Thursday, January 10, 2013

Saving time to increase learning? (Part 1)

Let's all agree that teaching in 2013 is incredibly challenging and difficult. It requires consistent patience and effort. It feels like change is constant and that the requirements of our job continue to be piled on top of us.  Each teacher wears multiple hats during the day and despite the heroic efforts of most teachers, the profession is under attack.  There never seems to be enough hours in the day to accomplish what we want to accomplish. There is never enough time to make the parent contacts, plan engaging lessons,  provide meaningful feedback to our students on top of all of the other things we need to do to help make our schools run well.  Many of us have uttered the phrase "I just want to be able to close my door and do what I thought I  was hired to do: teach kids."

No one is going to dispute the lack of time and the immense energies required to be an effective educator these days. But what if many of the choices we make add to our misery? What if our choices actually add to our lack of time?  Three of the most common "time killers" are grading/assessing, photocopying, and communicating with others. If we are willing to reflect and address some of these issues, it's amazing how much time we can get back into our days ( and restore a sense of sanity).

In this first post,  let's look at grading or assessing students. One of the biggest misconceptions about assessing students is that we must "record" all of the information we  learn  about students in a gradebook (no matter what iteration or form it comes in) . But not every piece of information we have about what students know and can do is "recordable", at least not in a traditional way.  Technology affords us plenty of options. As more and more of us have mobile devices, we can use our cell phones, tablets, and laptops to record informal and formal conferences. We can take photographs of student work. We can video record student performance.  And we can do almost all of this without any additional time. Simply hit "record" or snap the picture. The evidence is there for us when we need to help students move closer towards proficiency.  It's there when a parent wants to better understand their child's strengths and weaknesses as a learner.

More importantly, shouldn't we shift the burden of responsibility to students themselves? Students can be recording their evidence and providing transparent feedback, making their thinking visible. Students can be organizing and categorizing and tracking and developing what they need to learn and grow.  Students can be creating their own digital portfolio's through google sites or a wiki or countless digital tools that are readily accessible to us and our students.  Students can be leading conferences with their parents, showing off their learning journeys. Rather than take the ownership of "assessing", perhaps we need to invite students into the equation much more often.

In the age of increased technological access, we can use classroom clickers, google forms or other online surveys, and a multitude of other digital tools that provide visible feedback of what students know, allowing us to move them towards application and other higher thinking opportunities.  Use SMART Response clickers to quiz, google forms as  tickets in/out, poll everywhere style quick checks in the middle of the class. All of them allow you to take the temperature of your class and each student and allow you to adapt as needed. If you let the technology do the scoring, it affords you time to support students and determine a personalized path to proficiency.

What about those pesky research papers, the ones where 150 of them come in all at once and you spend all weekend grading them? What if you used google docs and provided feedback throughout the writing process?  Students never have to "submit" anything to you nor do they have to wait for you to hand it back to them.  You can provide meaningful feedback throughout the process which ensures that when the finished product is ready for publishing, it has most likely met proficiency towards the learning targets and focus correction areas.  Perhaps it is just my personal preference, but a little bit of feedback each night is much more preferable to the 10 hours over the weekend. Not to mention, students are more likely to use and learn from your feedback in the formative stages.

Certainly, the critics among us will state that there is not enough consistent and reliable access to hardware, but this is becoming less and less of an excuse.  Others will mention that they don't have time (there it is again) to learn how to use all this stuff with everything else that's going on around them. Each of us must decide whether we are willing to give a little time learning to claim much more time back supporting students.

When I reflect on my past teaching practices, I realize that I made a lot of choices  that actually added work and time to the fixed amount of time I had both in and out of school.  Learning to use clickers, google docs and forms, poll everywhere, and recording student work while it was ongoing all gave me time back to focus on other more important things. Giving students ownership and some control as well as time (there it is again) to reflect also gave us a lot more time in the end as well. What worked for me isn't the be all-end all. I'm sure there are hundreds of time saving  assessment/grading tips out there and I'd love for you to share them.

What other assessment strategies have you used, (whether technology driven or not)that can help us to save time while increasing opportunities for student learning?

Next up: How do we save time and increase student learning by eliminating photocopying.


  1. You've got me thinking... especially about stretching my concept of assessment evidence and shifting some of the responsibility for assessment to the students... I'm dusting off the cameras and Flip Video...

  2. Taking a bit of time to learn how to save ourselves time. So true.