The Key to Improvement is Reflection

Like all you first-year teachers out there, I am wrapping up my very first school year. I started writing for the Gradeable blog back in September of 2013 and it’s been a whirlwind of researching pedagogy, learning my audience of educators, and keeping on a schedule. More often than not, taking a good, hard look at my work took a backseat to keeping up with a blog. Sometimes, I felt like I was losing the forest for the trees. Perhaps you can relate.

reflection for improvement

The key to improvement is in our backlog

As the school year winds down, I have more time to clean up the blog, assess areas for improvement, and gear up for the next school year—just like you are probably doing before September rolls around.  Some of it is fun—revisiting pieces I forgot about. Some of it makes me cringe—like finding posts without pictures. Most of it is tedious—going back to make sure everything is organized. Although it would be much easier to leave this year behind, charge forward, and focus on next year, improvement starts by making sense of what’s behind us.

So it’s the end of the year. You’re surrounded by extra copies of assignments long past, old projects students never took home, lost homework that suddenly reappeared. If you’re like me, you have an overwhelming urge to file everything in the circular bin and start anew. However, we all know that in that mound of work lies a primary resource for improving your craft. According to educational theorist David Kolb, “reflection plays an important major role in the transformation of experience into knowledge.” [sic] The key to improvement is in our backlog.

To be effective, reflection for improvement must be deliberate. I’m not just rereading my blogs to reminisce about blogging days gone by—I’m analyzing my efforts to see how we can pivot to create better content, to increase reader engagement, and to organize more logically. For example, one thing on my agenda is to comb through all our blog posts to make sure they are labeled consistently. I’m making sure all the exit ticket posts are tagged “exit tickets” and “formative assessment example“. That way, at the end of next year, I can avoid manually re-labeling everything. By looking back on the things I did and adjusting accordingly, I set our team up for success the next time around.

Some questions to ask yourself

Reflection of a school year starts with the syllabus or your lesson plans. Dig up those bad boys (or girls) and match up your original plan with how you executed it. The University of California, Berkeley has some pretty good reflection questions to start with:

  • What worked well in this class, and why? What didn’t, and why?
  • Where did the students seem to have difficulties?
  • Were there any noticeable points where the students seemed very engaged with the material?
  • What types of things may need greater clarification the next time?
  • Were there any particular pedagogical strategies that seemed to work well?
  • What will I change the next time I teach this topic?

Of course reflection is unique to each teacher and each lesson plan, but the idea is the same:  analytical reflection helps us act instead of react. Next time around, what will you do differently based on what you’ve learned?

We’ll be spending our summer months talking about strategies and philosophies around reflection for improvement. Got ideas to share? We’d love to hear them because we’re really excited about this topic so comment below! Wondering how to streamline the reflection process in your classroom? Learn more at www.gradeable.com.

Bonus for the engineers out there: Doesn’t all this feedback talk make you think of control systems and feedback loops! =D

Double bonus for people interested in control systems: “Feedback loops take the system output into consideration, which enables the system to adjust its performance to meet a desired output response.


Video: Why is Data Important?

On March 6, we held a panel for our Assessment Debate. Three experts came in to discuss the finer points of assessments: low-stakes, high-stakes, and alternative forms of measuring student learning. Here are the key take-aways from the “Why is Data Important?” cut:

  1. Determine what the data is telling you, then decide how you will use that data.
  2. Data must be timely.
  3. Frame the data in a larger context. Don’t get too focused on one question or one standard.
  4. Having student data is nice, but teachers need time and support to do something with it.

Read full transcript below, or check out all videos from the Assessment Debate.

Kattie: Alexis, in your work as a coach at the Achievement Network (ANet) using data and interim data, do you have any strategies, or tips and tricks that you can give to teachers out there on how to better use this data and better leverage it in their classroom?

Alexis Rosenblatt, ANet: Sure, I think you have to figure out what that data is telling you. So are you looking at that data to see what you’ve taught and what students have learned? Are you looking at the data to decide whether or not you understood… I mean there is a movement in the country around the Common Core State Standards which have been here for a little while, but I think is actually settling into schools now, and the schools that I work with, so you have to decide, am I looking at something I haven’t taught yet and the students are actually showing some mastery on something so they have some of those skills coming into the classroom so I can leverage when I teach this topic?

But I think you can’t do everything. So if I have an assessment that has 30 or 40 items on it, I have to stop and decide, what am I gonna tease out that I can do tomorrow? What do I need to do long term? What is fitting with the curriculum that is in somebody else’s classroom—that maybe, “Oh look this fits really nicely in science,” or “I’d love for history teachers to be teaching more informational nonfiction text. Let me connect with my peers around this.” So sort of trying to figure out what is the data telling you. And you can’t do everything, so to figure out how to not be overwhelmed by too much data.

Jonathan Ketchell, HSTRY: No exactly, I think that’s one of the problems I’ve encountered throughout my teaching career is teachers never have time… we just never have time for anything, unfortunately, but I think that’s why the digital age is actually gonna be beneficial to everyone. We’re actually gonna create—hopefully through the work that Gradeable is doing—we’re gonna create more time so teachers can collaborate and better their classes, clearly.

Alexis: I think that the idea of getting data in real time, or very quickly, is important so—no offense to the MCAS—but taking an assessment in March and getting data in September or October, there’s so little action you can take on that in terms of those students. So the more actionable the data is I just think the better, and timely is awesome… either in real time or a short amount of time.

Jennifer Spencer, MATCH Charter High School: I think also teachers have a tendency, when they get the data, to hone in too deeply on each individual item as well. So looking at why a student got one particular question wrong and then drilling that kind of question over and over and over again with students, rather than looking at the bigger picture about what kinds of errors the student made on that particular questions. I’ve seen that a few time where the teachers that I’ve worked with have said, “Oh well we need to do this kind of question , we need to make sure the students understand this question better” and that are kind of… I think i’m gonna use the word flummoxed… is that…

Alexis: Mmhmm, that’s a word.

Jennifer: …about why they are still not doing so well on that particular standard on the next assessment with a different item. And so I think in terms of the moving target aspect, teachers try to steady that target by nailing down that one particular assessment item rather than looking at the bigger picture, as Alexis said, the idea of it being one tool, looking at the data, what does the data exactly show? That’s why it’s important to have someone who is not the teacher helping to frame the data in the greater context.

Alexis: But I think just to [Jonathan’s] point before about time: yes, you want the data to be timely, and then you want the actual space and support to do something with it. So getting data but then having no opportunity to collaborate with your peers or to sit down even on your own and try to do this—I think there needs to be actually time for teachers to then look at, and plan, from the data.


Professional Development MOOCs for Teachers

moocs for teachers

About a year ago, Coursera, a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) platform, announced that they would be offering free professional development courses for teachers; there would be a $50 fee for verified certifications. According to Andrew Ng, the co-founder of Coursera, offering online professional development opens up more choices for districts that may not have the funds to provide teacher training.

While there are plenty of MOOCs out there for teachers, we are featuring Coursera’s offerings because they are free and among the frontrunners of the MOOC game. It’s true that MOOCs aren’t for everyone, it is the age of “you can learn anything online” so it’s worth it to see what’s out there.

Surviving Your Rookie Year of Teaching

This course is for first-year teachers who are looking for some help in their rookie year. This MOOC breaks down into four sessions: (1) big picture, focusing on the variables that shape instruction to what goes into decisions about instruction, (2) classroom management, focusing on consistency and response to disruptions and classroom behavior, (3) ratio, or how to get student to participate and think at a high level every day, and (4) relationships, focusing on communications with parents.

E-Learning and Digital Cultures

This course focuses on our (human) relationship with technology. A relationship that Jeremy Knox, the instructor of this course, says is “often viewed with optimism and pessimism in equal measure.” Knox aims to explore how digital cultures intersect with online learning cultures. As the title suggests, this MOOC is about how to view e-learning through digital cultures as teachers and learners.

Emerging Trends & Technology in the Virtual K-12 Classroom

Again, as the title suggest, this MOOC covers the emerging trends in technology as they relate to the K-12 classroom. Topics covered in this course: (1) the role of technology in the virtual classroom, and selecting the technologies right for you, (2) social learning, (3) game-based learning, badging, and augmented reality, and (4) utilizing open-source content.

Common Core Math and Formative Assessment

We couldn’t not give this one on formative assessments a shout. This MOOC deals with strategies to support students as they struggle with and persevere through math concepts. It also offers tips on how to teach students to communicate reasoning and critique the reasoning of others.

Brain-Targeted Teaching

Probably the most interesting teacher-oriented Coursera MOOC we came across was the one on Brain-targeted teaching. This course, offered by Johns Hopkins School of Education, aims to leverage neuro- and cognitive sciences for more effective teaching with the Brain-Targeted Teaching® Model (BTT). The model’s driving them is “the integration of the arts to foster retention of new information, conceptual development, and higher-order thinking and creative problem-solving.”

Have you had success with a MOOC for professional development? If so, which ones? And what did you like about them? If not, what happened? What would you have liked to see?


A Rap on Formative Assessments and Feedback

formative assessment feedback

Hey I’m here to talk
about the formative assessment.
Have you heard
about this worthwhile investment?

Formative assessments are
informal checks along the way.
Teachers use them
to make sure students don’t stray.

According to John Hattie,
feedback drives student achievement.
They are actionable steps
that students say are heaven-sent!

Some people confuse
feedback with advice.
Simply saying “try harder!”
is about as helpful as head lice.

In addition to being actionable,
feedback must be timely.
If you’re giving ways to improve after the test,
Students may as well be learning blindly.

Be sure not to confuse
feedback with evaluation.
“Good job” and letter grades
are not passports to the formative nation.

Students get engaged when
given goal-oriented information.
They are more likely
to use their imagination.

Don’t rely solely on
assessments that are summative.
One big test to measure
student learning is definitely doom-ative.

So who’s ready to start
giving feedback?
Students want to know
that you have their back!

Find out more about how we’ve got your back at www.gradeable.com.


Highlights from the Third Gradeable Social

(L to R) Jonathan Ketchell, Alexis Rosenblatt, Jennifer Spencer

(L to R) Jonathan Ketchell, Alexis Rosenblatt, Jennifer Spencer

Our third Gradeable Social featuring an assessment debate was a success. Our three panelists (Alexis Rosenblatt of ANET, Jennifer Spencer of Match Charter High School, and Jonathan Ketchell of Hstry) fielded questions all about high-stakes, low-stakes, and alternative assessments. For video of the debate, check out our YouTube playlist. Meanwhile, here are some highlights:

Q: Some say that high stakes, standardized testing is inaccurate because students are “moving targets,” especially on test days. What is your take on that?

Q: How do you feel about “teaching to the test?” What role does creativity have in the realm of test prep?

Q: There are some added hidden benefit to authentic assessments. At the end of the day, how does this help with your big goal of helping students?

Q: Why is data important?

Q: Aren’t these pictures great?

third gradeable social

Party like an education enthusiast!

mikaila spence rowe

Mikaila chats it up with some terrific teachers… like Mr. Rowe!

ANET's Alexis talks to our friend from Listen Edition

ANET’s Alexis talks to our friend Karen from Listen Edition

Kattie hangs with our old friend Lillie and our new little friend

Kattie hangs with our old friend Lillie and our new little friend

Like what you see? Well there’s plenty more in the videos of our debate. Hope to see you next time! 


Friday Bulletin Board

Red was overwhelmed by the test talk...

Red was overwhelmed by the test talk…

The new SAT

The College Board announced major changes to the SAT, and most notably, changes to the writing portion. Some of the most prominent changes:

The writing test will be optional. Currently, even though many colleges ignore writing test scores, all students must take the writing portion of the test.

Vocabulary words will eliminate “sometimes obscure” language that has been dominant and will be replaced by words “that are widely used” in college and the work place. In testing of words, the College Board will stress those for which meaning depends on context.

Print and digital versions of the SAT will be offered; currently the test is paper only.

A successful assessment discussion

We had our Gradeable Social all about assessments. Our three panelists (Alexis Rosenblatt of ANET, Jennifer Spencer of Match Charter High School, and Jonathan Ketchell of Hstry) fielded questions all about high-stakes, low-stakes, and alternative assessments. Here are some highlights:

LL Cool J’s still got it

In 2010, an amazing thing happened on YouTube, and that is, theelectriccompany uploaded a music video of LL Cool J rapping about punctuation. Because when you see a punctuation mark, you have to know what to do! You’re welcome.

Have a great weekend, folks!


The Case for Low-Stakes Assessments

low stakes formative assessments

Low-stakes assessments are our favorite way to keep up with the real-time progress of your students. But that word—assessments—triggers a complex in every student, educator, and teacher’s brain. Assessments, tests, evaluations… judgment. Low-stakes assessments, like formative assessments, aren’t meant to be scary or judgmental. In fact, this brand of assessment is something you probably do on a daily basis without breaking a sweat. They include exit tickets, homework, asking for head nods—anything that checks in with the students about their knowledge. The beauty of low-stakes assessments is that they are low-stakes. Non-threatening. Sans-punishment.

Formative assessments like do-nows and exit tickets are based on feedback as a way to drive learning. As Paul Bambrick-Santoyo says in his book Driven by Data, “Assessments are not the end of the teaching and learning process; they’re the starting point.” Instead of finding out that a student didn’t grasp a concept when they get to the big test, teachers can catch the misunderstanding early and pivot students to the right direction. The key using frequent, low-stakes assessments. It’s like going to the doctor for regular checkups instead of waiting until you’re pretty sure you have a kidney infection.

Knowing that a student doesn’t understand a concept while it’s still being taught allows teachers to adjust their reteaching appropriately. To make formative assessments formative, feedback must be done in a timely fashion. Returning homework after students take the big test is not helpful for anyone. The beauty of formative assessment is that it’s the teacher, not just the student, who is getting feedback on what’s working.

Susan Brookhart, in her book How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, says, “Feedback needs to come while students are still mindful of the topic, assignment, or performance in question. It needs to come when they still think of the learning goal as a learning goal… that is, something they are still driving for, not something they already did. It especially needs to come when they still have reason to work on the learning target. Feedback about a topic they won’t have to deal with again all year will strike students as pointless.”

Not only do low-stakes assessments give prescriptive, real-time insight, the feedback that goes with it can engage students. “Once students understand what they need to do and why, most students develop a feeling that they have control over their learning,” Brookhart writes. Students begin to take ownership of their learning process once they have an idea of the bigger picture and understand the doable steps for improvement. Simply put, a good feedback loop helps lessons gain traction with students.

A negative part of low-stakes assessments is that they must be done frequently to be effective. And for anyone who has a large Excel file of grades, you know how tedious it is to keep track of all those grades, concepts, and suggestions. But the saving grace of a formative assessment teaching strategy is that the benefits far outweigh the work that goes in, especially when there are tools out there to ease the process.

Another counterargument to low-stakes assessments come from those who fear the “Big Brother” effect. As we collect more information on our students, who gets to see all that data? Right now, laws are being passed to protect student information from corporate interests. The perception is that ed-tech is an $8 billion industry is foaming at the mouth to get their hands on student information. We’ll be discussing more on that perception next month.

Still, we at Gradeable are completely behind the formative lifestyle. On Wednesday, a blog post by Kattie will go over the different types of feedback. On March 6, we’re hosting our third Gradeable Social that will serve as an assessment support group of sorts. We’ll be gathering once again to talk shop on education best practices, so sign up here. Gradeable users get in free, so email bon@gradeable.com if you need a promo code.

Ready to get formative and the glorious data-driven instruction that comes with us? Come see us at www.gradeable.com to learn more.