This article was originally posted on Teachers Going Gradeless.
As educators we all know how complex teaching and learning is and the many stages that happen through a typical learning cycle. We also know that at key intervals throughout the year, schools layer in formal recording and reporting structures to capture and communicate about student learning at that time. Portfolios and conferences are popular ways to report about student learning and growth. Those of you who are reading this are likely thinking about or are going gradeless in your reporting. We are going to further explore portfolios and conferences as tools for capturing learning evidence and showing growth over time.
Portfolios are most often thought of as a collection of learning evidence that demonstrates students’ knowledge, skills, and understanding. And conferences are most often thought about as the parent-teacher-student conversations at the end of a quarter or semester. I believe that curating evidence of learning over time and partnering with the student in conferencing throughout the learning process are integral to creating a dynamic learning environment.
All of a student’s learning does not occur in the direct view of the teacher. There are a myriad of things students do as they are engaging in new learning. Students interpret new ideas, ask clarifying questions, partake in trial and error, create rough drafts, receive feedback, receive scaffolds as necessary, make revisions, engage in more trial, receive more feedback, etc. These kinds of activities continue throughout the learning cycle supporting students along the way. Usually, it is the teacher who wraps up the learning cycle and for students it results in some level of learning mastery and some artifacts that can be added to a portfolio.
When done well, portfolios are individualized museums of student learning. These are a great way to show learning growth and when possible allow you to compare where the student started and where they ended. One challenge is that the process of curating artifacts to go into a portfolio usually occurs after the evidence has been completed and toward the end of the learning cycle. There are so many important pieces of formative learning data that are missed when the curation happens at the end.
Students and teachers should consider capturing and curating learning evidence throughout the learning cycle and as the learning is occurring. This allows both the teacher and student to use a triangulated assessment approach which includes performance observations, conversations, and physical products as learning evidence (Damien Cooper, Rebooting Assessment). This triangulated assessment approach allows teachers and students to paint a more nuanced picture of the student and their learning over time.
In the back-and-forth interactions between students and teachers that occur every day lies much of this learning evidence. This includes physical evidence, online documents/presentation, emails, texts, conversations, as well as peer and teacher feedback—to name a few. Capturing all of this formative assessment data is staggering in volume and incredibly hard to manage for both teachers and students. The average classroom size (Elementary, Middle, and High School in the U.S.) is around 24 students (NCES 2020). Multiply 24 by the typical teaching load of 5 classes and you have 120 students for whom to capture learning data. Not an easy task.
We know we can’t expect teachers to read and respond to each piece of qualitative learning evidence their students produce. It is just not humanly possible nor sustainable at a high level. We also know this is really important learning evidence. We must work smarter and not harder. If we leverage technology designed to co-create, capture and curate the learning as it is occurring, this daunting task not only becomes possible, but essential. The trick is that both students and teachers need to be involved to ensure the capturing and curation is a collaborative and communicative experience. Neither student nor the teacher should bear sole responsibility for the curation of learning evidence over time. Co-creation of learning is what technology allows us to easily accomplish.
When teachers and students are capturing learning evidence along the way, they both have a much easier time showing growth. Thus, creating and maintaining portfolio evidence as the learning is happening results in richer, more nuanced representations of learning over time. When students and teachers capture learning as it happens—it is no longer an add-on reporting method after a performance task is completed.
Educator benefits of capturing and curating learning portfolios throughout the learning process (as the student is learning) are:
Easily showing growth over time
Seeing trends in student learning across multiple students allowing for timely adjustments
Aiding collaboration with the full team of educators (special education, instructional coaches, and school administrators) when they can view the qualitative learning evidence of individual students in a way they could never do so before
Capturing learning as it happens allows for more diagnostic formative assessment. From this teachers can better meet the individual needs of each learner. The teacher can determine where students are in the learning and provide the feedback or the scaffolding to help them move forward
Student benefits of capturing and curating learning evidence throughout the learning process (not just at the end) are:
Engaging more fully in all parts of their learning
Allowing student ownership of their learning supporting the development of student agency
Including reflections of what/how students learned as well as what they did to accomplish their learning
Including artifacts of important performance observations and reflections, teacher/peer conversations as well as physical products
Conferences are another very important part of communicating student learning and growth. When conferences are limited to the parent-teacher-student conference at specific points throughout the school year they serve the purpose of reporting. If we consider conversations we have daily with our students as conferencing (often called conferring) we have another rich data source to add to our portfolios. This process of conferring—the one-on-one conversations with each of your students throughout the week—will become one of the most powerful learning opportunities for both you and your students.
I learned firsthand the power of conferring by observing master teachers Carl Anderson, Penny Kittle, and Kelly Gallagher confer one-on-one with my students with incredible efficiency and effectiveness. I watched them masterfully partner with our students in these conferring sessions to understand where they were in their learning, to celebrate growth and to set goals for their next steps. And, the best part of this kind of conferring is that the students become the owners of their goals and next steps.
The qualitative data that is generated daily by students is the most powerful learning evidence to tell the story of learning over time. Expanding how we are developing our portfolios and how we conference with students to more deliberately include this important qualitative evidence will strengthen the stories we ask our students to curate about their learning journey.