How the Heck Do You Grade Choice-Based Learning?

Note: This is the fourth post in a series on Project Based Learning. You can check out all of the other posts here.

My first full year of teaching was as an 8th grade Language Arts teacher. It was my dream job at the time. I love the energy of middle school students and I was still taller than most of them.

My situation was even better than expected because our MS teams had two language arts teachers and I taught three 85 minute blocks, instead of five 40 minute blocks. Although this was more “time” teaching, it was fewer students per class and fewer students for my entire course load. It helped in grading especially (think of how long it takes to grade 130 paper versus 65 papers)

An added benefit that I did not see coming into the school year was how much extra time it would allow for me to understand and get to know my students. When you spend 80 minutes a day for 180 days you really get to know someone. I think of the connections elementary teachers can make with their students and know this bond is even stronger.

Mid-way through the school year, one of my students asked me if I’d share some of my own writing with them. I actually couldn’t believe I had not done this yet. I had shared “examples” of papers that I crafted, but although these were original, they weren’t authentic to the type of learning that I often did.

I told them I’d read something I wrote the next day, and it seemed like my students were more excited than they ever had been before, which is odd because we did a lot of fun activities throughout the school year.

That night I took out a memoir-type piece I had recently written about a friend passing away and how it changed my outlook on life. I wondered if this was “too heavy” for my 8th-grade students and then remembered that we all deal with loss and hopefully this could show how I grew since this tough time.

As I read aloud the memoir, “Three Bands on My Wrist”, to my students they sat and listened quietly. There was no technology involved. There was no particular instructional strategy being employed. It was just me, my words, and their attention.

After I finished they wanted to write their own memoirs and we began that same class period.

I can honestly say that some of their writing that week was the most inspired I have seen in all my years teaching. And it was their choice.

The next year I moved up to the HS English department, and two years later I was teaching 10th grade English to many of the exact same students I had in 8th grade.

When they came into class I knew each student extremely well. I knew their background, family situations, interests, and learning tendencies. I was a bit more challenging as a 10th-grade teacher and that ruffled some feathers early on, but after that, we were able to get into some high-level types of activities because relationships were already built.

However, I did have one problem. Although I knew them personally, I was unable to see how much they had grown as learners over the past year. I had kept a few papers from that 8th-grade year, but not enough for every student. When I inquired with the 9th-grade teachers the problem was not resolved. There was no student work to look at.

This was another lightbulb moment in my young teaching career. Because we often start “fresh” with students we have never taught before, we tend to want to make our own judgments on their abilities from the first few assignments and assessments. It’s from those first glances that we base our opinion and pedagogical strategies on.

Yet, with this group, I had taught them a year and a half ago. I knew them and what they could do, but wasn’t able to see growth in the past year.

That is when we made the decision to start digital portfolios in all of my classes. I haven’t stopped this practice since then, and highly recommend it not only for teachers but for entire departments and schools. It adds true choice to the assessment process.

Here’s why.

What Can Students Do? The Portfolio Journey

We always want to know what our students understand and are able to do/apply. The problem is a multiple choice assessment rarely ever provides that information. Yet, these types of assessments are easy to grade, easy to distribute, and easy to re-use year after year with various tweaks. It is why many standardized assessments are multiple-choice and why the SAT and ACT use this model for most of their questions.

What’s worse, is that the idea of “data-driven” instruction is based on these various multiple-choice assessments and what they say about our students’ abilities.

What kind of learning do these assessments promote?

  1. Regurgitation and memorizing facts from study guides or stories
  2. Only one right answer mentality
  3. Rewards smart guessing and “playing the game”
  4. Answers have to be “in your head”

The list could go on. As a former teacher who gave multiple-choice tests, and an SAT Tutor for years who taught students how to take these tests, I’m embarrassed to say I once tied rigor and tough multiple-choice questions to deep learning.

I saw firsthand when I had that group of 8th-grade students again in 10th grade, what kind of information I can get from different forms of assessments. I was able to see how they did on standardized and district level assessments, but unless their scores were off the charts (high or low) it didn’t give me much info on what kind of learner they were or what kind of work they could produce.

What I can see by looking at student work is much different. A student portfolio shows me the following:

  1. What the assignment/activity/assessment was and how the student approached it.
  2. What kinds of personal experiences and biases they brought towards the assignment.
  3. How well they demonstrated an understanding of the content.
  4. How well they demonstrated their skill ability.
  5. Usually some kind of reflection or metacognitive piece on what they did.
  6. If they improved or not with the next piece in the portfolio…

The answer is obvious.

In fact, it’s not only what every teacher wants to see from their former students, but it also makes it much easier to assess the growth of a student over the course of a semester or full year class versus how much a final test or culminating project would show.

Portfolios helped me visually see where my students were struggling and where they were exceeding my expectations. Portfolios also allowed for student choice in the assessment process, which as we know lead to student engagement and ownership of their learning.

Choice in Demonstrating Ability and Understanding

Because we love multiple-choice so much, let’s take a quick quiz:

A student is trying to demonstrate their understanding of the rise and fall of Napoleon. In order to show what they know about this historic time period and the reasons behind Napoleon’s rise and fall, they can be assessed through which activity:

  1. Writing a five-paragraph essay on the rise and fall of Napoleon
  2. Creating an infographic on the rise and fall of Napoleon
  3. Creating a political cartoon and rationale on the rise and fall of Napoleon
  4. Creating a five-minute mini-documentary on the rise and fall of Napoleon
  5. Creating a fictional Serial-like podcast of interviews with key players in Napoleon’s life
  6. All of the above

Don’t you just love the “all of the above” option!

In any one of the above options, you could assess a student’s understanding of the topic/situation and their ability to demonstrate the appropriate skill.

What’s different about this scenario, is the choice provided to students allows them to “engage” in the material and claim some ownership over the assessment activity.

A Step-by-Step Process to Creating Choice Based Assessments

If you are not familiar with the “Understanding by Design” framework, I highly recommend checking out this book by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. In UbD (as it is commonly referred) you use the backwards design process to create units.

For our purposes, this is extremely important. We want to create the assessment first, and then backwards design the Unit so that the content and activities students are doing matches the skills and standards covered on the assessment(s).

The first step is choosing your Unit (this is most likely decided by your current curriculum).

The second step is choosing the skills you want your students to master and the applicable standards for the content and skills you are covering (hopefully this is also somewhat covered by your current curriculum).

For example, let’s say the unit is all about “historical figures” in your state/area. You have a set curriculum and text to read (often an informational text such as a textbook). This current example can be for 5th grade. Jump onto the standards website and search for applicable standards for 5th grade “Reading: Informational Text” to find this:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.1

Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.2

Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.3

Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

Step Three is now putting the pieces together for various assessments. The assessment must focus on similar content (historical figures), similar skills and standards (see the above three we will hit on), and have a similar rubric for grading.

Let’s talk about the rubric for a moment. Here’s where many teachers get stuck…and it takes a long time to create. And who has that much time!?

Lucky for all of us there are some very easy and efficient ways to create standards-based rubrics online. My favorite tool is essaytagger.com/commoncore.

It took me less than five minutes to create this sample rubric based on our example standards:

PBL Rubric

What’s nice about EssayTagger is the ability to personalize and change all of the categories above in the top row. The categories down the side are straight from the standards and skills we pulled for this unit.

Ask yourself after creating the rubric, “Can this work for various types of assessments for this unit?”

If the answer is “Yes”, then you’ve got a rubric to work with. If the answer is still “No” you’ll either have to create a new rubric or revisit Step #2 for some clarity.

Step four is allowing your students to choose their preferred assessment or create their own assessment. As we discussed in my last article, choice empowers students and engages them in the material.

I used to have a bank of various assessment types that my students could look through and choose the assessment that best fit their personality, interests, and learning styles. However, over time more and more students started to use the first option on that list: Make your own assessment.

Some of the assessment ideas that came from students include:

  • “I want to make a Saturday Night Live parody skit around this topic, and poke fun at the way it was handled in a historical sense”
  • “I want to conduct an in-depth interview with the author, where my friend will play the role of the author, and we’ll get into a heated argument”
  • “I want to create a flip-book style comic to show the character’s story arc”

This list could go on. Students are much more creative in their assessment ideas than I ever could be!

Step five is conferencing with students on their plan. You’ll want to make sure students understand the following:

  • What the end-goal is for this assessment
  • How they are being assessed (look at the rubric together)
  • What the expectations are for their work
  • What a time-line looks like for their assessment
  • An action plan of how they are going to get it finished

This is one of the most important pieces of allowing choice in assessment. A traditional assessment dictates all of the terms listed above. You know when the test date is, what type of content is going to be on the test, how much each question is worth, when the study guide needs to be completed etc…

Here, the short conference serves as a guiding plan for completing the choice-based assessment, and demonstrating a high-level of understanding.

My students always felt better after this mini-conference because the goals, outcomes, and steps were clearly laid out in front of them, as well as how they would be ultimately assessed on their project.

Step six is digitizing the project and sharing it with the class and in their portfolio. Regardless of what assessment type students choose, they need to create a digital record of this assessment to put in their online portfolio. This is easy to do if the work was done on a digital device, but if it was not, you’ll need to take pictures (or video recordings) to upload to the portfolio.

Teachers ask me all the time what they should use for student digital portfolios. I’d first recommend using a platform that your school is already using (Google Apps for Education, Microsoft 365, or Apple options).

By starting out with a simple Google Drive (or SkyDrive) folder, you can eventually give the students a choice down the road of what platform they want to create their digital portfolio so they can share it with the world. Here is where students will make their own websites using WordPress.com, Weebly.com, Wix.com, Squarespace.com, and many more options.

Step seven is grading the assessment (teacher grade and student grade). A big piece of this type of assessment is to have students grade themselves using the rubric. They were fully aware (from the earlier conference) what was expected and how their work demonstrates understanding. The act of reflecting and grading themselves makes this all the more transparent.

After students grade themselves, I would look at the rubric and their assessment to see if I had different thoughts on what was demonstrated. Interestingly, most of my students were incredibly honest throughout this process and were harder on themselves than I might have been when grading them.

If the student’s grade and my grade were completely off base, then I would have another short conference to talk about expectations and outcomes for this assessment so we could get on the same page.

Step eight is actually assessing the portfolio itself. At the end of the unit, marking period, semester, or year, it’s important to assess the overall work of the student in their portfolio. Art teachers have been doing this for years, and more and more colleges are requesting to see real student work as part of the admission process.

To make a real word connection (and I sometimes hate that phrase), think of your students’ digital portfolios as the first steps in their academic resume, but also in crafting their personal brand.

The choices they make in what the create/make/do for assessments, will directly impact the choices they make in their career and life path. If they do not document this journey, then it will be hard to reflect on why they made choices and what they have learned along the way.

How do you assess project-based learning and choice-based assessments? Would love to hear in the comments!

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Jen Katrein says:

    I have been inspired for years by your work! Thank you for urging teachers to critically think about our practices. I would caution teachers who use rubric tools to be thoughtful about the center portion of the rubrics—in order for our expectations to be clearly articulated, we must define the criteria for each of the categories. In other words, what does “beginning” look like when quoting accurately in an inference? By setting clear outcomes and defining levels of proficiency/sharing strong & weak work samples, students approach assessments with a clear vision of expectations.

  • Steve McCrea says:

    EXCELLENT ADVICE: “By starting out with a simple Google Drive (or SkyDrive) folder, you can eventually give the students a choice down the road of what platform they want to create their digital portfolio so they can share it with the world. Here is where students will make their own websites using WordPress.com, Weebly.com, Wix.com, Squarespace.com, and many more options.”

    I found that the Google Sites software is a simple option. I’ve described the 11 steps at TINYURL.com/FWPstart for the Free Website Project. The design is based on High tech High in San Diego, where I learned from two students how they assemble their portfolios.

    Excellent article, AJ… helpful. Good points about the advantages of teaching fewer students more deeply. It reminds me of stories from Dennis Littky’s EDUCATION IS EVERYONE’S BUSINESS tinyURL.com/Littkychapter1 and tinyURL.com/Littkychapter4, plus the radio interview on NPR at tinyURL.com/LittkyRadio.

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