Shifting to new grading

A colleague of mine showed me one of her old gradebooks from a decade or so ago, and I’m restructuring how I go about grading as a result.  My school already has four “metacategories” which inform our comment-writing process, by dividing student work along social-emotional development, cognitive growth, academic behaviors, and personal attitude toward learning.

My colleague showed me that by using these themes as my grading structure, I could more immediately evaluate students.  Rather than grade by percentages, I could structure my responses to individual assignments by examining whether they were learning from mistakes on earlier work; and I could build a gradebook that also included space for commentary about their work, and their reflection on what they were learning.

I’m not really sure how I’m going to go about assigning kids an A+ or a C- or an F based on this structure yet, but I really LIKE what I’m seeing as I add information to this paper database.  I’m ranking kids on what I see their growth pattern like, and I have my own notes in my own handwriting that present a different picture of kids.  And the boxes are giving way to flexible spaces, some for comments and some for numbers.  It’s looking good.

I also feel like these grades are going to spark much more discussion in class.  It’s harder for a kid to say, “Oh, I’m getting an A right now, so I don’t have to speak up.”  It’s not clear that many kids understand that I’m using their class participation as a way of judging their cognitive development — that I’m trying to assess an internal, private mental process using their public statements… but that I’m also trying to understand the difference between their enthusiasm, and over-sharing for the sake of overwhelming Mr. Watt’s processing capabilities.

How do you capture all of that in a tiny little box?

You don’t. Which is why this gradebook is in a sketchbook.  The box for each kid is about a half-inch tall, and the ‘boxes’ after their names range from an 1/8″ “lancet” for putting a 1-6 in, to two-inch long “picture windows” for substantive comments attached to a date.

Why 1-6?

Here’s my thinking there.  A

  1. doesn’t contribute to my understanding of this child
  2. work that’s off topic, vague or incomplete
  3. “phoned in” — did the work to be done with it, not to make appreciable gains
  4. Solid work, not genuinely bad, but not top of their game.
  5. High quality work, top-notch effort, put it all right there.
  6. This particular kid’s “I get this, and I get it so much I’m going to show off.” A serious advance from what this kid could do before.

It’s a lot more subjective than a formal “percentage average” system, I suppose, but now I’m looking for evidence of cognitive development, and social learning, and trying to encapsulate it both in quick comments, and in numerical spot-checks.  There’s a double-tap system now in place on paper.

Oh, yeah.  Did I mention I’m going back to paper? It turns out that paper is much more versatile than a typical grading program.  With a grade program, it’s hard to decide how to assess individual assignments. Is this one going to be 20 points, or 100? Is it a major grade in this category, or that one?  I feel like I suddenly have much more freedom and flexibility.  I can see a story emerging in my analysis of materials, and I like that.

More on this as it develops.

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  1. I am from the era of paper, before sticky notes even! Can you even imagine a world without sticky notes!? I like paper, I understand paper, I used a LOT of paper. That said, I also really like Excel for most database applications including subjective ones, because you can set Excel up to capture almost everything a paper database can (it’s late, I can’t think of anything right now that you can’t capture in an Excel database that you can on paper, except maybe a sketch and I suspect you could capture that too, but surely there’s something it won’t do.) The good thing about putting so much varied info into Excel is that you can format and manipulate and add to your subjective information and later you can add numbers if you want to quantify so you can do pretty graphs and the like, if you like. Plus you can do a “mail merge” and produce reports from your Excel database if you like, a progress report for each student featuring your new info with just a few keystrokes, comes to mind.

    Most people think Excel=spreadsheets/numbers only, but that’s way more limited than Excel is. I did all my study notes and resources for Chinese Med School in Excel, for instance. Not a use most people might think of for a spreadsheet, but it was fantastic!

    Just a thought… It’s far easier to use Excel in the beginning than to enter into it later when you’ve got so much paper-captured info that it seems just not worth it.

    • Hi Christina,

      I’ve been using a digital grade book for years, and the big disadvantage of them is the timesuck. The mental drain of finding a place and time to work, booting the relevant program, and then doing data entry, regularly drove me crazy. I’m hoping that paper’s quickness will solve some of that.

      • Well, I have long argued that computers are not the be all, end all, that so many proponents claim and further that we humans have ended up being the servants of our computers rather than the other way around. There are so many otherwise deep-thinking adults that simply have never considered a different way because they are too young to remember a world before computers and therefore cannot easily imagine other ways to accomplish whatever task they are contemplating. What’s that old saying “If (you think that) all your tools are hammers (or computers), all your problems look like nails?” I hope you will remember to report back your results and thoughts when you have tried out your old-fashioned paper system for a few grading periods.

        • So far, I’m really pleased with the results of the experiment. Kids were asking how I planned to assess them, and I said that I was looking for a lot of combos that looked like 4-5-6, 4-4-4-5-6, 3-3-4-4-5-5-5-6… basically, evidence that they’re trying out new stuff and exploring possibilities rather than writing the same-old, same-old. I’m looking for evidence of experimentation, and willingness to fail, so that future success can emerge. We’ll see how it goes.

        • I love to hear about how your assessment of your students works and how it affects the overall learning process. And I would also like to know how your experience of shifting from digital to paper for this task goes for you over time. Things like: Advantages vs. disadvantages and if you stay with paper. If you stay with paper for this purpose, how does that affect other tasks in your life? If you go back to digital, why? I am a huge proponent of traditional tools for many tasks and it will be interesting to me to hear what you discover.

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