I’m a data geek. I have spreadsheets for almost everything: planning my wedding, comparing car leases, optimizing where I purchase contact lenses, inventorying items when I travel, etc.
Despite my love of data, two years into working as the data integration and reporting administrator at a public school district, I had grown disenchanted with how student data was being used. When I crisscrossed the district to talk to principals and administrators about their student data, I was often met with fear, confusion, and skepticism. On more than one occasion, I had to reassure and console a principal who thought they would lose their job because of one flat or downward sloping line chart.
A Different Approach
I was yearning for a fresh perspective around how student data could be used effectively when my friend and colleague, Rupa Gupta, invited me to her school to see how her students were using their own data. I was intrigued—in my role at the district I had worked exclusively with adults when it came to analyzing data. What would be different when it came to students using their own data?
At the time, Rupa’s school was experimenting with several personalized learning products, but teachers were struggling to keep track of student progress across so many platforms. The solution Rupa had come up with was to have students track their own progress in individual spreadsheets, with a master spreadsheet for the teacher that aggregated the student data.
Having students enter their own scores into a spreadsheet was intended to help teachers by gathering the data in one place for them to view and analyze. But what we observed was that the process was having a profound effect on the students: They became very interested and engaged with their own data and tracking their learning.
For example, we saw students who refused to enter scores into their spreadsheets unless they could redo an online activity—they believed they could do better. To these students, the score they were about to enter didn’t reflect what they thought their true ability was, and they wanted the record set straight.
When we asked students how they were doing on their work, they were also very aware of their own performance. Students would proudly whip out an iPad or Chromebook and show me all the things they had worked on, and what they would be working on next. I would have students tell me that they had scored a 70 on an exercise the day before, and were shooting for 90 that day. These students were not only using their data to set goals for themselves, but exuding confidence in their ability to meet those goals.
Watching students track and use their data, and seeing how it changed their mindset, I came to the realization that data isn’t just for adults. The opportunity to regularly own and work with their data can be transformative for students. Students who consistently track their performance are better informed about how they’re doing, hold themselves accountable to do better, and seem to be more confident learners.
Access to Data Isn’t a Panacea
Tracking their data alone won’t guarantee that students will become confident learners, and teachers still play a critical role in that process. When a student is repeatedly unsuccessful, a teacher needs to guide them in adapting their learning strategies. When students are successful, teachers need to push them to reflect on the strategies they used to get those results.
Using data to build confident learners also doesn’t happen overnight—as with anything mindset-related, it requires patience and commitment on the teacher’s part. In the most effective classes I visited, teachers use data tracking as part of their weekly or biweekly classroom routine, and reserve time for students to write reflections on how they’ve performed. The results are worth the effort: When I surveyed students who were tracking their data, they were substantially more likely to respond that they were trying their hardest and felt in control of their learning than students in other classrooms.
One question I’m often asked is: “Given the responsibility, will students accurately track their scores?” Among the teachers I’ve worked with, the answer is a resounding yes. For one thing, the teacher still controls the grade book—entering and tracking data in the spreadsheet doesn’t change a student’s grade. And it seems that when students no longer view scores as a label bestowed upon them by a teacher, but instead see them as something they own and have control over, the urge to fudge the data dissipates. Students realize they have the power to change their scores without having to lie—through their own efforts—and what I’ve seen is that they step up to the challenge and thrive.
Adults may still be figuring out how to engage with student data, but students are ready to do so now. For the sake of their growth and development, let’s allow students to take greater ownership of their learning, starting with their data.