Witnessing Learning Over Time: Documenting Observations with a Checklist (Part 2)

Often, I would provoke the thinking of educators by starting a professional learning session with this sentence, ‘The process of assessment is not black and white,’ then pause – knowing most individuals would be mentally agreeing with me and visualizing shades of grey. I would counter, ‘It’s not about shades of grey, but rather, about an understanding that each student has a spectrum of possibilities within them – a rainbow of ideas and potential. We have to be able to see and hear these ideas along with their questions rather than pinpointing the grey shadow of gaps.’

Without observations how would you know what’s happening in the classroom? What each student is thinking? Would you be able to respond to ‘where to next’ for each student? Or,  ‘where to next’ for yourself? Observation is a pervasive assessment tool but often educators let the evidence float into the ether undocumented. Further, some educators (and sometimes parents) do not acknowledge the validity of evidence gathered through observation in confirming student achievement.

How might the application of learning goals and success criteria support the process of documentation as educators and students work alongside each other?

In our work with educators over the years we’ve heard, ‘It takes too much time to co-construct success criteria!’ This process is not a one-off event but rather a necessary stage towards effective peer and self assessment. The benefits of investing time in collaboratively developing understanding of learning goals  and success criteria become clear when the collective thinking is highlighted daily and connected to both whole group and individual reflection.

Documenting Learning Observations Over Time: Students working alongside educators

After building common understanding of learning goals and success criteria, a documentation tool may be created by copying all or some elements of the success criteria into a form (ie. hard or soft copy). This tool could be used by students or educators or used jointly to document learning.

Words of Advice:

  • Keep the criteria manageable: Avoid copying a long list of criteria into a form. Grouping criteria using headings helps keep the list manageable and focussed.  In our past work, we have seen educators omit the last stage of developing success criteria (i.e. group ideas and name these groupings). This may lead to a very overwhelming, lengthy list. Reflect back on the success criteria for developing success criteria found in the Learning Goals and Success Criteria: How to Craft Them post.
  • Keep the criteria meaningful: Different clusters of criteria may be the focus at various stages of the learning cycle. Student Insight Alert: A grade 10 student once remarked, “Why does the teacher have to give me the entire list of criteria. I know what I can do on this list. Why not allow me to choose a few criteria I know I need to work on and then show the teacher how I have improved?’ Definitely something to think about!
  • Be open to seeing or hearing criteria that you did not anticipate, AND be prepared to document this unexpected learning. Further, be ready to go back, add or revise criteria. No criteria list is ever finished during the learning process.  (i.e. Don’t laminate the success criteria poster!)
  • Separate criteria and procedural steps: Some specific, procedural steps can be grouped together to create an anchor chart. This type of checklist, used for a different purpose, may indeed list steps that are there or not there.
  • Use colour highlighting to make the criteria ‘pop’: The use of colour can help students visualize where the criteria resides within a sample. For the educator, the use of colour can speed up a visual verification process.

Let’s extract a sample learning goal and success criteria from Learning Goals and Success Criteria: How to Craft Them. The purpose of the examples shared below is to ignite thinking about the possible ways to intentionally apply success criteria in order to create effective assessment tools – more specifically, documentation tools. This series of examples shows a range of effectiveness – moving from a simple checklist to a more nuanced documentation tool.

Example 1: A possible starting point

A ‘Yes/No’ checklist is perhaps the easiest to create but is not very effective in documenting learning or supporting giving descriptive feedback. Success criteria are rarely there or not there.

example 1

Example 2: A few small changes can make a big difference

  • Reorganize the criteria by sorting and naming the criteria.
  • Change the definitive statements YES and NO to MET and NOT MET, YET. Adding the word yet instills a sense of hope. The student may not have met the criteria but he or she will!

example 2Example 3: Even better!

Adding the phrases ‘How do you know?’ and ‘Next Step?’ morphs this tool away from a possible compliance mode of just filling out a checklist to a process of reasoning and reflection. What a student chooses to highlight as evidence or determines as a next step may lead to an important conversation to calibrate thinking.

example 3 (1)

Example 4: Working alongside each other

In this example, the student directs the focus of the educator to a particular segment of the work or to an idea. This is done to engage a possible back-and-forth response in order for the learner to share something they are proud of or to ask for help related to a specific criterion.

The educator may respond back to the students using the stem, ‘I observed that…’ affirming what the student has highlighted, pointing out another strength or challenging the student to review an area for improvement not previously considered.

example 4 (1)

Looking for a summary of what constitutes an effective recording tool? Check out the sample checklist annotated with our criteria for effective tools.

running-297154_1280One last thought, and a call to action!  Success criteria are indispensable tools for you and your learners as you collaborate to notice and document the learning! In this post, we shared  how to effectively use the criteria in a tool you can use to capture learning through observation (and conversation). Hopefully, we’ve also made the case that both educators and learners should use these tools, TOGETHER, to move the learning forward. Expert learners know how to get ‘unstuck’ when learning doesn’t come easily. When we explicitly teach learners how to document their learning, we give them the same ability to recognize and capture their own learning. Let’s be a witness to these moments!

There are so many ways to document learning observations over time! Share your best strategies in the comment box below or share on Twitter @HarnessingA. We will harvest from the twitter feed and attach to this post.

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