Spider Graphs, Spider Graphs

This summer I had the chance to attend the Serious Play Conference at George Mason University. While there, I had the chance to hear a presentation by Dr. Lucas Blair, founder of Little Bird Games, titled “Dungeons & Dragons Character Sheets Go to Grad School.” I loved the idea, so I’ve decided to make it a staple of my classroom.

If you’ve never played D&D before, don’t panic. Neither have I. Basically, Dr. Blair’s presentation talked about the power of creating visual player performance dashboards to help give users a clearer sense of their in-game character’s unique abilities. If you’ve ever played a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a video game that lets you create a character (like Madden, NBA 2K, or any of the WWE wrestling games), it works much the same way: you start out with a limited number of player attribute points, and you must decide how to divide these points across multiple tracks of player performance (like speed, technique, intelligence, etc.). In D&D, your startup points are determined by player class and dice rolls. In video games, you start with a set number of points to distribute as you wish. And in both cases, you earn more points and the chance to “level up” particular abilities as you go.

So what if we took this same concept and applied it to our everyday scoring rubrics? Like so:


Instead of awarding students a set number of points for their “starting performance,” we simply score each of (x) components of their submission on basic scales from 1-5 points (with five being highest). Circle the student’s score in the dashboard on the right, then pass back the rubric and have the student chart his or her own individual performance using the spider graph (also known as a radar graph) on the right.

So I’d pass back something like this:


And then I’d give the student 2 minutes to plot his or her results on the spider graph, like so…web2

Boom. Instant visual storytelling with a clear pattern of how you arrived at the grade that you received. Take even a passing glance at the web in the photo above, and you’ll see that this (hypothetical) student clearly knows how to put together an introductory paragraph. Meanwhile, a quick scan of the same graph makes it equally evident that there’s still work to be done in a number of other areas, including quote integration, citation style, sentence variety, and overall argument.

What a powerful way to provide clear, actionable feedback for further self- and shared reflection. As a teacher, you can even project a master graph with the overall class averages for each category to help identify broader patterns for feedback and mini lessons to follow. Likewise, you can encourage students to turn and talk or share their own findings with peer revision pals, examining particular strengths or weaknesses (and finding new peer resources for improvement!) as they compare with the results of their classmates.

I’m also a HUGE fan of following up this charting exercise with a simple three question prompt (using the reverse side of the graph, and asking each question one at a time while allowing 2-3 minutes of response time for each, so that students take the self-reflection exercise seriously). If you’re in a school that’s still using traditional grading, you might even consider scoring :

  1. What was your strongest area of performance with this assignment? What made it so successful?
  2. What was your weakest area(s) of performance for this assignment? Why do you think you struggled in this area?
  3. What resources can the teacher provide to help you improve in the area(s) where you encountered the greatest difficulty? And what concrete step(s) can you take individually to improve your performance in these low performing areas for next time?

And if you’re feeling really ambitious, you can even keep using the same rubric time and again for each new assignment — using different colored pen(cil)s to chart new results on the same graph to help students see visible signs of how (and where) they’re growing.


Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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