Educators need a way to track traditionally “hard-to-measure” skills–an app might be the solution

app-assessIn my eighth grade physical computing class, I have a grade problem.

The things that are most important to me–things like creativity, curiosity, persistence, critical thinking–are nearly impossible to quantify.

I’m sure that I could come up with ways to measure these things indirectly and incorporate them into a mathematical formula, but I don’t believe such a formula would be accurate. Many of these skills and traits are neither linear nor hierarchical. For example, many of us are persistent and curious, but not about everything and not all the time. Furthermore, there is substantial research that indicates that the minute we place extrinsic motivators like grades on something like creativity or critical thinking, we end up reducing the thing we are trying to incentivize. Daniel Pink’s TED Talk about motivation is a great illustration of this.

The problem is that in my class, these things aren’t simply nice extras that I use to bump up a kid’s grade when she’s on the bubble at the end of the term. They aren’t window dressing around the “real” content. These skills and habits of mind ARE the real content. These are the traits around which I have designed the entire curriculum. Sure, my students learn about electronics, circuits, and programming, but my goal in designing the course was focused entirely on developing problem solving skills that students could transfer to novel situations that might have nothing to do with electronics.

(Next page: A solution in an app)

If my little curricular experiment is to be successful, I need a way to tell if my students are growing in these areas. I need to know if their experience in my class is really helping them grow. A class-participation column in my grade book simply isn’t going to cut it. I needed a tool to capture and organize artifacts of student growth.

After a bit of searching, I found two apps that do these things really nicely. Chronicle and Confer are both teacher note-taking and evaluation apps designed for the iPad. Confer is also available for Android. They are priced at $20 and $25 respectively, which seems very expensive for what seems like a fairly simple program. But perhaps the value of these tools lies in their simplicity and ease of use.

Both tools seem to have been designed to capture teacher notes on student progress in a workshop style course such as a reading / writing workshop. Each app lets the teacher add notes in particular categories to each student record or add a “group note” to the records of several students.

Perhaps most importantly, the system keeps track of when I last entered a note for a student, so I can be sure that I am recording notes on all of my students, not just the most vocal ones.

While the basic functions of both apps are very similar, there are a couple factors that distinguish them. Confer allows a teacher to create an unlimited number of note categories. Chronicle users are limited to five. Both apps allow teachers to use the iPad camera to capture pictures of student work. Only Chronicle, however, also allows the capture of video. While I like the overall look and feel of Confer, my class projects can’t always be captured in still images. It is for this reason that I elected to use Chronicle to capture student progress in the key areas of my course.

I’m hoping that, in the future, both tools improve some of the tracking capability to be a bit more granular. For example, I can tell in Chronicle which student I haven’t written a note about in more than a few days. I wish, however, I could set triggers for particular kinds of notes. I wish for example, I could see a visual prompt for students who haven’t gotten a collaboration note from me in over a week. I also wish they would add the ability for co-teachers to share a grade book and use separate devices to enter notes on students.

I do believe that this is a great start, however. Using a tool like Confer or Chronicle will make it much easier for me to monitor student growth in areas that often defy measurement.

Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for more than 20 years. He is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School and can be reached at @shawt, +TrevorShaw, and shawt@d-e.org.