Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tracking Observations & Conversations

In many of the collaborative inquiry projects I'm working on this year, the teams are choosing to focus on student communication. In some cases, we are looking at how a student can best communicate what they have learned. 

Traditionally, this takes place on a unit test (or other culminating activity), supported by a number of smaller assessments leading up to the test, such as quizzes, worksheets, projects, etc.

However, these are all product-based. How can we, in math, move away from assessing primarily through products, and more through conversation and observation?

This is a scary concept for many high school math teachers, who are so used to assessing products. It's easy enough for teachers to observe, or to have a conversation, but whereas you track a level/mark on a product (16/23 on a test, say) that you see directly on that assessment paper, how do you track what you see off-paper?

As I think about being back in the classroom, this is something I want to improve upon. Instead of chalking it all up to my "professional judgement," I'd like to be able to track what I see and hear, and offer that as a record of student learning.

But I have no idea how to start that tracking. The newness of it (to me), and the openness of it, makes the process feel overwhelming. A lot of math teachers are in the same boat.

So who better to ask about tracking observations and conversations than the experts - Kindergarten and Grade 1 teachers! Where so much of the learning is done without textbooks, worksheets, and tests, these teachers are the pros in recording what they see.

I did a quick poll of K/1 teachers on Twitter of how they track the learning that happens in their classrooms (click here to see the Storify archive of the conversation), and here are some of their responses:


Some teachers are using paper checklists, created in advance, highlighting the look-fors and the learning goals the students will be working to complete. They can be stored in a binder, always within reach in the classroom for when learning is observed or when the teacher and student engage in conversation.

Amy (@Teach_Laidlaw) shared an amazing post detailing her checklist process. You can find it here:

Photos & Video

Aviva (@avivaloca) is the QUEEN of documenting her students' learning through captioned photos and video. She and her teaching partner collect them and review them throughout the day, using them to not only assess the students, but also to plan future activities.

Brigitte (@BrigitteDupont0) has a busy French classroom with lots always on the go - she uses pictures and video too. She also keeps everything in Google Drive for easy access.

Stickies & Colour-Coding

I think Marcie (@MarcieLew) is one of the most organized people I know. Her tracking method of choice is stickies and colour-coding for at-a-glance overviews of how her students are doing. She can then walk around the classroom with a clipboard and stickies, observing and conferencing throughout the lesson.

Google Forms

Amanda (@amandakmalo) creates online versions of checklists using Google Forms. There would be a drop down list for the student's name, another list for the subject, and then an open answer for comments and quotes. 

Not only could Amanda fill in the forms on a tablet as she was going around the classroom, but the ECE and prep teachers also had access to the form to record what they observed. With a running record of comments for each student, it made report card writing much easier, as well as learning stories.


Geeta (@geetaranikumar) also recorded her observations digitally, but through Evernote, which includes the capability of attaching images and audio files to a "note." Geeta also mentioned that she could add tags to the pages/notes for easy reference and sorting later. 

I'm so grateful to my PLN for sharing their practices with me. I'm a big fan of the paper checklists, but I'm leaning toward the convenience of the digital record keeping. How do you keep track of observations and conversations in your classroom?


  1. Thanks for sharing this post, Heather, and putting all of the different ideas into one place. I'm curious to know what others do. As we continue to explore assessment differently, thinking about how to collect and interpret the data is so important.


    1. I'm guessing there are as many methods as teaching preferences! It'll likely take me a while to find something (or create something!) that suits me to a T when I'm back in the classroom. I'm also curious to see what others do :)

  2. Heather: one thing that's working for me is having one role in math groups being the tweeter. That person needs to share what the group is doing, with pictures and captions. Other days it might be, take a picture of your best work today, and share it together me in a doc, explaining what you were doing. Want to start using Explain Everything this way. I'm also interacting, but because they're 7/8’s, i want them doing the capturing, too.

    1. Hi Lisa! That's a really neat idea - having older students involved in the capturing of the work. I can definitely see Explain Everything used for this purpose. When you have the students take a picture of their work, do you ever go back to them, with the picture, and ask them to explain/walk you through it? I feel like this is blurring the line between observation and product (not that that's a bad thing!).

  3. Definitely - it's a visual reminder for me to do that. The person who's documenting in the group is more capturing learning on fly (and the captions help me see what they are communicating). They can use video, too.

  4. I love making videos to reflect on later. I take notes on a sheet of paper divided into sections (1 per student.) So old fashioned, right? But it helps me make sure I've checked in with everyone.

    1. I LOVE the tangible nature of writing on paper, and I still find it faster than typing (or at least faster than typing on a tablet). I feel like I can scan a pre-made checklist more easily than I could scroll through options on a table, too. But there's no arguing (in my opinion, anyway) that digitally recording observations is easier when it comes to organizing them later. The struggle is real!

  5. I like having the paper on my table. It reminds me to actually write something down at the end of each teaching session...even if I only write down one thing for one student. When I have tried to go digital, I find that I forget to do it more often. Also, I can also count on my pencil to work.

  6. Hi Heather. Thank you for this excellent post. You share so many valuable tools that teachers can leverage for tracking math (and other subject area) conversations and observations. I find that this type of "assessment" (sitting and listening/observing) is one of the most valuable forms of evaluating where students are "at", where they are struggling and where they need to "go". I call it "just in time" assessment. BUT, how to track and document? For me, carefully designed Google Forms have been most successful. I use the Google voice option to dictate. I often do this right in the classroom. The kids don't necessarily listen in but if they happen to, it's all good, they're actually hearing good feedback, which is good for all. -P

  7. Heather this is an AMAZING post! I'm sorry it took me so long to see it! I'd also like to add some curation tools that are social including Flipboard and Scoop.It for reading about math. Even LiveBinder and Wikispaces are great for bigger projects that are collaborative. In essence, you need a place where students can share with you and their classmates publicly and privately what they are finding and learning. And you can observe their conversations on the sidelines. ;)


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