Learning from Green, Pink, and Yellow Post-it Notes

Our last professional development day was a joint PD day with our colleagues from Drew Charter School.  I am a fan of many of our colleagues at Drew because of my interactions and learning with them through the Center for Teaching, so I had a great day.  The big learning themes were formative assessment and project based learning.  As a precursor to our day, we were asked to read a two-page summary of Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam.

In Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment Black and Wiliam say

There is a body of firm evidence that formative assessment is an essential component of classroom work and that its development can raise standards of achievement. We know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made.”

Some of our colleagues got caught up in the statistics and questioned if these data are pertinent to our work since we serve an academically enabled population.  Others tweeted that they needed examples of formative assessment and how to do this in their classrooms.  Some educators say their kids need grades; they want grades.

I think our learners will respond to feedback as well or better than they do to grades.  How many times have we handed graded papers back and a child says “Why did is miss this? Why did you count this wrong? What am I missing here?”  Aren’t they seeking feedback?  And, since they didn’t get it, they have to ask for it.

And what happens to that graded paper next?  How many students use that graded paper to seek understanding, to learn more, deeper, better?  How many students stick it in their notebook to, maybe, pull it back out to prepare for an exam?

To grade or not to grade, that is not the question, right now.  Black and Wiliam state

“For assessment to function formatively, the results have to be used to adjust teaching and learning; thus a significant aspect of any program will be the ways in which teachers make these adjustments.”

My team tried an experiment last week with our learners and their graded exams.  Our goals were simple.  We wanted them to identify their strengths and find their needs and questions.  We wanted each learner to analyze their exam to determine where simple mistakes occurred and where they need additional support.  We wanted to give them the opportunity to seek advice, support, and learning.  We wanted to differentiate and individualize the feedback and instruction.

In addition to completing the table of specification to determine their proficiencies for each essential learning, we asked our learners to complete their exam corrections on color-coded post-it notes.

  • Use a green post-it note if it was a simple error.  We define a simple error as one that you can fix yourself.  It causes you to think “duh, what was I thinking? How could I have done that?” Green for it’s mostly good, I just made a simple mistake.
  • Use a red (pink) post-it note if you needed help and support to correct the problem. It may have been a simple error, but if you can’t find it yourself, then you need more help and support.  Could it be that the pre-requisite skill is the root of the problem?  Red (pink) for STOP, this needs more attention; we need to work on this more.
  • Use a yellow post-it note to describe your work and what improvements were needed.  Write yourself a note describing what you learned from this correction.  Yellow for caution, I need to consider this in my future work.

We expected for students to use 2 post-it notes for every question where they missed something.  The first, green or pink, would have the correction, and the second, yellow, would have a descriptive note.  The yellow post-it note is our attempt at increasing students’ metacognition.  Can they think and write about what they were and should be thinking?  Wouldn’t that be great?  To see and hear what they were thinking instead of having to guess.

Each learner had to analyze their work individually to determine if a simple mistake occurred.  We hope this is good reflection and self-assessment.  It is interesting to consider how much they wanted to use the green post-it notes rather than the pink ones.  “But, Ms. Gough, all I really did was drop a negative.  I just needed someone to help me find my careless error.”  Nope.  If someone had to help you find it, then it was not so simple.

Learners are encouraged work together to complete these corrections, thus their interaction opportunities and feedback increased.  Their questions are so much better crafted when they got to the level of needing the “teacher’s” help.  Their questions were refined during their self-analysis and by their peers.

What we did not expect was the number of yellow post-it notes on problems that were not missed on exam day, in other words, there was no accompanying green or pink post-it note.  When asked, they uniformly explained that they still did not feel confident about solving this type of problem and wanted/needed to write themselves a note about their work and check their understanding.  Now that’s some really good feedback.  If we want our learners to know and feel confident about their work, we should assess their confidence and disposition as well as their success.

Again, from Black and Wiliam,

Thus self-assessment by pupils, far from being a luxury, is in fact an essential component of formative assessment. When anyone is trying to learn, feedback about the effort has three elements: recognition of the desired goal, evidence about present position, and some understanding of a way to close the gap between the two.

If we, as a team, believe that the big ideas on our exam are essential for our children to learn, then we must find a way to coach our learners to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be.  If I needed additional evidence of how important it is to close the gaps for my learners, I can read Final Exam postmortem by Quantum Progress.  He is working with my previous set of learners; they are struggling with concepts I was responsible for during the previous school year.  They are still my kids; they are our kids. We want them to be successful; they want to be successful.  I certainly want my current learners to be well prepared when they move to physics in August.

This assessment experiment, we hope, involves student self-assessment, formative assessment, and team-assessment.  We want our students to know where there gaps are and recognize what they need to do to hit the targets.  We want to know what each learner needs so that we can intervene individually and collectively.  We want to analyze where our team’s strengths are and where we need to improve.

The combination of the table of specifications results, a numerical representation of progress, and the color-coded post-it notes, a visual representation of needs, can help us differentiate to meet our learners’ needs.

Can we undo the long-standing habit of sticking graded papers away, rarely to be seen again?  Can we help our learners grow and increase their confidence by helping them use graded papers formatively?  Will our work be easier, and will we save time if we incorporate self-assessment and peer assessment into our daily habits?

Will the number of pink post-it notes decrease over time?  Will this color-coding method work for others?

Can we coach our learners to seek, find, and close the gaps in their learning?

Are we willing to experiment and learn by doing?


  1. I love this. I first want to notice (I’ve meant to say something before) that you are super consistent about using the word “learner” , as opposed to “students” or “kids.” How long did it take you to make this part of your vocabulary? Do you also try to get your learners to adopt this vocabulary? How long does it take them? I’ve tried a similar quest with replacing “regular” with “introductory” in my own speech, and found it took less time than I thought, but I’ve been unable to get the term to catch on beyond my own use.

    Also, what is the table of specification you mention? What does it look like? Do you then ask kids to count up the number of post its on each exam, or report to you which questions got post-its, and somehow connect this to the table?


  2. Hi John…

    I’m much better about using “learner” when I write than when I talk. I have different habits; isn’t that interesting. I trying to use learner and eliminate student. I’m always so pleased when I hear them talking about learning rather than grades. We are a work in progress.

    I will say that the post-it notes helped my learners complete their table of specification. We struggle to accurately complete the table of specifications when partial credit has been awarded. Currently, we count the question as correct if a green post-it note could be used for the correction. The red post-it notes call for more critical reasoning. If a child had no idea, then it is obvious. If the mistake was computational, but they couldn’t find it alone, it is counted as correct. We decide together if they do or don’t understand the learning target and if it was a prerequisite skill that caused their error.

    In all cases, it calls for collaboration and conversation. We talk about what they know and what they need to know. It is much better feedback than before for everyone.

    I will post an example of last week’s formative assessment on negative exponents with student examples along with their tables of specifications. If that is not enough information, then I’ll have another topic for my blog. Thanks. It is difficult for me to gauge how much detail to include. Keep asking these great questions.


  3. I wonder what method/technology could be leveraged so that you could also get color-coded post-it notes on an item analysis of the test. Phase I provided the students with a reflection tool. What about a phase II in which the test items had data points of green, red, yellow – an item analysis of the ELs by color code. Might turn out that EL #3 had a high number of red post-its for an entire class. EL #2 may have lots of green. Would be interesting, too. What a powerful means of post-assessment reflection. Bravo. So appreciate connection forming between Alg I and Physics 9.


    • You might be able to do something like this with Riley Lark’s incredible new gradebook, ActiveGrade. If you check with him, he may be able to give you a beta account. It’s fantastic; Riley designed it to work from the ground up with standards based grading, and to focus on giving kids specific advice on what the need to do to improve. I’ve been working on a review. Riley Lark is a former excellent math teacher who got so frustrated with the poor gradebook options that he decided to stop teaching and write his own. His blog (linked above) is filled with great thoughts about grading (he hates 0’s) and math teaching (here’s a nice post on geogebra).


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