Are you a ‘planner’ or a ‘pantser’?

In a recent webinar on effective writing, the presenter asked, are you a planner or a pantser? The meaning of planner was clear, but a “pantser”? Who knew? Turns out it refers to that old saying, “flying by the seat of your pants”, in other words, someone who doesn’t plan.

In our last post we suggested that determining a grade is a thinking process. Planning for grading underscores each component of that process. 

Recall the components of the process in order to determine a grade:  

  • Visualizing and planning where you want the learning to go;
  • Organizing, monitoring and gathering evidence of of learning;
  • Selecting relevant data that accurately reflects students’ growth over time;
  • Analyzing trends and patterns;
  • Interpreting the trends and applying professional judgment.

With each post in this series we will be going deeper into each component. This post highlights visualizing and planning where you want the learning to go. 

Engaging the planner in you 

During the pandemic, you have likely had times where you have had to fly by the seat of your pants. These times are unpredictable from one week to the next – sometimes one day to the next! However, having a plan in these circumstances is all the more important. Getting to the destination may not be a predictable straight line but having optional pathways, intentionally considered, may avoid confusion. 

Here’s the crux of the issue:

  • We want to gather information about learners’ achievement of the expectations, so we need to be clear on what they are to learn and what it looks like. 
  • We want to be able to capture the learning while it is happening, so we need to have a plan to document and record it, especially evidence from conversations and observations. 
  • We want to be able to provide learners multiple opportunities to ‘show what they know’ in a variety of ways.
  • We want to feel confident that we have enough information to make a decision at reporting time.

Grading is a thinking process.Take some time to ponder how the remaining weeks of this school year might roll out for you and your students. Consider how you might organize your thoughts and tools to support planning for grading. If possible, work through this process with a colleague.

Ask yourself, ‘How will planning for grading at the beginning of a reporting period support my ability to provide a fair and accurate summary of the learning at the end of the reporting period?’ 

  • Am I able to identify big ideas and corresponding learning goals that students need to learn and understand? 
  • Can I visualize and articulate what success looks like and sounds like? 
  • How might I design learning experiences to make sure students are able to demonstrate understanding? 
  • How will I support and engage students in the assessment process? 
  • How might I monitor and gather evidence of learning in order to fairly represent students’ growth over time?

Planning for Grading: Going Deeper 

Identify big ideas: What are students expected to learn?  

  • Scan the overall curriculum expectations for big ideas; cluster related specific expectations. 
  • Consider real-world big ideas to infuse into the learning. (There is no shortage of authentic moments from this year to add relevance to any content area!)
  • Design or find an organizational tool that matches your thinking and comfort level (i.e. paper or digital formats) 

Visualize what success looks like: How will I/we know if students are learning? 

  • Consider what success looks like and sounds like. 
  • Predict what a range of performance might look like by teasing apart the characteristics of levels 1 to 4.
  • Plan criteria balanced across the categories of the achievement chart* (i.e. Knowledge/Understanding, Thinking, Communication and Application) 

Design learning experiences: How will students learn? 

  • Consider the learning environment and resources (i.e. in-person learning, digital platforms; synchronous or asynchronous models). 
  • Anticipate what the learning might look like if the model was to change suddenly.
  • Plan for differentiation by designing a variety of instruction and assignments allowing for the needs of specific students.

Support and engage students in the assessment process: How will I support the learning? 

Monitor and gather evidence of learning: How will I/we gather evidence of learning? 

Follow the thinking of a grade 8 teacher of Science, Math and Language in a face-to-face setting and a virtual setting, as needed, as they apply these questions to their practice. 

“Here’s what I’m thinking: I’m going to use a spreadsheet to organize my planning from mid-April to June. I know some of my colleagues are using hard copies or digital applications to manage documentation, but I want to design a template which incorporates the curriculum overall expectations and big ideas from the three courses I teach. I’ll group the specific expectations and copy them on the  template. They will help me determine learning goals and success criteria. I want to be able to ‘visualize’ the grading plan.”

“I will use this spreadsheet to organize my documentation. I have incorporated space to record my observations and highlights of conversations with students. I included a space to record anecdotal comments related to learning skills and work habits. I have duplicated the tracking page per student within the same file so it will be easy to record. I’m thinking this will help me compile information in preparation for the final reporting period. Also, I’ll work with students to compile and manage artefacts of their learning based on the criteria we co-construct.”

How does planning for grading help? 

In this post, we’ve highlighted some aspects of planning for grading by posing questions for you to consider. Some of these responses take shape immediately because the suggestions reinforce what you already know and do; some questions may challenge your thinking. Embrace a change! “Change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous in the end.” (Sharma, 2010)

It may seem counterintuitive to plan how to determine the grade now with months before the final reporting period but imagine a process that allows you to transition into the reporting period with all the data you need – confident that you will represent each student’s achievement fairly and accurately! 

One last thought and a call to action

There have been times when we’ve had to be a pantser  – flying by the seat of our pants! In the comment box below, share strategies related to how you have adapted your planning to ensure that you are prepared for grading at report card time, as you support student success throughout this year.

*The “achievement chart” sets out performance levels and descriptors which teachers in Ontario use to assess and evaluate student learning.

Brookhart, S. (2017). How to Use Grading to Improve Learning.  Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Cornue, J. (2018). Changing the Grade: A Step-by-step Guide to Grading for Student Growth.  Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Sharma, R.S. (2017). The leader who had no title: A modern fable on real success in business and in life. New York: Free Press.


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