Why Document Learning with Artifacts?

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Gathering learning artifacts creates a more authentic educational journey for students.
"Whether it’s saving old essays, creating a video recording of a student presentation or taking photographs of an impressive physical project, creating learning artifacts deepens students’ connection to their work and turns education into an understandable, improvement-based narrative."

The traditional report card does little to inform students and parents about what academic achievement actually looks like. That one-page report of letter grades and single-sentence comments provides a general scorecard for how a learner is progressing in school, but standard report cards often fail to capture the subtleties of the student experience and lack the nuance to give voice to specifically how and what students are learning to increase their knowledge and skill levels. Thanks to online file storage and sharing platforms, however, teachers and administrators have begun to reimagine how we document learning. Increasingly, educators are finding that documenting learning with artifacts is a powerful complement to or replacement for traditional progress reports and report cards.

Before we dive any further, let’s take a moment to define our terms. The word “artifact” conjures images of golden idols in spider-filled temples, but in the context of documenting learning, an “artifact” is simply a physical object or digital document that displays a learner’s ability or achievement level at a certain moment in time. If a student’s educational progress toward college and career readiness is a journey, then gathering artifacts along the way is like taking snapshots or keeping journal entries along the way.

By making artifact gathering a part of assessment and regular classroom routines, teachers encourage students to develop their metacognitive skills and force them to confront their work head-on. When students are tasked with viewing their work not as something they did “for the teacher” but rather something they created to demonstrate their knowledge and skill, it creates much more investment in and ownership over the learning process.

By attaching a reflection to a high-quality artifact, a learner can create a full educational narrative of their learning experience, from accessing new knowledge and developing new skills at the beginning of a given unit or timeframe to completing the complex summative assessment. Revisiting these artifacts and reflections later in the school year or a learner’s academic career can be powerful, as it shows not just what a given learner’s abilities were at a certain point in time but also how they addressed themselves as a learner, tackled new challenges, and reacted to growth and change in the moment.

Requiring students to gather, upload and reflect upon artifacts is also a natural way to document student progress in constructivist, project-based, personalized, or competency-based learning systems. These progressive approaches eschew the typical grading scale in favor of providing learners with actionable feedback designed to help them improve, and learning artifacts provide the perfect jumping off point for those complex conversations. With an artifact to reference, teachers can tie their feedback to specific features of student work or ideas mentioned in a student reflection. This creates a more grounded, collaborative dialogue between teachers and students, which students are much more likely to be receptive to.

Less than twenty years ago, building the student journey around learning artifacts would have seemed impossible due to storage limitations and the general tendency of students to lose or destroy old work. Thanks to the internet, however, there is a wealth of secure space where students can upload files to document their learning. Whether it’s saving old essays, creating a video recording of a student presentation or taking photographs of an impressive physical project, creating learning artifacts deepens students’ connection to their work and turns education into an understandable, improvement-based narrative.