How a Simple Notebook Revolutionized My Ability to Track Student Data

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Every night before bed, my wife takes a few minutes to document the ups, downs, advances, and milestones of our children. I have to admit that at first I was somewhat agnostic about the practice. I’ve always had a pretty good memory, so I think at some level I was certain that I would remember how much my daughter loved hummus or the grin my son had the first time he went swinging.  

But as the months and years have rolled on, I have found myself enormously grateful time and again for my wife’s foresight because, despite the relative strength of my memory, I now realize that I have forgotten nearly everything about what life was like in my children’s early days. Having these little snapshots and details of my children’s lives is a tremendous gift for them and us, especially because many of these long-forgotten memories will suddenly light up in vibrant detail when I read about them.

I bring this up to say that human memory is a rather funny thing. We have some significant and well-documented limitations—limitations that grow worse during overwhelming tasks like parenting young children or teaching five sections of 30+ students—and yet we are incredibly good at convincing ourselves that we will definitely remember something later, even if (cough, cough) we are someone who has written about our limitations of memory here or here

The issues with our memory are why practices like retrieval practice or instituting a feedback cycle are so important when designing instruction, and they are also why having a place to store important student data is so important. Now, before moving on, I know that talking about data can make some of us on the classroom side of education bristle. Far too often discussion of data in the classroom brings up images of standardized tests or precedes questionable policy changes or hoops that one must jump through for evaluations or certification. 

And while there is no doubt that the push for “data” is not always a force for good in education, it is worth remembering that data simply means “facts collected together for reference or analysis,” and there are plenty of facts that are worth collecting for future reference and analysis.  

Of course, the other big issue with data collection for classroom teachers is simply the scale of data we encounter. In the same way that every minute of feedback provided takes over 2 hours on a scale of 140 or 150 students, collecting and storing even small bits of data for all of our students can be a Herculean task, especially when added to everything else we must already do. 

For many years, I struggled to implement any sort of data collection practice in my classes at all. There existed plenty of data around me that I wanted to collect and store—everything from how often I shared student work to the books students were reading during choice reading—but I couldn’t figure out how to collect it in a sustainable way. So in the end, I generally did the same thing I did with the memories of my children when they were young: I tried to hold it all in my head, and while my memory performed admirably well given its limitations, I also forgot a lot of important things too. 

It wasn’t until the early months of the pandemic, when I found my brain utterly unable to remember or concentrate, that I finally figured out a sustainable system that worked for me to record the data that mattered. My system took inspiration from Dave Stuart Jr.’s Moments of Genuine Connection (I’ve written about this here, but it is where one records each moment where you truly connect with students to ensure you are connecting with all students. See his original post and follow up here and here) and Jennifer Serravallo’s conference note-taking approach (where you have a whole page in a notebook devoted to each student, so you can see the evolution of conferences over time), and I created a notebook of student names that I placed next to my computer where I recorded my interactions with and passing observations about each student as I remotely taught classes.

The data in the notebook was at first meant to be a stopgap during a particularly difficult time, but the records of my interactions and observations were such an invaluable resource for me during those jumbled and disorienting months that by the time we returned in person, I knew I wanted to continue the practice. It has taken me some months to polish up my approach enough to share it, but here is my system for holding on to the data that matters: 

  1. Each student gets his/her/their own page in the fashion of Serravallo, so that I can see all of the important data about him/her/them at one glance. The pages are ordered alphabetically by section, and at the top is their name that I jot down (with pronunciation if I think I might make a mistake) as they share their names on the first day.
  2. Underneath it on the left side are key details about the student. As I read their introductory letters, I jot down their interests, goals, dreams, and requests in quick bullet points. Throughout the year, whenever I learn something more, I make a quick note of it whenever I find a moment. 
  3. On the right at the top, I keep track of two types of Moments of Genuine Connection: Both quality interactions I’ve had with them in the way that Dave Stuart Jr. does and how often I have shared their work during a micro share. The idea is to make sure that each student has a quality interaction with me and sees their work on the board at least once per quarter. 
  4. Underneath that goes notes from the reading conferences we have every 3-4 weeks. These largely focus on recording what books they are reading, their goals, and how much progress they are making.
  5. The final section is for writing conferences, and it is a place to record the main things I focused my feedback on and the goals they set for themselves, along with any other details that feel important. 

When I think back to my reluctance, both with my own children and my students, to take a few moments to write down the key moments and data, I think it largely boils down to being overwhelmed and not wanting one more thing to break this proverbial camel’s back. But data collection doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Think about the system above. The names are written in the notebook during the first-day name introductions, the conferences notes get filled in as students talk, and tallying moments of genuine connection and student work that was shared, takes a few seconds between classes. The only part that takes any time at all is recording key details about students, but once one is used to it, jotting those down take mere seconds too. 

And yet when all brought together, the page of data—the work of a few scrap seconds here and there—is incredibly valuable and becomes a reference book that I turn to again and again as the year unfolds.

My system is just one of many, so if you have a way of collecting the data that matters, let me know about it, and thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,
Matt

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