Improve Understanding with Video Feedback

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Last year I switched to a gradeless classroom, and one of my goals was to give students detailed feedback on their errors to help them better understand the material.  Unfortunately, my detailed feedback did not help all of my students. I found that there were some that did not understand my written feedback, but when I worked with them one-on-one and talked through the feedback, they were then able to make sense of their errors.  

In May of 2018, I came across the article Has Video Killed the Red Grading Pen by Daisy Yuhas on the Hechinger Report. This article talked about teachers recording a video of themselves giving written and verbal feedback to students on their work. I realized this is what I needed to do to help my students better understand my feedback.

In the summer, I searched YouTube to find a video that would show me how to build a stand for my iPad so that I can record the students’ paper and my voice while giving feedback.  I actually built two stands, one for home and one for school, and I was ready to go at the beginning of this school year.

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At the end of September I gave my first assessment, and I was excited to record the videos.  As expected, it took longer to record a video giving written and verbal feedback then it would have if I was just simply writing the feedback on the students’ paper, but I was hopeful that the extra work would pay off with better student understanding.

 

The following day at school, I signed out my school’s computer cart, and I had students bring their earbuds to class.  The students watched the videos on an online portfolio site called Seesaw.  Last year and again this year, I am using Seesaw to keep track of students’ assessments and self-assessments, and I am now taking advantage of the feature to upload videos to each student’s portfolio.

As I had hoped, the videos were a huge success!  I watched as some students stopped their videos and rewatched sections where they had made mistakes while others rewatched the entire video a few times.  After watching the video, students were given the opportunity to retake a similar assessment (retakes are an important part of my class). The results of the retakes showed that a majority of my students were able to use the videos to build stronger understanding of the material.

The feedback from the students has been very positive.  The most often heard comment was that it helped them better understand the mistakes they had made.  I spoke with a parent of one of my students who said that her daughter could easily explain to her what she did incorrectly after watching the video. The extra time was well worth it, and I am looking forward to learning more about how this type of feedback affects student learning and understanding over the course of the school year.

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My Journey to a Gradeless Classroom

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In the winter of 2012 I was approached by a professor from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to leave my math teaching job of 15 years and come to work with him on a grant he had just received to run an educational study.  Little did I know that this offer would set into motion an evolution of my approach to teaching that included transitioning to a gradeless classroom.

The educational study at WPI, set up as a randomized controlled trial and funded through the US Department of Education, was developed to determine if students receive immediate feedback on their math homework do they learn more throughout the course of the school year.  Teachers used a free, online program called ASSISTments to deliver their homework to their students.  The results of the study showed that students learn significantly more when receiving immediate feedback.  I learned many things from working on this study but nothing more significant than the importance of looking at education through the lense of research and feedback.  

As I was planning my return to the classroom in the winter and spring of 2017, I found myself doing as much reading as I could to learn the different ways to teach students more effectively.  While doing this research I came across Arthur Chiaravalli’s article “Teachers Going Gradeless” on Medium.  The first couple paragraphs cited two research studies which primed me to look more closely at the ideas in the post.  By the time I reached the end of the article I was convinced to go gradeless when I returned to the classroom.

I was, however, having difficulty figuring out how to make it work for me and my future students.  I read as much as I could about the subject, asked questions of those that were already gradeless, and watched videos of teachers conferencing with their students.  But it was Jo Boaler’s book “Mathematical Mindsets” that helped me put all of the pieces together.

Jo Boaler suggests in her book that teachers should rename assessments from tests and quizzes to “Show Me What You Can Do’s,” give constructive feedback to students on these assessments, and allow students multiple opportunities to show understanding of a topic.  She also stressed that homework shouldn’t be considered “work” but rather should be presented as a “Learning Opportunity” and that grading learning opportunities (homework), for completion or correctness, is not a fair way to show student understanding of the material.  In many cases it instead it shows a students ability to complete an assignment.  The ideas in the book clearly showed how I could frame my classroom completely around student understanding of the material presented.  Understanding became the organizing factor for all that I had learned over the previous months of reading and research.  I finally felt ready to go gradeless in my classroom.

I started the gradeless “experiment” with my students in the fall of 2017.  I found that I was nervous about giving up my gradebook. I was nervous about student motivation without grades.  I was nervous that I was trying to go gradeless in a school that still requires grades. I was nervous that going gradeless just wouldn’t work and I would have a revolt from the students and parents.  None of these things became issues. In fact, in all of my years of teaching, I don’t think that I have enjoyed myself more than this past year. There is no longer the stress of entering every assignment in a gradebook and students no longer ask me how much an assignment is worth or if I offer extra credit.  

Throughout the school year I constantly told my students “The goal is for every student is to understand the material in this class.  When it comes time for you to receive a grade we will come to an agreement together on a grade based on what you have shown that you understand.”  As teachers we should all strive for our students to leave the classroom at the end of the school year with a strong understanding of the material presented and I believe that this approach is an effective way to achieve that goal.

If you are interested in trying to do this in your classroom, take a look at my blog post or listen my interview on the Transformative Principal podcast to learn about the specific steps that I took to go gradeless.  If you have questions you can contact me via email at burnetta@newton.k12.ma.us or Twitter at @andburnett123.

 

How to Create a Gradeless Math Classroom in a School That Requires Grades

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Students determine their own grades through self-assessment and a conference with the teacher

In the years leading up to the 2017-18 school year, I had spent a good deal of time reading Jo Boaler’s research on the ways that students learn math as well as Arthur Chiaravalli’s writings about creating a gradeless classroom. When I returned to the classroom at the beginning of the school year, I decided I was going to change what I had been doing for the past 15 years of teaching and create a classroom without grades.  It felt overwhelming but also exciting.  My school still requires that students receive a grade at mid-quarter and at the end of the quarter, so I have the students determine what their grade should be based on their understanding of the material.

Here is how I made the change.

Step 1 – Students and the Learning Standards

To make this work I needed to make sure that the students always knew which learning standard(s) we were learning and working on during class.  Everything that the students do in the class is tied directly to the learning standards.  I refer to them multiple times each day in class and I will often ask students when they are working on something, “Which learning standard does this refer to?”

Step 2 – Assessing Students

Jo Boaler gave me the idea of eliminating quizzes and tests, so now I make anything that I want to assess a “Show Me What You Can Do.” Changing the terminology is only a small part of what needs to change.  The students in my class know that these assessments are low stake and that they can have multiple opportunities to show me what they can do on each learning standard.  Here is an example of a recent “Show Me What You Can Do.”  You will notice Roman numerals next to each problem that refer back to the learning standards listed at the top of the first page.

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We also do Show Me What You Can Do’s when working in groups at the whiteboards or at the tables.  It doesn’t always need to be in the form shown above.

Step 3 – Feedback to Students

After the students complete a Show Me What You Can Do, I make comments about things they did well and things that they did not understand. I don’t write a grade at the top of the paper, and I don’t enter anything in my gradebook. Here is an example of the same Show Me What You Can Do but after I have marked it up:

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If students are working at the whiteboards on a Show Me What You Can Do, I will take a picture of the work, print it out, write comments on the paper, and give it back to the student(s).

Step 4 – Student Self-Assessment

When students get their Show Me What You Can Do back, they self-assess on their understanding of the learning standards using the following categories:

  1. I need more time to understand this.
  2. I can do this with the help of an example.
  3. I can do this on my own, but I am still making computational or minor errors.
  4. I can do this on my own and explain my solution path to others.

They receive a student self-assessment sheet like the one shown below.  The topic is the title of the Show Me What You Can Do.  In the case of the example Show Me What You Can Do above, it is Proportional Relationships and Equations.  (Access a copy of the form below)

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Students fill in the learning standards and their self-assessment.

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Step 5 – Saving Student Work

My biggest fear when I decided that I wanted to do this was that students might lose their Show Me What You Can Do’s and their self-assessments when it came time to conference.   Thanks to a suggestion by Arthur Chiaravalli, I started using Seesaw.  If you are not familiar with the service, Seesaw is an online portfolio that is not only web based but also an app for iOS.  I sign out the computer cart for the day that I will be returning the marked- up Show Me What You Can Do. Students take pictures and upload those images to Seesaw.  All of the student work and self-assessments from above are from Seesaw.

Step 6 – Retakes

I allow students to retake the problems that gave them difficulty to show me that they understand the material.  The problems are similar but not the same.  They do not need to redo all of the problems, only the ones that gave them difficulty.  Prior to taking the retake, I will have the students verbally explain to me what they did incorrectly on the original Show Me What You Can Do.  If they are unable to do this, than I spend time working with them on the concept before they do the retake.

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Step 7 – Conferencing to Determine a Grade

My school requires that we enter grades, at least twice during the quarter, so I conference with my students at mid-quarter and at the end of the quarter.   Initially, I was concerned about conferencing because I did not know if the students were mature enough. However, the conference days have turned out to be some of my most enjoyable days of the quarter.  I get to talk one-on-one with each of my students and really get an idea of what they do and do not understand.

The first thing that I do on conference day is hand out another self-assessment sheet with all of the learning standards listed that we have worked on in the quarter.  Students log into Seesaw and look over all of their work for the quarter, self-assess again, and write a grade that they feel they deserve based on their understanding.  Here is an example of that sheet filled in by a student.  (Access a copy of the form below)

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I call the students to meet with me one at a time.  They bring their self-assessment sheet and their computer which is logged into Seesaw. Together we look at their work and discuss their self-assessment. Here is an example of a conference.

What About Giving a Grade for Homework Completion?

Thanks to suggestions made by Jo Boaler, I made the conscious decision not to grade homework completion.  I always thought that students would be motivated to do homework if it was tied to a grade.  I am here to tell you that I was wrong!! I have almost exactly the same percentage of students completing homework this year as I did in years past.  I now know grades do not make students complete homework.  I do treat homework checking the same way, though.  I still walk around at the beginning of class to make sure that students have completed their homework and talk to those that didn’t complete their homework.  I still contact home if a student misses a few homework assignments in a row.  When students ask me if their grade will go down if they don’t do their homework, I tell them that it could because if they don’t practice, they may not be prepared for the Show Me What They Can Do.  Entering homework completion into my online gradebook was also time consuming.  Now I can use that time to make my lessons more interesting and engaging.

And, also thanks to Jo Boaler, I no longer call homework “homework.”  I call it a Learning Opportunity.  Students like to tell me that it is still homework, but I push back and tell them that it is not work, it is an opportunity for them to learn.

Parents/Adminstration

In regards to parents, I was expecting to have some pushback but I surprisingly did not receive any.  At the beginning of the school year I sent a letter home to parents and I reinforced the message in the letter on back-to-school night in September.  I also told parents that I would contact them if their child started to not take advantage of their learning opportunities because this could potentially affect their understanding of the material.  I have also been very lucky to have received complete support from the administration in my school.

Conclusion

Going gradeless has made my students focus on the content as opposed to grades.  I no longer field questions like “how can I improve my grade?” or “do you offer extra credit?” Students understand that their grade is based entirely on their understanding of the material.  It has created a more relaxed atmosphere in the classroom for not only the students but also for me.

After this post originally published, I was contacted to do two interviews.

Andrew Burnett – 7th Grade Math Teacher, Newton, MA

I can be reached by email at burnetta@newton.k12.ma.us or on Twitter at @andburnett123