I [heart] spreadsheets

8399214678_8b1ee3f361_bI love spreadsheets! I love spreadsheets so much that my colleagues gave me an “I love spreadsheets” t-shirt. I use spreadsheets for typical spreadsheet tasks, like managing a budget and analyzing data, but I also use spreadsheets for other stuff too, like taking notes for research projects.

I think learning to use spreadsheets should be a standard high school learning outcome. It doesn’t matter to me whether students learn to use spreadsheets in a science class, math class, information technology class or humanities class, as long as they learn to use them. Here’s why I think it’s so important:

  • Spreadsheets let you do a lot of computations really quickly. When students use spreadsheets to solve problems, they can focus on other parts of the problem-solving process, like posing interesting questions and selecting appropriate mathematical techniques to solve them. Conrad Wolfram explains this better than I could in this TED Talk. Here’s an example of how I have used spreadsheets to speed-up the computation in order to focus on deeper problem-solving.
  • Because spreadsheets allow students to out-source computations, they are a great introduction to programming. When using spreadsheets, students learn to tell a computer what to do. This begins with familiar language, like the mathematical operations, but can become more complex with functions like conditional formatting, relative referencing and pivot tables. Learning how to determine what you want to do with a data set and then learning how to say that in a language the computer will understand is the beginning of programming.
  • Finally, spreadsheets have applications across the high school curriculum and in all kinds of work. I know most students are unlikely to use spreadsheets as enthusiastically and as widely as I do, but most will need them at some point and its a good skill for students to have.




The Wisdom of the Crowd

Inspired by this segment of the BBC’s series, The Code, I recently tried replicating the jelly bean experiment during my school’s science fair.


I filled an old pickle jar with jelly beans and put it on display as students, teachers and parents explored the science fair. All science fair visitors were invited to estimate the number of jelly beans in the jar for a chance to win all the jelly beans. Meanwhile, I collected the estimates to determine whether the average estimate approached the actual number as more and more people participated.

In order to streamline the data collection, I had students enter their estimate in a google form. The estimates were automatically collected in a spreadsheet that I could analyze. It only took a few minutes to graph the results:

Jelly Bean Graph

The display was a popular exhibit at the science fair and appealed to both elementary and secondary students, as well as parent visitors. As it turned out, the three best estimates all came from elementary students. I just presented the results at the elementary school assembly and it was a big hit. It was great to be able to present scientific evidence that two heads (or many heads) are better than one!

Would you like to give this a try at your school? Here’s a sample Google Form that you can use to get started.

Verify and Jutsify

One of the requirements of middle school math in the International Baccalaureate program is that students must investigate patterns, describe them as general rules and either prove, or verify and justify, that they are true.

Because the proof, verification and justification (i.e. how you show your rule will work in any situation) depends on the situation, my students often struggle with this part of the task. I find it equally difficult to explain to them what is expected without giving them the answer.

True or False formA while ago, I used a Google Form to have students consider various statements about the properties of straight lines. I had done activities like this before as a way to assess prior knowledge and initiate discussion, but this time I required that students give a reason for their answer.

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Digging for deeper mathematical thinking

I recently wrote about using an electronic graphing tool to speed up the mechanics of graphing so that students could make deeper connections about how the content we were covering. The activities that followed were a totally serendipitous foray into some very rich math discussions. Here’s the story…

One of the requirements of the math framework in the school where I teach is that we assess students’ ability to investigate patterns, describe them a general rules and verify/prove that they are true. So, I had students investigate how the values of m and b affect the shape of linear graphs (y = mx + b). Students used an electronic graphing tool in order to generate a variety of graphs quickly in order to make observations. If you’re interested in that part of the story, you can read about it here. If you’re interested in using electronic graphing tools with your class, you should also check out this one, which I only just discovered and is much better than what I used with my class. Continue reading

Speeding up the mechanics to slow down the thinking

Heading into my math 8 unit on linear relationships, I knew that I wanted students to use electronic tools like Google Sheets, Excel or Numbers to generate and manipulate graphs. The students got a bit of a preview when we did a “live graphing” activity at the end of the unit on area and volume. Then, when the new unit began, I had each student make a copy of a Graphing Spreadsheet I had created using Google Sheets*.

Graphing Spreadsheet

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Live graphing!

What do you do with 44 grade 8 students on a sunny Friday morning? Instantly build a graph to reveal a pattern!

It was the end of the week and it was going to be a shorter-than-usual class. I wanted students to learn the relationship between the diameter of a circle and its circumference while also learning that graphing data is one way of visualizing relationships.

Before class started, I made a simple Google Form and raided the science lab for callipers and measuring tapes. At the beginning for class, it took about 5 minutes to show students the form and show them how to use the callipers. I then sent them off to find and measure as many circles as they could find around the school, entering the data in the form as they went. Students used laptops, tablets and smartphones to access the form, but I also had a computer set up in the classroom to prevent technological glitches from getting in the way of the fun.

Circle Data Form

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Blog Series: Giving Better Feedback

I few weeks ago, I wrote about why I wanted to try giving students written feedback instead of number grades. I am now a few weeks into that experiment and I wanted to share one of the strategies that has made the switch possible.

Since I stopped giving students number grades, I have been using Google FormsAutocrat and gClass Folders to give students detailed written feedback about their work. While I’m a willing ed-techie, I’m still definitely a novice, so here’s a quick synopsis of how I got started…

I suppose the whole journey began a while ago when I was suffering major hand cramps from marking science labs: my body just couldn’t handle the repetitive strain of constantly writing out reminders for students to label the axes of their graphs and write a conclusion that refers back to their hypothesis. So, I created a word document template that I could use to give students credit for what they did well, while also reminding them about what they needed to improve in subsequent reports. For more details, check out the full post.

This strategy was really helpful for formative work, but when it came to summative assessments, I wanted to be able to give students more detailed feedback that better reflected the spectrum of achievement. For example, rather than indicating whether they did or didn’t label the axes of their graph, I want to be able to comment on the extent to which they generated an appropriate graph and interpreted it accurately. This information was already contained in the rubrics that I use, but even when I highlighted the descriptors that fit each student’s work, students often didn’t read the comments.

My next trick was to create a Google Form version of the rubric. Rather than marking a paper copy of the rubric, I filled out the Google Form version of the rubric. The result was a spreadsheet in which I had a specific set of descriptors about how each student had performed in relation to the assignment criteria. I then used the AutoCrat script to create a one-page individualized letter for each student with prompts for reflecting on their work. For more detail, check out this post.

Once I worked out the kinks, the system worked quickly and efficiently. In fact, generating the forms was much faster than actually printing them. Of course, both time and paper are valuable resources, so I started to look for alternatives to printing all the feedback forms. That’s when a colleague told be about gClass Folders, which I used to create a Google Drive folder for each of my students. It integrates with AutoCrat so that the merged documents can be automatically filed in the appropriate student’s folder. The details are in this post.

My experiment in numberless assessment has been great motivation to add some technical skills to my repertoire, but all that learning comes second to what I’m learning about how to help students make purposeful changes in their work and learning. I’m already noticing that students are paying closer attention to the rubrics that go with their work and are better able to comment on the extent to which their work met the requirements for each assignment. Stay tuned for further reflection as I continue working towards giving better feedback.