Sunday, January 11, 2015

Be More Formative with Your Aspen Gradebook

The thought of using an electronic grade book doesn't appeal to some teachers. When they hear that term it often conjures up images of percentages, artificial constraints, and being forced to "average" marks across a term or year, a practice many no longer believe accurately reflects student learning. Our district is in the process of introducing Aspen to our teachers (branded as MyEducation BC in British Columbia) and I have been pleased with the flexibility and potential of the new system so far. The Aspen Gradebook comes designed with many built-in features that support assessment for learning and make it a great tool for teachers at any level to collect and organize evidence of learning, not only for reporting purposes, but also as a way to better support assessment conversations with students and parents in an ongoing manner. This is why I am recommending its use to teachers who may not have previously considered an electronic grade book.

Students learn best when they understand what is expected of them and why. If your student portals are active, using the Add Assignment screen, you can provide assignment criteria, rubrics, and other supporting information for your students by using the Add file or Add weblink tabs at the bottom of the page. Criteria is most effective when students have a chance to co-develop it with you, so giving them a chance to do this or at least respond to what you have created prior to their starting is preferable. Adding learning intentions can really help students understand the purpose of an assignment, and the Add file and Add weblink tools make this very easy as well.

One of the simplest ways for teachers to be more formative using this grade book is to create practice assignments. This can be done through the Assignments tab by clicking on Options and then Add Practice Assignment instead of Add Assignment. A second simple way is to use the Drop mode. The Details tab will reveal this option at the bottom of the page, and allow you to toggle either Drop lowest overall score or Drop lowest score by category, and this can be done by each quarter or semester and there is no limit to the number of scores that can be dropped. Both of these options support the idea of learning as practice, and will give your students a chance to progress over time before becoming accountable through your reporting practices.

My favourite feature in the Aspen Gradebook is the pop-up page that appears when you click on the little paper icon inside any mark box on the Scores page. The top box is identified as Assignment feedback and this allows you to give timely and specific feedback to your students regarding their learning, either in preparation for the very next assignment or to revise and resubmit an ongoing assignment. This box interacts well with all manner of programs so you can copy and paste text in and out of the space with files you have on your computer or on the Internet, and even refer to criteria you may have previously provided with the Add file feature in the Add Assignment screen. Providing more feedback to students is one of the most effective ways to improve results in your classroom and school, and has been a special interest of mine for some time, as you can see from this previous blog entry January is Feedback Month. Even if your portals are not operating, you can sit your student down next to you and discuss the feedback together while viewing your computer screen, and even copy and paste it into an email afterward and send it to them for future reference. The box at the bottom of the page is called Teacher's notes and even if your portals are active and you have set your assignment Visibility type to Public, this information is not available to your students or parents, and can be a place for you to make notes on that student's learning for reporting purposes, along with the ways you are considering supporting them in the meantime.

This last suggestion is a little more complicated and would involve a change of practice for many teachers. If you click on the Tools top tab and the Special Codes side tab, you can click on Options to Add codes of up to five letters which the program will accept in its score boxes in place of a letter grade or number. You can use this feature to create a series of quick anecdotal references that can guide your assessment conversations and create understanding in a way that may be more effective for you and your students than a number or letter, as well as keep these assignments exempt from calculations so you can consider their learning holistically, rather than using the program to calculate a grade on your behalf.

When I was a principal I taught Communications, which in BC is a language arts program available for graduating students intending to head straight for the workforce. Even though we report out in percentages in grades 10-12 in BC, I used codes in my class for assignments that represented Not Meeting Expectations, Fully Meeting Expectations, or Exceeding Expectations. If a student submitted an assignment to me that was NME, I would provide them with feedback and have them revise and resubmit the assignment until it met or exceeded expectations. If a student was up to date with their assignments and all of them were at least FME, their mark at reporting time, which we would sit down and discuss well prior to then, would be no less than a C+, or 68%. This system worked very well for those students, as the higher level of feedback and opportunity to revise assignments greatly improved their learning, had a positive effect on their confidence, and got them away from long-standing practices of what I called the "5 and out" where they were repeatedly submitting mediocre work for the purpose of completion only. I also believe that when it came time for the final exam, which for grade 12 students is worth 40% of their total mark, a much higher level of learning transferred into that test environment, and their results were better because of this method. Essentially, it is much better for students to do fewer assignments at a higher level of proficiency than it is for them to do more assignments at a lower level. This concept may be especially true for struggling and reluctant learners, but is true for confident and high achieving students as well. Our previous grade book did not allow this practice and forced me to use a combination of paper and Excel to collect and organize my assessment information, so I am pleased we now have access to a program that can be used in this more flexible manner.

We are just getting started with the Aspen (MyEducationBC) student information system, and we have a lot of hard work and learning in front of us in regard to our every day business practices, the transition towards competency development, reporting as an ongoing conversation rather than a scheduled event, and how the system may support this us with these concepts. Our student and parent portals are expected to be active for next school year, and we are optimistic about increasing the level of interaction between teachers, parents, and students in a way that better supports learning. We are also excited about providing further opportunities for students to collect their own evidence of learning over time, reflect on it, and share and collaborate with other students in a safe and FIPPA friendly environment, all under one authentication (password) process. Despite the challenges of these big changes, the strengths of the new system are already apparent, and should be worth the effort in short order. I anticipate coming back to this page and revising it as we expand our access to Aspen and work through new opportunities that the program provides. The opportunity for teachers to use an electronic grade book in a more formative manner is just the beginning.

[At a session with Judy Smith and Kathleen Barter in a standards-based reporting session, they advocated using a single category or "bin" as we used to call it, rather than the use of multiple categories. The teacher could see the evidence on one page and get a clearer overview of student learning trends over time, then assign a summative grade at reporting time based on the student's best or most recent evidence of learning. They also suggested the use of two categories, one for formative assessments and one for summative assessments, with generic slots available in the latter. The formative assessments could then be toggled to private and the summative could be toggled to be public, which would then include the only the summative work in the Gradebook calculation and have those assignments show in the student and parent portals. Students or teachers could then select which assignments would be tallied in the summative category, and all the evidence collected in the formative category would remain as practice.]


  1. Some great observations on what has the potential to be a powerful tool for better student assessment practices. The tools tab also gives teachers the ability to set up a custom grade scale which would allow us to move away from grading on the 100 point scale. A 6 point standards based grade scale could be created and applied to classes within the gradebook.

  2. Agreed, and thank you. This was "implementation dip" month for us (you too, according to Meg) but we are working our way out of it and looking forward to exploring more of its assessment potential. PJ