Tag Archives: assessment

SXSWedu – Throwing Out Grades

I am attending SXSWedu in Austin, TX this week.  You can see the posts that I’ve published so far to summarize my learning here and here.

Our K-5 school is about to embark on an interesting journey.  We are working on “throwing out the grades.”  Instead of averages in each subject, parents will be receiving feedback each nine weeks on how their child has done in each standard that was covered during that period.  Our plan is to slowly roll this out, starting with Kinder and 1st next year and adding two grade levels each successive year. Our goal is to have the entire school using this system in three years.

We are still working on the details, so I was excited to see some of the pioneers in this area would be presenting at SXSWedu.  Mark Barnes and Peter Bencivenga presented. Unfortunately, the third presenter, Starr Sackstein, was unable to attend due to a severe case of the flu.  Mark and Peter did a great job despite missing a teammate!

If you have ever had a student ask you, “Do we need to know this for a test?” or “What do I need to do so I can earn an A?”  then you might understand the reasons for changing our current system.  In the traditional system, students aren’t learning for the sake of knowledge; they are looking for ways to beat the system – to find ways the shortest way to an A.  Another problem is that an average on a report card doesn’t effectively tell the story of that student. Does a B mean that she didn’t know it at first but has completely mastered it now?  Or does it mean she kind of knew and still kind of knows it?  Also, students tend to see that grade as the culmination of their learning and move on, rather than reflecting and revising and digging deeper to achieve more understanding.  They often choose courses based on what has the most potential to increase their class rank rather than on what they actually want to learn.

Mark and Peter spoke about how “throwing out the grades” can actually increase engagement and learning among students.  The feedback that is given to students is actually much more frequent, and gives multiple iteration opportunities to the students so they can improve their work.  Because the students are more focused on the projects they are doing than on the grades they can obtain, they voluntarily work harder to learn more for their own benefit.  Self-reflection is a key component.

One argument that you may hear against this philosophy is that students will have a difficult time getting into colleges if there is no rank and no GPA.  The presenters, however, have seen a shift in college admissions that reflects their own recognition of the need for change.  They emphasized that there is a need for “bottom-up” reform, saying that even reluctant colleges will eventually need to change their process once they see that K-12 schools are making this change.

Communication with parents is vital, and you may find yourself with the difficult job of changing mindsets.  One quote that made a lasting impression on the attendees was what to say in conversations with parents who oppose throwing out the grades.

“Your child is more than a number and a letter.”

What parent can disagree with that?

Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein
Hacking Assessment by Starr Sackstein



Simultaneous Back Channel/Polling App

If you are reading this post because the title excited you, I am sorry to say that I do not know of a simultaneous back channel/polling app. This post is to request your help in finding one!  I recently got a great comment on my post about using Socrative as a Back Channel.  The commenter, a professor named Lisa Halverson, asked if I knew of any way to allow students to use Socrative or any app as a back channel while also having the ability to answer polls so the teacher could get a feel for understanding.  It appears that Socrative only allows for a teacher to have one room/quiz going at a time.  I can certainly think of some roundabout ways to achieve this (see below), but does anyone know of a tool that does this with less preparation required?  If so, both Lisa and I would love to hear about it!  If not, then one of you smart developer-types needs to get right on that!

By the way, Richard Byrne just did a great post on 12 great student feedback tools that you should definitely read if you haven’t tried one or if you aren’t happy with one that you use.  As far as I can tell, though, none of these do the specific job Lisa and I require.

My roundabout solution?  (Bear with me because I am an Apple girl – not sure how Android devices would work other than that I’m pretty sure they have browsers!) I would have all students use the browser to access Socrative for real-time quick feedback questions from the teacher.  I would also have them add a second tab that has a Padlet (or even a shared Google Doc) to use as a back channel for timid students to ask questions or make comments.  If you want to get really fancy schmancy, there are several apps out there, such as this one, that will split your browser (but the free ones do have ads). Rumor has it that the next iOS might allow you to split your screen so you can use 2 different apps at the same time – but we’d still like to have it all in one!

Example of using a split screen app on the iPad.  Good news - it's free.  Bad news - it has ads.  If you are teaching college students, that's probably no biggie, though.
Example of using a split screen app on the iPad. A Socrative quiz is going on the left.  A Padlet (set to the stream layout) is on the right for a backchannel option.  Good news – this app is free and you can create bookmarks so students don’t have to type in a URL every time. Bad news – it has ads. If you are teaching college students, that’s probably no biggie, though.

Take Your Pick with Plickers

Sample screen shot of Plickers app in action
Sample screen shot of Plickers app in action

I love getting informal feedback from my students during lessons, and usually use the Socrative app for this in my classroom.  Socrative is wonderful, and works on practically any device, but it certainly works better if you have more than one device in your classroom.  Obviously, not everyone has this luxury.  So, I was very intrigued when I ran across a post about a student response system that works quite simply with just one piece of electronic equipment required – Plickers.

I read about Plickers on a “Who’s Who and Who’s New” post by Debbie.  She does an awesome job of detailing the use of the app, so please head over to her post if this brief summary piques your interest.

Basically, you set up a free account with Plickers (either online or in the app; the app is Android or iOS), and then set up a class.  You can set up multiple classes if you choose.  Then, you give each of your students in the current class a card with a barcode.  You can print your own from their site, or order a set from Amazon. The barcodes are numbered, so you can be sure that the same student always receives the same one.  If you look carefully at each card, you will see that each side of the barcode has a letter: A, B, C, or D.  When you ask the students a question, they hold the card in front of them with the letter of their choice on top.  Using the app, the teacher scans the room, and the app records the responses on a graph.  The scanning takes seconds, and the teacher can see with a glance who understands the concept or feels a certain way about any multiple choice question.

For a free service, this is a pretty slick little app. It does not have all of the options that you will find in Socrative, but it certainly beats having your students do the old “thumbs up, thumbs down” response to help you get a feel for their understanding of a topic.  And, it requires only one piece of technology. (Unless you want to count the printer used for the bar codes and the laminator you will probably want to utilize if you plan to use these on a regular basis.)

I tried this with my 4th grade class yesterday, and they loved it!  Some of them are already planning to incorporate it into their Genius Hour presentations – along with the Free Game Show Soundboard app that I threw in just to make things even more exciting.

I’m not a big fan of using multiple choice questions frequently, but Plickers doesn’t have to be used just to quiz students on facts.  You can have the students rate their feelings about something or vote quickly with their cards, too.  Plickers are a great, inexpensive way to give students another alternative for showing what they know.

Sample Plickers Card
Sample Plickers Card

Check for Understanding

In this blog post by Kathleen Perret on “Learning is Growing”, she gives a list of great ideas for informally assessing the learning of your students.  These are quick techniques to use at the end of a lesson just to check if your intended message got across.  Although I have used some of these, there are a few new ideas that I think would be well-worth trying – such as “Chalkboard Champs” or “Rock, Paper Scissors”.