FreshGrade: Emphasizing student autonomy, promoting conversation, and developing metacognition – Connect Charter School

FreshGrade: Emphasizing student autonomy, promoting conversation, and developing metacognition

by Deirdre Bailey and Kevin Sonico

Theme 1: Emphasizing student autonomy
The cultivation of student autonomy in an inquiry-­driven space suggests that students should both understand their learning goals and be able to assess what they need to do to reach them (Chappuis, 2009, Black & Wiliam, 2004). In both our classroom contexts, we felt that this statement clearly supported the adoption of an outcomes­based assessment philosophy, which is rooted in the evaluationof a student’s mastery of curricular objectives regardless of the tasks by which they are accomplished. The outcomes­based assessment philosophy is also typically associated with positive behavioural and attitudinal shifts among students (Sonico & Cheng, 2014), in addition to an increase in student autonomy. A critical advantage of FreshGrade for this purpose is that outcomes for all Alberta curriculum subjects are embedded in the software, allowing teachers to select individual or multiple curricular objectives for each assigned learning activity and allowing these to be visible to both parents and students (Figure 1).

By attaching clearly stated learning outcomes to each learning task, students often had the opportunity to reflect in advance on how they might best represent their understanding or skill in the given context. In both Grade 5 and Grade 7, we found that this often meant students were able to elect to demonstrate their achievement4 in a more flexible manner. Perkins (2009) writes that for students to engage effectively with an intellectual task, “[they] must have the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding by thinking and acting flexibly with what they know about it, not just through the regurgitation of information and execution of routine skills.” The digital nature of FreshGrade permitted variety ­ ranging from paper­and­pencil to digitized work to performance­type assessments ­ as evidence of  understanding (Figure 2).  Many students were also able to advocate for the opportunity to represent that understanding in different ways, often reflecting an increase in their engagement and autonomy through the task.

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Some considerations for allowing such a diverse range in format for submissions in both Grade 5 and 7 classrooms were that a delicate balance between student­ and teacher­designated types of submissions still needed to be managed in order to both encourage student choice and advocacy, while minimizing the difficulty of assessing what could become a significant myriad of differently formatted submissions.
A second advantage of FreshGrade as an assessment tool designed to encourage student autonomy was that the onus was quite clearly placed on the student to meet learning objectives. This is supported by Wall et al.’s(2004) findings which suggest that “digital portfolio [have] the potential to create independent learners who are responsible for the collection of their own evidence of achievements across the curriculum” (p. 271). As teachers, we found that the constant transparency and visibility of all student work required by the digital portfolio format meant that there was no longer any question of what had and had not been invested by students throughout the term. This idea that students could not hide a lack of effort or engagement as effectively on FreshGrade was supported by majority of student and parent respondents to our end­-of-­year surveys. Both reported a lower incidence of work avoidance due to FreshGrade’s accessibility on the web (Figure 3).One parent wrote, “My child isn’t always forthcoming about what is going on at school and FreshGrade kept me updated and allowed me to ask about specific assignments.”
It is important to acknowledge that it could be argued that transparency of this digital portfolio format, particularly to parents, did not foster true student autonomy because it has the potential to allow too much participation in the work from parents in terms of editing, updating, and/or redoing their child’s work with them at home. It should also be acknowledged that it had the potential to exacerbate differences between student learning environments, as parents acknowledged that they provided varying degrees of support and encouragement of their child’s portfolio work, some checking FreshGrade regularly and reviewing it at home, some only checking it with a follow­-up discussion, and some not checking it at all. However, while many students identified parents viewing their portfolios as a strong motivating factor for engaging more actively in their work in Grade 5, this was less of a reported factor among Grade 7 students. Grade 7 students also experimented for an entire semester with FreshGrade in which their work was completely private unless they independently elected to share it externally, and many still reflected that having everything visible in one place made it more difficult to avoid engaging in the work.

Ultimately, we both felt that cultivating student accountability to the intellectual demands of the work was supported by the use of FreshGrade as a digital portfolio tool. We also felt that, while the goal is to develop student autonomy in learning that is not dependent on either teacher or parent monitoring, developing student accountability required continual support for some students, and inviting parents into the space provided that additional, valuable support for many.
A final worthy note on the topic of student autonomy is that through the use of FreshGrade in both Grade 5 and Grade 7, we noticed students’ increased involvement in their work evolved naturally into increased student advocacy throughout the term. In many cases, the visual evidence of their achievement in relation to specific learning goals encouraged many students to seek ways in which to improve the quality of their work and depth of understanding. These generally came in the form of tutorials, extra resources, one-­on­-one conferences, re-evaluations and/or resubmissions (Appendix A).  As teachers, these “secondary” opportunities for students to show evidence of achievement or growth were easy to manage as FreshGrade allowed us to assign activities to individual groups of students, who were looking for this opportunity and to tag it with an individual outcome that they were still working on. (Figure 4)

Both students and parents expressed interest and gratitude in the idea that students would consistently be provided with multiple opportunities to show growth in understanding with respect to individual outcomes. Increased accountability was consistently demonstrated as students actively sought help more openly. Advocacy was cultivated when all artifactual submissions were viewed not as the end of a student’s learning but as a means to that end such that when students fell short of meeting outcomes, they were able to seek support to refine their understanding.
Because we both regularly make use of sports analogies in the classroom, the best way to describe how FreshGrade furthered our ability to foster this growth mindset (Dweck, 2015) in the classroom is to share a variation of an anecdote that we both shared with students where we described the strengths and weaknesses of a tennis player whose forehand is far more developed than their backhand. Students readily understood that surrendering all use of the weaker stroke is not an option; rather, continued effort would be needed in order to develop it. Similarly, our distinct abilities and intelligences continue to develop over time; and should be considered a constant work in progress (Dweck, 2015). FreshGrade’s chronological portfolio format and ability to create multiple submission options encouraged students to see their individual assessments as snapshots of growth through time, rather than fully conclusive final statements about their overall ability, helping us facilitate a growth mindset in a more visual manner.
Theme 2: Promoting conversation

An inquiry-based approach cultivates meaningful learning experiences that are personally constructed “in relation to particular situations, particular places, in community with others,” (Clifford & Friesen, 2008b, p. 181) where understanding is negotiated in relation to historical perspectives and larger ideas (Perkins, 2009). An important consideration, therefore, is that a key criterion of understanding in an inquiry-based classroom has to involve students in thoughtful personal judgment on performance relative to what is expected within a particular discipline. Although the use of FreshGrade as a digital portfolio for assessment purposes was a primary focus of our research, the use of the tool for encouraging students to continually engage in critical thinking about themselves as learners (Greenberg, 2004) quickly became inextricably linked to the process.
According to Flavell’s (1979) substantial work on the topic, metacognition involves “active monitoring and consequent regulation and orchestration” of cognitive processes to achieve cognitive goals (p. 252). Monitoring, regulation, and orchestration can take the form of checking, planning, selecting, and inferring (Brown & Campione, 1977), self-interrogation and introspection (Brown, 1978), interpretation of ongoing experience (Flavell & Wellman, 1977), or simply making judgments about what one knows or does not know to accomplish a task. Engaging students in this work within the classroom context requires them to be supported in carefully analyzing their experiences (or artifacts of learning), to observe some patterns in their own learning, and to develop subsequent learning goals (Rickards, Diez, Ehley, Guillbault, Loacker, Hart, & Smith, 2008).
To some extent, the ways in which FreshGrade fostered this process in our classrooms has already been described through our discussion of the ways in which student autonomy evolved to include increased student advocacy. We were able to further integrate deliberate metacognitive thinking in our students using FreshGrade by requiring that students add reflective comments either on individual tasks (Figure 5), on the significance of their scientific study and their engagement in the topic (Figure 6),  on their strengths, weaknesses, and different applications of their mathematical work (Figure 7), or on their term as a whole (Figure 8).





By requiring that they observe certain patterns or tendencies in their experiences, reflective learning allowed the students’ individual growth, patterns, and nuances to add a complex and personalized picture of each learner than what might have been possible with a strictly teacher-driven, outcomes-based assessment approach to evaluating students’ performance.  In this sense, FreshGrade’s flexibility to function simultaneously as an assessment tool and a showcase of learning portfolio was another strength of the tool.
Although developing metacognitive practice with students was a worthy objective,  there were some significant limitations that needed to be addressed on an ongoing basis in order to foster deep reflection among all students.  First, student responses were generally quite limited when prompts were vague or general.  This was aligned with Rickards et al.’s (2008) findings that “to ask a student to simply ‘reflect on’ or ‘write about’ a learning situation could be very ineffective (p. 35).  Although considered to be open-ended, simple prompts such as “Describe your role,” “What were your thoughts/feelings/actions?” and “What did you learn?” (Goodyear, Bindal, & Wall, 2013, p. 72) required some specificity in student responses and could elicit deeper thinking about their learning experiences. Second, we found that the expectation that students be able to develop and appreciate complex cognitive pictures of themselves as learners were ambitious goals, even with the opportunities provided by FreshGrade. In Grade 5, many students struggled to process the information provided by a reflection on their strengths and weaknesses without direct support or intentional scaffolding. Often, the prompts needed to be read aloud and discussed before reflections were attempted.  Third, the time that these reflective processes required was significant and had to be intentionally embedded into our practice regularly in order for them to be effective. Expecting students to reflect on their own time yielded minimal success, and if it was done at all, it was often superficial. Finally, we both felt that expecting these reflections, particularly as a follow-up to larger learning activities and in response to teacher feedback, should have been more frequent in order to be more effective. When students began a task that was in some way reminiscent of a previous activity, they should have been more frequently required to revisit previous reflections.  Through this, they might have intentionally begun to make connections and generalizations about themselves as learners before a task and not just following its completion.  Perhaps more pronounced changes to learning behaviours and habits might have followed.
Theme 3: Developing metacognition 
Inquiry-based practice acknowledges that learning is most effective if embedded in social experience (Gilbert, 2005; Jardine, Clifford & Friesen, 2008; Black & Wiliam, 2004). The simple act of uploading artifacts online was not in itself a social experience, but there was an inherent and subsequent interaction among stakeholders when student work and achievement became transparent.  Whether these interactions occurred face to face or by digital means, FreshGrade facilitated many discussions among parents, students, and teachers by providing multiple topics and purposes for a conversation to occur.

In particular, dialogue between student and teacher was magnified more visibly through the use of FreshGrade.  Whether or not an assignment was submitted was no longer debatable.  The layout of students’ portfolios was arranged so that individual artifacts were attached to teacher’s evaluation, and the extensive feedback the teacher provided was permanently visible and could not be mysteriously misplaced (Figure 9). According to students, the quantity of teacher feedback that could be attached to each task also significantly enhanced students’ awareness of strengths and areas of growth (Figure 10). Consequently, discussions at home could be framed around students’ next plans. When conversation is part of learning, “students become more active as participants and come to realize that learning may depend less on their capacity to spot the right answer and more on their readiness to express and discuss their own understanding” (Black & Wiliam, 2004, p. 27).  Through FreshGrade, questions teachers asked as part of the formative assessment process could also be responded to and students had the opportunity to create further meaning through discourse (Figure 11).




As a showcase portfolio, FreshGrade also promoted dialogue between students and parents. Because FreshGrade was often utilized as a means of sharing learning en masse through announcements, video clips of discussions, or even snapshots of notes from the board, it provided some insight into their child’s day in the classroom when their child was reluctant or “too tired” to share. One parent described that, “[in] two minutes, I [had] a better idea of what [my child did] and a view of your feedback than I…managed to get out of Edmodo.”  For some parents, the tool helped establish communication connections. “FreshGrade was “helpful…especially [to] those who do not see me or talk to me on a regular basis,” wrote a parent.  Moreover, parents indicated that due to the transparency of reporting through FreshGrade, it provided them with additional opportunities to celebrate in their child’s achievements and progress. A parent also expressed gratitude in having a clearer direction in supporting their child at home. “It [gave] me the visual of the board or the test, and then I knew exactly what sort of problems they [were] supposed to [solve]. Sometimes, with only an explanation, I go off into a wrong direction,” described a parent.  When surveyed if FreshGrade influenced conversations at home around our work in Math and Science, most parent survey respondents (about 80%) either agreed or strongly agreed to this statement (Figure 12).


When it came to frequency of visits, it is noteworthy that parents and students reported marked differences. Parents reported visiting their child’s portfolio less frequently than their child, with only about ⅓ visiting it once a day. (Figure 13) It is also important to note that the ability of FreshGrade to foster parent-student dialogue was reported as notably lower among Grade 7 respondents. In part, this is likely to the fact that the portfolio was only opened to Grade 7 parents for the final term of the school year and many parents felt either frustrated by the change in technology or overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information that was being shared. As well, it is a reflection of the students’ developmental age and their increased reluctance to share work at home. Furthermore, it is a result of more parents allowing Grade 7 students to take additional responsibility for their learning without constant check-ins. At the end of term 3, about 35% of Grade 7 parents had not connected with their child’s FreshGrade portfolio at all.


Next post: Our commendations, recommendations/ limitations we found with the platform  (FreshGrade).


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