"This is my dream job."
It was a Wisconsin late-summer evening, and our school’s college essay workshop had just ended. “How can we get this to happen in the fall in our classrooms?” I wanted to carry over the eagerness our workshop students displayed. “How can we get kids to try things out, to commit to learning and growing?”
The college essay workshop felt like a utopian experience, with three teachers collaborating to instruct eager and invested students. Although each could have left at any time, they stayed. The students dedicated themselves to writing the best sentences, transitions, hooks, and conclusions they could. They listened to their classmates and to us, and they applied feedback in meaningful ways.
A decade ago, my writing colleagues and I started offering college essay workshops. They’re a collaborative, gradeless endeavor. Students earn a quarter credit if they come all four days, but the students don’t care about the quarter credit. They care about writing good essays, getting into dream schools, earning scholarships, and receiving grants.
In our writing classes, we had already abandoned rubrics. We found they stifled creativity, prevented risk-taking, and provided a blueprint for blandness. But even without a rubric, we struggled to get kids to commit to their writing, to fully embrace risks, and to follow their passions.
And, without a rubric, I questioned my grading policies. Was I fairly and accurately assessing? I often felt guilty about giving an A, B, or C on an essay about a dying father, a poem about anorexia, a limerick about mental health, or a narrative about self-doubt. Since college essay workshop students flourished in a no-grades environment, was this the answer to motivating students in regular classrooms?
As my colleagues and I explored the ways other teachers built classroom cultures rich in creativity and productivity and assessed their students’ progress, we found our state’s Department of Public Instruction offered a summit.
At the conference, we fleshed out our plan to inspire students to invest, set goals, follow their passions, learn about themselves and their talents, put in daily work, take chances, and experiment. We discussed how to encourage students to really dive in and understand that each part of the process is important, to embrace each assignment as a challenge or opportunity, and to focus not on the grade but on the process.
Process-based assessment helps students build learning habits as they:
Process-based assessment helps teachers to:
In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about Professor Uelsmann, who divided his students into two groups of photographers. One group, which he named the quantity group, was assessed based on the number of photos captured. The other group, called the quality group, was assessed based on the quality of one image.
At the end of the semester, Professor Uelsmann found that all the best photographs came from the quantity group. The students in that group tried, failed, learned, and grew. They developed skills and made progress through a process of trial and error. In contrast, the quality group found themselves paralyzed by the pursuit of one perfect image.
Similarly, many of our students get stuck on the idea of perfection. They believe an A-plus on a paper or test will provide happiness or indicate future success. They think a thirty-six on the ACT will lead to their dream school, which will lead to their dream job and their dream life. They think one perfect photograph exists. And then, they refuse to try to capture it because they’re convinced they’ll fail.
By removing outcome-based grades and assessing the process, we break our students from this mindset.
Process-based assessment can be used in every grade, in every subject. Start by asking three questions:
How I answered these questions:
Grades and assessment are not synonymous. Grades are ineffective assessments. Process-based assessments, however, allow students to know how far they are from the goal and how to move closer to it.
Although grades can be part of assessment, assessment is effective because it requires student participation. Assessment relies on a collaborative goal; it encourages conversations and improvements; and it evaluates the process, not the outcome. Do not think of what needs a grade. Instead, consider how assessment can enhance a student’s process and assist them in improving.
Daily habits and a process-based environment encourage students to care about improving their processes rather than earning a grade or achieving an outcome.
A process-based classroom enables students to:
Because we work within a system that requires grades, students earn points for working through the writing process. A process point can be assigned when a student:
Receiving a process point does not mean the assignment is perfect, complete, or A-quality work. Conversely, not receiving a process point is not failure, the end of the world, or detrimental to a student’s overall grade.
In class, students read and analyze model texts and peer examples. They research and write. They draft and edit. They peer edit and share drafts with me. They learn from feedback from friends, family, and peers.
Along the way, I pose questions, and I meet students where they are and provide a cheer, reminding them they can and will create beautiful art worthy of sharing. At its core, process-based assessment is about personalized instruction for each student every day to help them create positive learning habits.
My college essay workshop colleagues and I continue to tweak our process-based assessment model. It looks a bit different each year, and we remain open to revising, learning, and growing, just as we ask our students to be. In our journey, we’ve found there is no magic formula to process-based assessment. We can only do what works with this batch of students. We can only do our best work each day.
Help students create effective learning habits and embrace process-based assessment in Hacking Student Learning Habits today.
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