After years of coaching and working with teachers, there are two things I consistently encounter that cause imbalance in the classroom and beyond.

  1. First, teachers spend significant time at the front of the room talking. The more time teachers spend at the front of the room transferring information and orchestrating the lesson, the less time they have to work alongside students.
  2. Traditional grading practices rob teachers of the time they need to design dynamic lessons and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

#1 Teacher Talk is a Barrier to Connection

In previous posts, I’ve focused on this first point by encouraging teachers to use blended learning models and strategies to free themselves from the front of the room. When designing lessons where teachers want to transfer information via a mini-lesson or lecture, I encourage them to ask themselves, “Am I going to say the same thing to everyone?”

  • If the answer is “yes,” they should make a video and allow students to self-pace through that instruction. When teachers use video to transfer information, they shift control over the experience to the learner. Students can pause, rewind, and rewatch.
  • If the answer is “no,” and the teacher plans to differentiate instruction, that can happen in small groups as part of a station rotation lesson.

The goal is to shift the transfer of information online using video and other resources (e.g., podcasts, curated online resources) and free the teacher to spend more time facilitating learning. If teachers are not trapped at the front of the room during the lesson, there are myriad ways they can use that time.

#2 Traditional Grading Practices are Exhausting and Unsustainable

This brings me to the second thing I’ve learned as a coach. Too many teachers are grading everything. They worry that if they do not grade everything, students will not do the work. This approach to grading creates massive amounts of work for the teacher, who may have anywhere from 30-170 students.

I have shared the flowchart below before, but it is the strategy I used as a teacher and now use as a coach to rethink how teachers use their finite time and energy.

I want to focus on that last leg in the flowchart. Suppose the work is an assessment or finished product, like an essay, performance task, or project. In that case, the teachers should focus their energy on grading that finished piece with a standards-aligned rubric, but they should not spend hours writing comments, suggestions, and corrections on that finished piece. Teachers should give feedback when students are working on the assignment, not at the end of the process when they will not act on the feedback.

Some teachers balk at the suggestion of using a rubric and not writing comments because that isn’t how they’ve approached grading in the past. Even though most teachers dislike grading, many are hesitant to explore alternatives to their current approach. Despite the initial hesitation, the teachers I’ve coached quickly realize there is a more effective and sustainable way to grade: side-by-side assessments.

Side-by-side Assessments

I began using side-by-side assessments after reading a quote by Margaret Heritage, who said “the word ‘assessment’ comes from the Latin verb ‘assidere,’ meaning ‘to sit with.’ This word origin implies that in assessment the teacher sits with the learner, and assessment is something teachers do with and for students rather than to students.”

I remember having an “ah-ha” moment when I read this. It made absolute sense. Why was I grading at home in isolation? If the grades were worthy of going in the grade book, why wouldn’t I carve out time in class to facilitate side-by-side assessments so students could understand why they were getting the grades they were getting? I also saw an opportunity to use grading as a strategy to develop my relationships with students and to lighten my load.

Setting Up for Side-by-side Assessments

As with most things in education, preparation is key to implementing the side-by-side assessment strategy. You will feel more prepared if you move through the following steps:

  • Step 1: Identify an assignment or assessment that would benefit from a side-by-side assessment. Use the flowchart above to be strategic about what you grade.
    • Note: Teachers should reserve this strategy for large-scale assessments and finished products. If you feel bogged down by smaller assignments that fall into the “practice and review” category, engage your students in self-assessment. They (not you) should think critically about their work, identify errors and areas of strength, and collaborate with classmates to correct their assignments.
  • Step 2: Develop a standards-aligned rubric with 2-3 criteria that you can share with students. A simple standards-aligned rubric with a limited number of criteria will make side-by-side assessments manageable for you time-wise, and it is less overwhelming for students.
  • Step 3: Design a lesson that does not require you to facilitate the learning experience actively. You can use a choice board, choose your learning path adventure, playlist, hyperdoc, or 5Es student-centered inquiry.
  • Step 4: Set up a space in your classroom where you can meet with individual students for side-by-side assessments while also seeing the rest of the students at work.
    • Note: If you are working online with students, host individual conferencing sessions or open a breakout room to facilitate these conversations.
  • Step 5: Decide on a “target time” for each side-by-side assessment to ensure you get through them all in the time you’ve allotted. Remember, these do not need to happen in a single class period and may extend over multiple periods.

Facilitating Side-by-side Assessments

When it comes time to facilitate the side-by-side assessments, I encourage you to do the following:

  • Begin the class by explaining the purpose or value of this approach to grading. Why do you think this approach to grading will help students?
  • Explain the routine and ensure students know what they need to bring with them when you call them up for their side-by-side assessment.
  • Transition students into the self-paced, student-centered lesson.
  • Set your timer at the start of each side-by-side assessment.
  • Conduct a think-aloud as you review the students’ work.
    • What are you noticing?
    • What aspects of the assignment are particularly strong?
    • What is absent or in need of development?
  • Circle language on the rubric that aligns with what you are seeing in the student’s work.
  • Finish by asking the student if they have any questions.

You may find students will ask for support or additional instruction. In that case, add their name and request to a list. These are assessment sessions, not instruction sessions. You won’t have time to provide personalized instruction given the limited time you will have with each student, but you can document those requests. Then, you can reference those notes to design follow-up lessons that aim to provide targeted instruction and support to close gaps or address student concerns.

As teachers prepare for the final weeks of the school year, this can be a powerful way to approach grading final projects and authentic assessments. Side-by-side assessments turn grading into an opportunity to connect with learners and create transparency around the grading process, which often feels opaque from a student’s perspective. It can also eliminate the need for teachers to spend the better part of the first week of summer break grading assessments and projects. And as everyone in education can agree, teachers need their break this year to rest, recharge, and push the reset button!

For a deeper dive

Read more about side-by-side assessments and other strategies designed to create more balance in your work!

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for this blog. I will be using side-by-side grading with my students tomorrow.

    My biggest concern during conferences such as these is providing something meaningful for the rest of the class to be doing at the same time, so the class will be focused and not have a lot of questions that I won’t have time to answer. I’m thinking a reflection and grading their own work….

    Thanks again!

  2. Thank you for this blog. I will sit with my students but I don’t use it for assessment purposes, or at least I didn’t see it this way. This will help me tremendously with my grading.

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