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Let Students Tell Us What They Know

The new equivalent to a pile of papers is an overstuffed inbox or disorganized Google Drive.

Dozens of untitled student google docs awaiting the gospel of a teacher's thoughts.

Perhaps more than the thoughts, a letter or a number that signifies achievement is what students have been trained to eagerly await. Their parents are waiting too.

But those letters and numbers are so subjective. What determines the true meaning or value of a C or a B or an A in terms of student learning?

What truly objective learning benchmarks are established with these symbols, especially if we, the teachers, not the learner are the ones assigning them somewhat arbitrarily?

So we shift to standards-based grading to make assessment a little less random. 

A system that uses the standards as the benchmark, teaching kids what the standards are, how to do them, offering them opportunities to practice them in different ways and then, against the standards, offer them feedback of their growth in their learning.

Throughout most grading practices, the most important person is the one who's mostly absent, the learner him or herself. It's our job, to teach students not only to be able to meet the standards by providing opportunities for them to show what they know but also to teach them to express the understanding in meaningful ways.

A solution to both the absentee learner and the messy inbox is allowing students to assess themselves. It's in this way, we can learn how the learner feels about his or her achievement based on the standards.

How can we do this, you might ask?

Start by teaching students to understand the standards inside and out. Let them annotate and reword them in a language they understand. Once they know the standards and can talk about them in a meaningful way, it's time to be transparently making connections.

When students participate in and out of class, whenever we ask them to practice a skill, we must explicitly make connections to the standards they are doing. Help them understand why they are doing the assignment and how the skills they are practicing are going to connect to other learning. Help them see the purpose until they are making the purpose themselves which is where we want them to end up.

Once students can connect their class learning to the standards and skills, we can ask students to develop assignments to allow them to choose how they show what they know. While they are working through the learning, they should be tracking their progress through reflection and other process writing.

Throughout the process, the teacher can be helping them, providing them feedback about their learning, both positive and constructive so they don't ever stray too far from where they need to be. Informal, but frequent conversations that help students learn one skill or correction at a time in a way they can adjust to readily.  

Students should track this progress. Although the teacher should maintain a log of the conversations somewhere, it is more effective for each child to be keeping track in their own notebooks, so they can set better goals as they go and have evidence to support their self-assessments later.

Once a task or unit or project has been completed, we can ask students to reflect and self assess based on what the assignment asked them to do. What do they think they deserve and more importantly, why? What evidence from their learning supports they are meeting or exceeding standards?

If students can answer these questions, then we can better help them continue to move forward in their own learning. Taking these reflections and self-assessments we can help students set meaningful and manageable goals for their next assignment. If they are exceeding standards, it's time to move on to the next one.

Teachers will have to do less direct grading but will know students better and these students will feel more empowered in the learning process and ultimately that's the goal.

How can you start to make a shift in your classroom to allow students to self-assess? 

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog Work in Progress in September of 2014

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