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November 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 3

The Techy Teacher / Using Data to Personalize Learning

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In a culture of standardized testing, data has become a word tainted with negative connotations. Too often, the conversation about data is myopically focused on standardized test scores, and many educators associate that focus with a narrow curriculum that discourages their creativity and innovation. But data doesn't have to be a dirty word.
Technology makes it easier than ever for educators to generate meaningful, ongoing data to inform their teaching, track student progress, and personalize learning. When I began to explore how I could use technology to quickly assess student skills, data became exciting and took on a new role in my teaching practice. Now I use data to gain insights into my students' abilities that I never had before.

Collect Data to Customize Learning

As I've woven technology into my teaching practice, I've discovered a range of tools I can use to gauge where my students are on the road to mastering specific skills. This information makes it easier to design learning experiences that will challenge them.
For example, when my students read informational texts online, I use The Smithsonian Tween Tribune or Newsela, two websites that offer news articles at various reading levels. Both websites pair their articles with questions to assess readers' comprehension of what they've just read. If students are performing poorly on these short assessments, that may indicate that the Lexile level (word length, word frequency, and sentence structure) is too high. For the next online reading, I can adjust the Lexile level and see whether their comprehension improves. As the year progresses, I can steadily increase the difficulty of the texts they read to ensure that what they're reading will not cause frustration or confusion but will support the continued development of their reading skills.
Similarly, when my students study grammar, I use grammar review activities and quizzes on NoRedInk to assess their understanding of everything from subject-verb agreement to semicolon use to parallel structure. NoRedInk produces data that let me know who's ready to move on to the next concept and who needs further review. Students no longer need to move in lockstep through a grammar book. Instead, those who are strong can continue to develop their skills, and those who need review can spend more time on aspects of grammar that are challenging for them.
Teachers in all subject areas can use a variety of online tools to track student progress and collect data to customize instruction. For example, Khan Academy not only provides thousands of tutorial videos explaining concepts ranging from math to science to art history, but also offers built-in practice so students can attempt to apply what they are learning. When students create an account, the site retains their information, so each time they log in they can return to their practice at the point where they left off.
In addition to using subject-specific web tools with built-in assessments, I design formative assessments using free tools, like Socrative and Google Forms, to test everything from vocabulary to reading comprehension to commonly confused words. Quizzes developed on Socrative allow me to track students' progress over time to see how their performance improves, stalls, or declines. I use this information to adjust activities and lend support as needed.

Report Data to Motivate Students

Although collecting data through formative assessments is an important first step, it's also crucial that the information we collect makes sense to our students and motivates them to continually improve. Unfortunately, most traditional grade books are broken up into categories like homework, classwork, projects, and participation, which don't clearly communicate how students are performing in relation to specific skills.
This year, I've replaced my general categories in Jupiter Grades—the online grading program I use—with more specific, standards-based categories, like argumentative writing, informative writing, reading and analyzing complex texts, vocabulary development, and speaking and listening. My goal when I redesigned my online grade book was to ensure that my students and their parents understood exactly where they were on the road to mastery of particular skills.
Every student and parent has access to my online grade book. They have individual accounts, so they can log in and check grades anytime. They can even set up weekly updates via e-mail or text message to track their progress in my class.
Already this year, I've been amazed by the changes in the conversations I am having with both my students and their parents. Instead of asking why they received a C+ on a paper or being frustrated by a grade, my students seek me out at lunch to find out how they can improve their thesis statements or develop their analysis. Parents have reached out to ask how they can support their children in finding stronger evidence or citing properly. The conversations are now focused on developing skills and supporting students, which is exactly where I want to put my time and energy.
To effectively show students their progress on specific skills, I focus my assessments on particular elements of their work. For example, when a student completes a piece of argumentative writing, I grade it on five or six specific elements (such as claim, evidence, warrant/analysis, rebuttal, and mechanics) using a four-point scale: 4, advanced; 3, proficient; 2, basic; and 1, below basic. In the grade book, students and parents can see exactly how they performed on each element of the writing assignment. If students see that they earned a 3 on evidence but a 2 on analysis of evidence, they know they need to focus on developing their analysis skills.
This approach demystifies grades, helps students better understand what the numbers say about their learning, and thus motivates them to improve. When I used to enter a single score on an essay, like 82/100, a student or parent may not have understood why they earned a B-. Shifting to a model that assesses each skill separately makes it easier for teachers, students, and parents to see exactly where a child is succeeding and where he or she is struggling.

A More Complete Picture

Today we have a wealth of technology at our disposal to better support students at different academic levels within a single classroom. New approaches to teaching, like blended learning, make it possible to personalize and customize each student's experience.
Data can support this customization. The beauty of regular and frequent data collection is that it provides insight into how each student is developing over time, making it easier to adjust the curriculum to improve learning outcomes. A standardized test only provides a narrow snapshot of a student's ability at a given moment, but collecting data regularly with varied assessments paints a more complete picture of a student's progress, transforming the data into a useful tool.

Catlin Tucker is a Google Certified Innovator, bestselling author, international trainer, and keynote speaker. Catlin is currently working as an education consultant and blended learning coach while pursuing her doctorate at Pepperdine University.

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