Tracking Journals

Alright, it’s time to resurrect this poor, neglected blog.  For lots of reasons, life has been extremely busy for the last year and I keep accumulating little notes to myself with ideas for posts I’d like to write, but those posts haven’t been materializing on their own, so here we go.

Today I’m writing up something I decided to be more intentional about this year: getting my students to commit reflections on their learning and thinking to paper.

metacognitionimage credit:

Ever since switching to SBAR a few years back, I’ve had students keep tracking journals separate from their class notebooks.  I started doing it for two main reasons.  Several people with experience in the SBAR world (I don’t even remember who anymore—my apologies) recommended it as a way to ensure students had a sense of the learning goals and were aware of what the focus of their efforts should be going forward.  The second reason is that I knew I never really spent enough time congratulating student achievement and handing out ata-boys/girls.  Not that I’m not an encouraging teacher, just that I tend to encourage on the, “You can do it!” side rather than the, “Look how awesome it is that you did that!” side.  I thought maybe if the students were tracking their progress, they’d get a little more of that post-achievement encouragement than I was in the habit of giving.  I know, I know: it’s not the same.  Making sure I take the time to stop and point out how far students have come is something I am working on.

For those first couple of years, I tacked on some metacognitive reflection almost as an afterthought.  I know it’s important to think about how you learn, what’s working, what isn’t, and why, but I really didn’t follow through in a way that made the practice useful.  When I’d give back a quiz, if it was the first time students had received scores on a particular target, I had them fill out a sheet with the target code, the full target description, etc., and then record the scores for all of the targets on the quiz on the appropriate sheets.  Afterward, I would say something like, “Write a paragraph about how you feel like your learning is going.”  I didn’t really give them much guidance and as a result they didn’t do a very good job reflecting.  We didn’t do anything with the reflections and every year, after a quarter or so, I’d pretty much stop even asking them to write reflections; they were just recording scores.

This year I resolved to make the practice more worthwhile.  After the first quiz, we talked as a class about the value of several things: the ability to sniff out what’s being asked of you, the ability to self-assess, and the ability to reflect on how you are learning. Then I projected the following writing prompts on the board and asked the students to respond.

“What learning targets were covered on this quiz?”

“How well do you think you communicated your understanding of each of them?”

The next day, when I handed back their quizzes, I did so with written feedback, but no scores.  After giving everyone a few minutes to look over their quiz (and talk with neighbors about questions—I don’t answer anything at this point), I put up another set of prompts.

“Based on the feedback you received, what score do you think you earned for each of the learning targets?”

“How well do you think these scores match your understanding of each of them?  Why?”

A few minutes later, I handed back each student’s scores and told them to record those scores on the tracking sheets they’d previously filled out.  Then I put up the final set of prompts.  I told the students they didn’t have to answer all of them, but rather that these should give them some inspiration for what to say.  I wanted to be sure the students had some leeway to write about something meaningful to them.


In case you can’t read all of those, they’re:

“What about this quiz was difficult?  What about it was easy?”

“How did you prepare for this quiz?  How well did it work?  What, if anything, should you do differently in the future?”

“How well did your self-assessment of your performance line up with the scores you received?”

“What might you do to keep from making the same kinds of mistakes next time?”

“Which learning target from this quiz is the most difficult?  What about it makes it tough?”

For the next five or so quizzes, once students began handing their papers in, I would project the first set of prompts.  The next day, after handing the quizzes back, I would project the next two sets of prompts, giving scores in between.  After a few runs through this routine, I don’t even have to give the students the prompts any more, just a reminder that “you know what to write about at this point.”

There are a few things about my procedure that I really like.  I’ve stopped giving students a rundown of exactly what’s going to be on a quiz in advance.  I make sure they have a general idea of the range of topics, but most of the time I don’t tell them for certain which topics they’ll see.  This makes the, “What learning targets were covered on this quiz?” question meaningful, since they don’t know walking in and I want them to have to think carefully about it.  I believe that getting better at figuring out what is being asked of them will improve their ability to provide stronger evidence of their understanding, so I want to draw that out.  This seems to be working well.

Improving their self-assessment skills will also be valuable to them long after they’ve left my class, so I really want to make them work on that as well.  I sometimes talk about getting the difference between self-assessments and actual scores down to zero reliably enough that I don’t even have to hand back scores, just feedback, but I don’t think we’ll ever actually get there.  It’s also nice to force them to dig into the feedback I provide, which they seem to do a lot more meaningfully if there’s not a score to skip to.  At first it drove them nuts to get papers back without scores, but they’re used to it now.  (By the way, I’d love to hear if anyone has any suggestions for how to manage delaying the scores, logistically.  I’m currently doing it by writing scores out on little scraps of paper by hand, but I’d love something more streamlined.  Email, although more environmentally friendly, wouldn’t be any less tedious—probably more, actually.  A friend and I joked how cool it would be to write the scores in something that only shows up under black light and installing a black light in the classrooms I teach in.  Hand out papers, let students reflect, and then—*flip switch*—the scores appear!)

I’m currently torn on feedback.  On one hand, I’d like to provide clear feedback that gives the students well-defined steps toward improvement.  On the other, sometimes I think it might be best to simply indicate where things aren’t quite up to par and make them dig deeper/talk to classmates/etc. to figure out where they went wrong (and that by handing them a list of what they should do, I might be robbing them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves).  It’s still up in the air for me.  Thoughts?

In any event, being more specific with the writing prompts I give the students has made a world of difference in the quality of their reflections.  I don’t respond in their journals and don’t read them on any kind of schedule (just from time to time, usually when students are taking a quiz), but some of the reflections I’ve seen are fantastic.  We’ve made it through the first semester without giving up yet, and the end isn’t anywhere in sight.  Another nice thing is that last year our school switched to student-led conferences in the spring (students give a run-down on their learning in all of their classes to their parents, no teachers involved), and their journals will provide them with almost ready-made material for those presentations.  I definitely want to not only continue the practice in years to come, but to improve and make it even more meaningful.

One of the shortcomings of my current system is certainly that we don’t do much with the stuff that they write beyond the student-led conferences.  I don’t regularly read the stuff (mostly due to time constraints) and we don’t necessarily act on any of it as a class.  I think I’m still leaving it too much in their court to pull the pieces together and make the connections.  Some of the students write wonderful reflections and some don’t.  This has to be due in part to my lack of follow-through.  Perhaps I should incorporate it into the grade somehow?  My gut feeling is not to, but I can imagine a few ways to do it: a long-standing learning target that goes into the mix with the others to determine their grade, or perhaps a separate portion of their grade, say 5% or 10%, coming from outside the learning target system and instead dictated by how seriously they take these reflections.  I could make this fit with my philosophy of what I think grades should represent (what a student knows and can do—since I have to give grades, that is) because the things I want the students to work on in these journals (the ability to sniff out what’s being asked of you, the ability to self-assess, the ability to reflect on how you are learning) are at least as important in the long run as the specific math we’re doing.  But I’d really like to think I could get even more meaningful engagement just by having solid practices in place so that the students know by our actions that this stuff is important and come to see the value through results more than they already are.

I can also probably do a better job promoting real metacognitive understanding.  What questions would you ask and what discussions would you have around that?  Do you have any routines that work well for your classes?

I’d love to hear what other teachers are doing along these lines.

2 responses to “Tracking Journals”

  1. Carmel Schettino says :

    So sorry – I finally had time to respond to this Ben. I think that any type of reflection is always good, first of all. One thing I wondered was why would you only have students reflect on assessments – isn’t it too late then? I understand that part of SBAR is formative assessment, but I guess I use the writing as the formative assessment. That’s why it’s about the learning and the actual material.

    the other question I had was if you ask them a prompt like “what learning goals were on the quiz?” how is that a self-assessment reflection question? Aren’t they really assessing the quiz? Maybe it could be more like “how many of the learning goals was I able to meet and why/why not?”

    Again,these are just thought questions, not criticism because I think that any type of writing is always good for students to do, but I have found that having students make their thinking about mathematics explicit is always what should be the goal – whether it’s about their learning or the performance is actually the question here, I guess.

    • benjaminsabree says :

      Those are great questions.

      I don’t think of this writing as too late since we work on targets across multiple quizzes (typically 3 or more) so the students end up using the reflections going forward, but you raise a good point about having them write earlier. I’ve never really explored more traditional journaling (if you can call it that), I guess out of the standard feeling of being rushed. I’d love to talk to you sometime about how you structure your students’ writing within the class/week.

      With the question about what learning targets they just saw, I’m really just trying to get them in the habit of thinking about what they’re being asked so that they are sure to provide evidence of their understanding. It seems to me that the default student mode on assessments is just question-answering without any real attention given to demonstrating understanding. I remind students that their job on quizzes is not to answer questions, but to communicate their understanding to me. With that particular prompt, that’s the thing I’m angling for, but you’re right that it’s not really self-assessment. I guess by the time they write about it, it’s too late.

      Good stuff to think about. Thanks.

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