Adventures in Paperless Assessment and Feedback

One of the best parts of going paperless on assignments is the ease of giving feedback digitally. Too many times when I would hand-write comments on student papers, I wound up with drained ink pens, writer’s cramp, and zero correlation between my feedback and improvement in student work habits or skills. It got to the point that I tried everything from highlighter schemes to byzantine coding just to make the effort feel worth the time I put in.  (! for a positive, ? for something confusing, * for…I forget…)

Who was I fooling?

Even those methods weren’t enough to put a dent in making feedback part of learning.  I found myself noticing patterns in the errors and wrote and rewrote much of the same advice as I dutifully marched through each individual paper–to no great effect. As I slaved away writing comment after comment, it frustrated me to know their papers were destined for the deepest, darkest, and most neglected corners of their backpacks or lockers. Students merely looked for a grade and promptly tossed their work and mine.

In the last five years, I have made a shift in my philosophy toward assessment, feedback, and measuring student progress. That shift has meant closer alignment to standards-based grading and a greater internal consistency for assigning grades. I hung a laminated poster of the district grade-scale along with the standards-based language I use in order to help students see the link between the grade and their progress.

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Students consult the assessment guide during a self-assessment activity.

 

Enter Paperless Assignments

This year, our school joined the ranks of Google Apps for Education, and with that giant leap forward came another shift in the way I collect, assess, and give feedback on student work. I keep experimenting with different ideas, but my paper-management past caused issues for my digital-management present. With a stack of papers, I could easily attach a rubric or checklist to the front with a stapler. I couldn’t see a way to do that digitally without altering a student’s document and potentially upsetting a carefully formatted document. Philosophically, I don’t want my grading feedback to overwhelm or intrude on a student’s work, nor do I want to bury it at the bottom of the page or otherwise “spoil” a student’s desire to improve their work with the poison of a numerical grade. Students deserve to have the integrity of their writing assignments respected.

Comment bubbles in the margins have been a great compromise for me. I still get to mark the text and call out features that either need work or are outstanding. Students have the ability to confer with me or ask questions without cluttering up their work with any intrusions that might interfere with the coherence of their writing. Students also have the capability to remove my comments from the margins while still having a record to access at any time. A side benefit of these comment bubbles is the invitation for students to engage with me in conversation. Students rarely skip over these comments without either replying, making the suggested correction, or asking a question of their own. They almost can’t help themselves! Comment bubbles in the margin are great for this kind of on-the-spot feedback, but when it comes to a final holistic snapshot or grade, it didn’t feel like enough.

Enter Autocrat, my new favorite Google script.

Autocrat, Where Have You Been All My Digital-Grading Life?

I was first introduced to Autocrat in a side conversation during a Google Cloud Camp held in our district last November. I was already using gClass Folders, Doctopus, and Goobric (three other tools that have made the switch to paperless much more painless), but I was unfamiliar with the merge tool and couldn’t picture how I might use it other than to correspond.

With a little creative thinking and a post on rubric assessments in spreadsheets by Alice Keeler, inspiration struck.

I began with a spreadsheet populated with my students’ names, email addresses, and the direct link to their documents. I then added columns for feedback scores (based on a 3-2-1 rubric for exceeds expectations, meets expectations, and approaching expectations). After collecting student work and recording their scores and feedback in the spreadsheet, I designed a separate document that would act as my feedback template.

The magic of Autocrat lies in the merge ability. I can design one feedback sheet in a document, insert tags for student names, scores, and customized feedback, and then run the script to merge the grading input from my spreadsheet with the template. Each student receives a personalized email, a pdf attachment to the assessment, and a link to their document with further comments.

Each student.

Timely, appropriate, personalized feedback.

Respect for the integrity of student work.

Efficient use of time, attention, and energy.

Assessment bliss!

This process takes less time and produces a superior output to anything I might have done by hand. I’m looking forward to hearing from my students to see if they like their personal feedback reports and see how they use the feedback to improve.

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The 30-Day Challenge

At the beginning of January, I like to talk with my students about goal setting. We’re in the middle of the school year and now that the honeymoon is over, it’s time for us to make some choices about how we orient ourselves toward the work to be done in our remaining months together. In the past, I have asked students to write a personal goal statement or even reflect on their personal new year’s resolutions, but then I watched a TED talk by Google engineer Matt Cutts.

In this very brief talk, Matt Cutts argues very simply that by selecting a personal challenge for thirty days can be a way to revitalize your life and either add something new that you’ve always wanted to try, or it can be a chance to do without something that might be a bad habit. I watched the video with my classes and we’ve been inspired to try the thirty-day challenge.

In these doldrums of the school year, it can be hard to face the cold, early mornings and the flat, uninterrupted greyness of the world outside. It’s easy for students and teachers to focus on the long months ahead. By making the next thirty days meaningful, I am hoping my classes will feel purposeful and fresh.

Starting on Monday, in each of my classes, we are either going to have the “vocabulary word of the day” or the “fun fact” of the day. I plan to post a schedule for student volunteers to sign up for a word or fact, then we’ll spend two minutes each day exploring language or ideas. I hope to report back on how this challenge shapes up for us, and I hope that my students will still be energized enough after thirty days to tackle something new.

Lessons Learned from a Social Networking SIM

The Lesson: Part 1

Close reading and the ability to engage with text instead of just letting words flow over eyeballs are skills that I enjoyed developing. I was a voracious reader in middle school and read through complete shelves of books in the school library, one shelf at a time.

When I entered high school, it was my creative writing teacher who introduced me to annotation. I had never before dared to mark in a book or on the pristine margins of a photocopied handout. When I did, it set free a different way of reading. I looked closer, thought harder, questioned and relished more.

You would think with my love for reading and annotation that it would be easy for me to convince my skeptical students to give it a try. Cajoling, begging, demonstrating: none of these approaches seemed to work. After a few random and perfunctory underlines and non sequiturs scrawled here and there out of obligation, I tried a new approach.

The Lesson: Part 2

We talked about their drug of choice: Instagram. I asked my seventh graders to explain to me how social media works on Instagram. They told me how to post and share content, use hashtags to label it, and how to add comments to give feedback. We also talked about meaningful vs. meaningless comments.

Then I made a proposal: Imagine this classroom is a social networking platform called desktop and the poem we read is a piece of shared content. What kinds of comments or hashtags would you add to this poem if you wanted comments or feedback?

The response was instantaneous. They started rereading and marking almost every line of the poem “The Limited” by Sherman Alexie.#noviolence #poetrysaveslives

After they finished, we walked around the room in complete silence using our pens to comment on one another’s desktop posts. Checkmarks for likes, of course.

I have never seen my students so focused, pausing to read and respond over and over. I told them we’d work for seven minutes; they wanted ten.

The Lesson: Part 3

I was part of the conversation, too, and as I scanned the “posts” it became clear how my students position themselves in social media. While there was much thoughtful commentary, there were few connections. Many of the hashtags were appended at random with someone marking #yolo and #swagg on every page, though there was no meaning behind the tag.

Students also tended to bandwagon. There were many comments of: Yes. I agree. Me too. Yup. Good idea. With no extension or challenge to anyone’s thinking. Questions and differing points of view were disregarded altogether.

In one class period, it became a race to see who could garner the most checkmark “likes” on silly tags like #gobyu or #poem.

Conclusions

After the end of the experiment, I led a debrief with each class. They did not fully understand how superficial much of their commentary was.

I was disheartened by the superficiality and their unwillingness to engage in anything that wasn’t trite, cute, or as they put it “double-tap” worthy. (One for a like, one for a repost.) They don’t see social media as a communication genre, but as a self-promotion and posturing venue. Posts are less about the value of the content and more about the analytics: How many likes? How many comments? How many shares?

I think I will try this experiment again, but with more guidance and clearer expectations for communicating thoughtfully.

(Cross-Posted on Sanderling)