Sesame: Collaborative Student Portfolios for Rich Feedback

Just over a year ago, I embarked on a research project where I interviewed early-career teachers about their assessment practices.  I heard them tell me of their frustration with the feedback process, where students didn’t read feedback and didn’t act upon it. They told me that they found the use of grade book software to be very frustrating and that distilling all their classroom data into a single number seemed to render it useless.

I asked them what they wanted as a tool to support feedback and assessment, and most of them struggled to describe what might help.  However, one teacher mentioned that she had been playing with an app called Sesame and that it seemed to have features that allowed her to gather student work, create meaningful rubrics, and communicate rich feedback.  When I researched this further, I discovered that not only was it an app, but it also had a web version that was free.

I tried out the free version, talked to more teachers, and learned that the paid version contained all of our jurisdiction’s standards or expectations, AND that it allowed us to write our own “big ideas” or large goals.  With the added functionality of providing feedback to the teacher about student achievement, mapped to the course expectations, I knew this was something I needed to see in action. (Check out YouTube for examples.)

This is our school’s second year using Sesame as one of our assessment tools, and I am amazed at all the ways it has changed assessment for students and teachers.  

Here are some of what I have seen:

  • Groups of students documenting their process in science labs with their cell phone cameras so that their teacher can tag the uploaded files to the students in the group and then assess each individually using a co-constructed rubric.

Sesame 1

  • Teachers viewing graphs of the course expectations, and seeing the distribution of levels for each expectation, both for the entire class and for each individual student.
  • Parents seeing the results of the previous evening’s homework in the uploaded video of the class presentation, the rubric with criteria for each “look for” clearly assessed, and rich descriptive feedback provided by the teacher’s comments.
  • Students responding to their teacher’s feedback by uploading a revised version of their work or creating a new artifact, tagging it to the course expectations and replying to the feedback in writing within Sesame.
  • Students opening work that was submitted in previous courses, reviewing the feedback, and then focusing on areas of need in their current coursework.
  • Teachers using curriculum expectations as the base language for a “level 3” in a rubric and then co-constructing the criteria in student-friendly language before students embark on their inquiry.
  • Teacher teams designing supports for fundamental skills based on their access to student work from many courses.
  • Students, parents, and teachers accessing evidence of learning in a digital form, anytime, anywhere.
  • Course teams developing learning goals that reflect bigger, more essential ideas and then using these as criteria in their checklists, rubrics, and feedback.
  • Detailed reports being generated that use color-coded graphs to summarize the distribution of levels of achievement for each of the course expectations.

Sesame 2

  • Teachers conferencing with students at reporting time, determining a level that is most consistent and most recent, and then deciding on an actual mark within that level to put on the report card.
  • Students writing the comments that will appear on the report card, based upon the many opportunities they have had to do self-assessment throughout the course.

We have teachers who are using Sesame for all their assessment, some who are using it only for process work and formative assessment, and some who have chosen it as the tool for one unit and then returned to their traditional grade book for the balance of their course.

It is taking time for teachers to feel confident in their professional judgement of a final level or mark based upon a student portfolio of work with rich descriptive feedback and rubrics with clear criteria. They know that many parents and post-secondary institutions trust a calculated mark, even if the mark is based upon the teacher’s unscientific decisions to make this question “out of 3” and another “out of 5”. However, they are beginning to understand that what they can provide in descriptive feedback and clear criteria is much richer than the single number on a test.

As they gain experience and comfort, I anticipate a day when a student submits work that is assessed against not just the standards of the subject they are in, but other subjects in their grade, and where the teacher assesses the work against standards within their subject that they might have “failed” in previous years, or even those that they have mastered ahead of reaching that grade.

When all student learning is valued and documented, our students are able to develop a growth mindset and a positive self-image of themselves as learners.  I don’t know if Sesame is the tool that we will end up using in the long-term, but I see it doing great things for our kids now, and I’m excited by how it is changing our instruction, assessment, and evaluation.

Terry Whitmell is the Principal at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga, ON, Canada. Read more of her writing at and connect with her on Twitter @terrywhitmell.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or continue the conversation on Facebook. And please join #TG2Chat on the Second Sunday of the month at 9 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Pacific.

One thought on “Sesame: Collaborative Student Portfolios for Rich Feedback

  1. Pingback: Twitter Chat – What fun!! | Terry Whitmell

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