Personal GoogleSites: Introducing Self-Directed Time in DP Bio

Personal GoogleSite: Click to view an example.

Personal GoogleSite: Click to view an example.

Note: originally written in June 2013, this post has been updated with reflections after the 2015 exam session and upon reflection in summer 2017. 

Over the last two years, My IB Bio class have been keeping individual GoogleSites as records and reflections of their learning. Based on this experience and their feedback, I have tweaked the project to try to make it more effective as a learning tool.


With the bulk of our resources online (here on, Slideshare and elsewhere), as well as a 1:1 laptop and GoogleApps environment, it doesn’t make much sense to be using too much paper*. The aim of this project was to empower students to build skills and knowledge connected to the IB Biology course, whilst making their thinking visible to me as a teacher. Through this process, students are able to track their progress, stay on top of their grades and prepare at their own pace (especially if they are working ahead).


I built the template site, giving students all the information they need. This is in place of a printed course handbook. The template includes:

  • Course overview, schedule
  • Details on assessment, both for the final IB Diploma and for the school’s internal semester reporting (and GPA)system.
  • Details of assessment criteria and expectations
  • Content pages including the assessment statements, presentations, space for reflections, etc.

Once I was happy with the template, I made a copy for each student. The sharing settings were private, so only that student and I could see, edit and comment. This was important – the students need to feel confident that they can make mistakes and seek guidance, without being publicly ‘judged’. There are plenty of opportunities for group work and discussion in class time; this is personal.

Students were shown how to use the site, and throughout the course were expected to update and reflect on their learning. Significant class time was given for this every couple of weeks. Their tasks included:

  • Highlighting and learning about the command terms in each assessment statement
  • Editing the page to add links or notes that helped them learn
  • Completing formative assessment tasks such as Quia quizzes, for each subtopic
  • Updating the page with corrected versions of a weekly 8-mark extended response assessment task
  • Reflect on their learning, noting difficulties, strategies and solutions as a reminder for their review.

Each month (or so), their work here was assessed and formed 1/3 of their grade for ‘Knowledge Skills’, an internal criterion used in Powerschool for grading and reporting. This is matched by 1/3 each semester for the weekly 8-mark questions and any unit tests. All together, these three components contribute 3/4 of the semester grade, with the remaining 1/4 coming from lab work.


Students were generally very positive about the project and could see their progress. Some were excellent in their organisation, having completed pre-reading tasks and coming to class with the right pages open/ updated. Others were rushing to complete their reflections on the due date. All could see the benefit of having such a highly-organised and thorough piece of work come review time. Some students did prefere to make paper notes, which they scanned and uploaded. Eventually these students stopped uploading the notes and instead left a note in the page to see their book, which collected at the same time.


As a teacher, there was a great deal of benefit to carrying out this project. Most of all, it allowed time to be freed up for work on higher-impact learning (see Hattie’s Learning Impacts**).

Learning outcomes are clear and explicit.

Putting time into a resource like this before the course makes the teaching much easier. We all know where we are and where we need to be. Students get used to the assessment statements and command terms, and can easily access resources.

Feedback, both formal and informal, is timely and focused.

Using an explicit rubric and modeling the process early on helps students see the expectations. Students are able to accurately self-assess their progress, reflect on their learning and take action on their deficits. The rubric included on the current example has been modified and simplified as much as possible, showing evidence of students meeting my expectations in terms of product and process rather than behaviour.

Students get feedback on the rubric, as well as comments on each page completed and their updated 8-mark question. This allows them to build a personal portfolio of model answers. If they comment on their page themselves, I get an email, so I can respond in a timely and directed manner.

There is a lot of opportunity for differentiation.

Faster students, in particular, appreciate the opportunity to get ahead and then make more connections across the course. IB Biology is so content-driven that a good student could self-study to success, given the right structure (other than labs). If a student is struggling, we can each see their work on the site and build from there.

The learning train is derailed (a bit)

In class we generally have very little lecturing, and certainly never a whole lesson. This process gives me the ability to pre-assess students and form readiness groupings. As needed we can have short whole-class discussions/ lectures or more focused micro-teaching sessions with groups. I can identify students who have mastered concepts and use them to peer-teach others. Unless it is a lab lesson, students will be engaging with the content in their own sites, though they will usually be working collaboratively, helping to build a positive learning relationships. By freeing-up the time from lecturing, there is more time for students to engage with content, concepts, labs and case-studies.

Students have ownership.

Students are responsible for this work, and the various levels to which they engaged and made it their own was interesting. Many did the minimum required, still generating a good resource, where others really put a lot of effort into it. This also gives a lot of evidence of student engagement in learning when it comes to reporting and talking to parents.


This is a time-intensive process, especially in creating the resource and getting into the habit of grading the sites. However, once a good workflow is established it is natural and easy to give feedback to students. I will use it again, most likely with Hapara *** as a management system to more easily see when updates are made. Occasional technical glitches occur as students make mistakes on editing the page, but these are generally easily fixed. If I spot an error and want to correct it, I need to open up every student’s site and correct it there – this can take some time.


Next Steps

The site linked will be copied and shared with the next intake of students (the last group on this subject guide). As we go, I am in the process of restructuring units and the 4PSOW to better reflect concept-based teaching and learning, and plan to develop debatable, conceptual and factual unit questions for each unit.

With a bigger class next year the more streamlined rubric and cleaner organisation of the resources should make the feedback process more efficient.


Update: Following 2015 Exam Session

As the project evolved and we evaluated the approach in class, we adapted the assessment of the project to be more personalized. Internally, we reported on “Investigative Skills” (labs) and “Knowledge Skills”. Knowledge Skills included tests, exams and other assessments of learning the content (data analysis, etc). The portfolios were originally included as part of this grade. Some students loved it and would spend a lot of effort on making connections, building the portfolio, etc. They felt the portfolio was a fair representation of their learning, and they used them heavily in review and exam prep. Other students were completing it to meet the class requirement, but were relying on other methods (notebooks, usually) for their ‘real’ learning. So we opened up the assessment: students still had to show evidence of organization of their learning, but it didn’t have to be the GoogleSite. As long as I could see progress and check for misconceptions, I was happy.


Edits (looking back in summer 2017, after reading John D’Arcy’s post on self-directed learning in IBDP at WAB):

Annotations in the main post: 


Recent Princeton Psychology paper, with neat experimental design. Read write-ups at the Atlantic or Washington Post. Full paper in Psychological Science, but library access needed.

* “The pen is mightier than the keyboard

** Although much has been written in criticism of Hattie’s work since then, the highest-impacts still work, especially for exam-driven courses. I like to make the what and why of teaching explicit to Ss – with justification, they’re more open to trying new things.

*** Hapara, to me, remains the best innovation in EdTech in recent years. It really allows for student-paced work, differentiation, feedback and more. Since June 2017 it can integrate with Google Classroom.

Reflections on SDL in this project: some traps to avoid

  1. Don’t leave it too long between reliable checks for understanding or formative assessment. A nice portfolio does not always equal genuine understanding.
  2. Maintain a disciplined ‘workshop model’ to ensure that teacher talk is clear, minimal and gets things set up so that active output is maximised. The worst sessions occur with waffle eating up students’ learning time. At worst, this pushes the work to home, and quality drops or stress is generated.
  3. Learning preferences are not always what works best for a student and not all students have the same levels of self-regulation. Regular, disciplined check-ins are needed to help students select the peers, content, strategy and output that will make the greatest gains for them.
  4. Personally, I learned to avoid using this method for new teaching of topics that I’m not super-strong in teaching; these were better done together or with other methods. It worked really well when groups were learning topics I was strongest with, as I could spot misconceptions sooner and give examples, nudges or strategies to get unstuck.




  1. Simon Underhill

    I noticed that your googlesite shows a concept-based DP curriculum. As someone who has generally followed the syllabus order, with a few changes here and there, I found it an intriguing document! I would love to hear any further feedback or thoughts you had on modifying the way you developed your DP syllabus, any time issues, pros and cons etc.
    I am hoping to make some changes to how I deliver the syllabus this year and welcome any feedback you had on your own experiences ( I could not see a post for this specifcally on your blog).
    many thanks and hope to connect soon on Twitter and #MYPChat!

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