The Learning Record

Small Multiples


Other Links

Using Small Multiples for Keeping Track of Student Work

M. A. Syverson

When the activity, rather than the product, becomes the focus of analysis, it can be confusing to decide how to credit or even keep track of assignments. While I do not grade individual assignments, I do believe we need to keep track of whether specific assignments have been turned in and to make a rough assessment about the appropriateness of the substance and quality of the response to the task that was posed.

Taking Edward Tufte's idea of small multiples and particularly his development of a comprehensive patient medical chart, I am working to develop a "vital signs" indicator for student work. It involves not a grade, but a point in a box which has two axes: quantity and quality. Each assignment's activities can be plotted in order to account for the various kinds of written and class work, fairly quickly and easily. If you do portfolio evaluations, you can also plot the evidence included in the portfolio and then separately provide comments on the work included. Note that any kind of work or medium, from final revisions of papers to oral presentations to multimedia productions or online communications can be represented by this system.

This method of tracking student work is not part of the Learning Record system, and it is not necessary to use it when using the Learning Record. It is simply a different way of accounting for students' ongoing work that can be used with any form of evaluation.

How it works:

What looks like a typical teacher's record sheet can be made much richer in information, yet easier to track across the semester or year through using each box not for a check, grade or number but for a plotted point. This is done by considering the two dimensions of the box as axes. For example, I am interested, as I quickly review students' assignments or other work, both with the work's quality and the quantity. These are the two axes I use: quality for the vertical dimension and quantity for the horizontal dimension. Here are two enlarged examples:

above average mark In this example, the dot represents work that is above average, though not outstanding, both in quantity and quality.
below average mark This dot represents work that is above average in quantity but quite a bit below average in quality.

You can see how this looks in a teacher's gradebook:

Example Class Record Sheet
(Example will open in a new browser window)

Notice that this format provides a kind of constellation or star map representing students' progress graphically as a movement across space and time. This method is surprisingly quick and in fact it is all you need to record if you are providing comments to writers on their work itself. It allows you to scan a whole row and visually track the progress of a particular student. You can also look down a column and visually track the fate of your assignment: if many of the marks are in the same low quadrant, perhaps the assignment was confusing for students, and needs more preparation to work well, or perhaps it did not work well for other reasons.

The information in this format can help teachers recognize when they need to seek reasons for students' lack of success with a particular assignment. Students who tend to generate work of high quality but low quantity can be encouraged to expand their ideas further, while students who tend to generate work of high quantity but rather low quality can be encouraged to focus and direct their efforts, spending more time on developing the quality of their writing.

You may decide on a different set of terms for the axes, but the interesting thing is that you can provide, with a single dot, two kinds of information about a particular item, twice as much as a grade or check mark provides. It is easier to recognize trends at a glance, and it also eliminates the need to do complex arithmetic averaging. Is the student consistently engaging in class activities at an above average level? Did a student get off to a rocky start and then gain momentum? Did a student start losing ground after the midterm? Aren't we much more interested in answers to these questions than answers to questions such as how do you average a B+ at 40% of the grade, a C for 10%, an A- for 20%, a B for 15% and a B- for 15%?

You can track as many or as few assignments or activities as you choose to using this method. You can also add an "L" (as shown in the example) to any box to indicate that an assignment was turned in late. On the lines above the maps I briefly describe each assignment as it is due. I've used this method successfully for two years now, and I appreciate more and more its flexibility and its support for portfolio assessment.

Reference: Tufte, Edward. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, CT: Graphis Press, 1997.

Here are my instructions on minimal marking, a sane process, originating with Richard Haswell, for helping students work on sentence level errors of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. >>

The Learning Record | © 1995-2006 M. A. Syverson

" "