Among the many things students are expected to do, self-assessing their learning is part of the suite of metacognitive tools that are valued in today’s society. This skill enables the student to think about their thinking, identify what they're doing well and what needs improvement. Self-assessment takes practice, and when it comes to schoolwork, students are not given enough opportunities.
“I would argue in most classrooms, it’s the teacher doing the lion's share of the work,” said Catlin Tucker, a high school English teacher and consultant at the fall CUE conference of educators. “And the person doing the work in the classroom is the person doing the learning. So why would we rob our students of the opportunity to learn?”
Tucker realized that in her earnest desire to be a better teacher to her students, she’d accidentally taken on too much of the learning responsibility.
“I would constantly ask myself, how can I (fill in the blank)? How can I get students writing more? How can I communicate with parents more? How can I build more projects into my curriculum?” But the frame for every one of these questions puts the onus for change on the teacher. “So every time I was tempted to say, how can I, I would stop, take a breath, reframe and ask, how can my students … How can my students communicate with their parents more?”
Tucker urged teachers to give students more agency over their learning, in the process making it more meaningful and curbing teacher burnout. She spent years giving grades and feedback on student assignments. Students would, at best, glance at the grade and then drop the assignment into the recycling bin. Feedback at the end of a project didn’t improve students’ skills because she hadn’t given them an opportunity to apply it immediately and on something that mattered to them.
“It wasn’t really moving the needle in terms of their skill set,” said Tucker. “And I recognized that instead of putting 90 percent of my energy into assessing and giving feedback on a finished product, I need to put that 90 percent of my energy into giving them feedback as they work.”
She found that when students get feedback as part of the process of completing an assignment, it gives kids the opportunity to revise their work. The feedback process mans that students must be in constant communication with Tucker about their work. This is in addition to keeping track of what they think they’ve learned through post-lesson reflection tools like learning logs and sketchnotes.
Grades Are a Journey in Tucker’s Class
Tucker, who is an instructional coach and the author of several books on blended learning, applied these strategies to a program at Windsor High School when she was a teacher there. Several life changes — like a fire that burned down her home in 2017 and the ensuing 70-minute commute created by the disruption — mean she isn’t teaching in the classroom anymore. Instead, she works as an instructional coach in Northern California, a role that has given her broader insight into what teachers of all grades are doing.
As she travels to different schools, she’s been surprised and uncomfortable to see how much work teachers are marking. She’s noticed a fear among teachers that if there’s no grade attached to an assignment, then students won’t do it.
She advises teachers to select the standards the class is supposed to zero in on for that unit and focus on improving those outcomes. That requires giving students opportunities to try, get feedback and revise. Along the way, students see their progress on the target skill. And, kids don’t have to worry about something like sentence structure when they’re supposed to be learning about argumentative claims. Having too much at once can do more harm than good.
She also encourages teachers to involve students in a meaningful way in the final grade. Some students might go their entire lives without contesting a grade. Fighting for every point is often the domain of overzealous parents who are worried about their child’s chances of getting into the “right” college. But when teachers explain the grading rubric to students, it makes grading more transparent. When students know exactly what they’re being graded on, they not only know where to focus their efforts, but they can also better advocate for themselves if they don’t receive the mark they wanted.
“It puts them in the driver's seat and gives them agency in relation to their grades, which is a powerful, powerful motivator,” Tucker said. “It also gets them comfortable advocating for themselves as learners. And if they have embraced meta cognitive routines, they can actually talk about their progress as learners in a dynamic way.”
At Windsor High, Tucker gave students the rubric and an exemplar text. After they submitted the assignment, she graded the student as they were seated right next to her. The grading became a discussion instead of something the teacher took home with her after school. If the student wasn’t satisfied with their grade, they could ask for a three-minute grading interview with Tucker. In the grading interview, students presented arguments and evidence for why they deserved a different grade. If Tucker disagreed, she would counter with evidence of her own. Students always got the chance to offer a rebuttal. The grades didn’t always change, but no one could claim they hadn’t been heard or didn’t know why they had gotten the grade.
“If it's worth grading, it’s worth doing with the kid right next to you,” she said. “For a lot of kids, the grading process is very mysterious and opaque.”
The Bigger Picture
Tucker acknowledges that changing assessment practices in her Windsor High classroom inevitably led to bigger changes to how she structured class. She transformed the time spent in class into a flipped, blended learning environment. Students did readings or viewed videos at home and then used class time for group work to sit with the teacher or do activities that are part of a station rotation model.
“To create that space and time to sit next to kids, to give them feedback and assess their work, we have to start thinking strategically about the way we design lessons," she said.
She recommends having a rotation design where students can move between online and offline activities. Students might also collaborate on activities while the teacher hosts conferences with individual students. Tucker used Google Docs to give feedback and keep track of revisions.
In the process of helping students assess their own work and advocate for themselves, Tucker realized they also needed to take ownership of communication with their parents about schoolwork. She said it’s unrealistic for one teacher to communicate effectively about learning with 150 families each semester. In that scenario, teachers often communicate only when something is wrong. Tucker decided students should share their progress, or lack thereof, with their families, so she created a template to guide students when emailing their parents.
Dear Mom and Dad,
In English we are working on (name of assignment). I’m supposed to be (target for class). Currently, I’m (state progress) and then my plan for catching up is (action plan, completion dates).
Love, Your child
In her CUE talk, Tucker said parents write back to their child and often cc the teacher to keep her in the communication loop.
“Prioritize student agency in your lessons and in your grading process and see your students as true partners,” Tucker said.