Instead of Paying Thousands for Student Data Systems, Try This Free Option Instead


When I taught high school English, I created an essay system that did just that. It used a Google Form rubric, a Google Sheet as a database, and a “Student Tracker System” I developed. This setup allowed me to differentiate and individualize my students’ learning. I loved it, and it made my life easier--but more importantly, my kids loved it, too. The great thing is, this system can be applied to any class and assignment that uses a rubric--and it can be done for free.

Here’s how you, no matter the subject you teach, can turn data into a personalized learning experience for your students--while making your life easier.

Empowering students

Before you can understand the system, you have to understand the philosophy that led to it.

The way I had previously handled essays and grading was deficient. Students wrote papers at home, and turned them in (hopefully) on the due date. Then, I would spend a week slogging through 500-750 pages of writing leaving written feedback that got worse the longer I graded. I handed these papers back, students glanced at their grade, and the paper was never seen nor discussed again save for the occasional, “Mr. Aviles hates me, so I got a bad grade.” I wanted a system that 1) empowered students and 2) delivered timely, focused feedback that lead to better learning outcomes.

Thus, I changed three things about the way I taught writing to empower my students.

  • The first was to ditch the idea of essays and embrace pushing their writing to a larger audience through blogging. Blogging works better because students will spend way more time perfecting a blog than an essay because they know the whole world could see their blog. And, in this brave new world of likes and shares, my students loved to be able to track their blog views and location analytics.
  • The second was to allow students to write their entire blog in class. Writing their blog at home meant they couldn’t get the help and feedback they needed when they needed it. Writing in class also encouraged students to spend more than the night before on their writing.
  • The third thing I changed about my teaching to empower students, the big thing that the rest of this article hinges on: I removed myself as the first and only grader.

I got this part of my system from the brilliant Kate Baker: When it came time for “final drafts” (you’ll see why I put the quotation marks soon), I would randomly assign student blogs to a peer to be graded using a Google Form rubric. When students got their grade and comments back from their peer, they had two choices:

1) If they thought the grade was fair, they could accept it and I would put it in the gradebook, without grading it myself. This choice was made via exit ticket and it meant they were done with the assignment.

2) If they thought the grader was unfair or the grade was fair, but thought they could do better, they could make the changes and in the next class have the same grader grade it, have me grade it, or have me assign a new grader. Writing is never done, it’s done for now, so I dispelled the myth of the final draft; my kids could choose to revise their essay, as many times as they wanted, until they were happy with their grade.

The exit ticket Authors filled out after receiving their feedback and score from the scorer.

I collected and analyzed a lot of data, and over the two years, I finetuned my system. Students would rewrite their blog, on average, three times before accepting their grade.

On average, my students graded themselves and each other two points harder than I did; their peer grade was an 85 to my 87. The keys to getting students to be strong peer-graders came through holding graders accountable with a Scorer Evaluation Sheet, having a good rubric, and teaching students how to use a rubric properly.

Delivering timely, focused feedback that leads to better learning outcomes

The rubric I used is based on the Common Core standards and our school’s in-house rubric; it is focused on assessing students’ argumentative writing which was a departmental focus for the year. You can adapt this rubric in a variety of ways, but after teaching students how to use it properly, the next thing that makes this rubric effective is the fact that to receive a perfect score you have to be perfect. For instance, if something is absent from the blog that should be there, they receive no points.

Like every Google Form, when peer-graders submitted their scores, it went into one big Google Sheet. My students blogged every two weeks, and with an average of three submissions per student every two weeks, you can imagine how massive the Google Sheet got. With a few modifications, this sheet became an incredible tool that helped drive my instruction. By adding some conditional formatting to the Google Sheet, as you can see in the below example, I was able to create a Heat map. At a glance, this Heat map showed me where my students were struggling. This allowed me to do small group or whole-class instruction based on where my students needed the most help. But what about personalizing the learning experience?

Sample of what the class heat map looks like.

Here’s the secret sauce: I had students makes a copy of the “Student Tracker” sheet in their Drive. The Student Tracker formula went through that big Google Sheet, and pulled out only their information, subsequetly putting it on their own personal Student Tracker sheet.

With the same conditional formatting as the whole class database (which they weren’t given access to), students got their own personal database that tracked the feedback they received on their blogs for the year. Students, at a glance, could see how they had been doing over time and self-assess where they needed help during the student-led conferences we had once a week.

Student Tracker Formula pulling out a specific student’s data.

Here is a Google folder with all of the resources you need to use this system in your classroom or, better yet, to make your own. Feel free to make yourself a copy and use them as is or modify them to suit your needs. On my site, as a companion to this article, I’ve recorded a How-To screencast that will walk you step-by-step through setup and implementation of this system in your classroom along with some helpful tips to keep in mind should you create your own system. You can check it all out here.

By empowering learners to take control of their education, believing in their ability to be honest, fair, and accurate critics, embracing iteration instead of failure, and using data to personalize student learning, we can change business as usual in our classrooms. This system did that for me, and I hope it will do it for you. 

This post is part of the EdSurge Fifty States Project (representing the state of New Jersey). The project is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the individual contributors alone and do not reflect the views of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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