Ish Stabosz - learning over schooling

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Whew! This book has been a long ride, but we’re in the home stretch. To recap, we’ve already covered the first five strategies of assessment for learning:

  1. Provide students with a clear and understandable vision of the learning target.
  2. Use examples and models of strong and weak work.
  3. Offer regular descriptive feedback during the learning.
  4. Teach students to self-assess and set goals for next steps.
  5. Use evidence of student learning needs to determine next steps in teaching.

If you want a refresher on any of these, click here for a full list of all of the posts in my series on Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis.

In today’s post, I’ll tackle the sixth strategy: Design focused instruction, followed by practice with feedback.

Using strategy 5, we diagnose students’ learning needs by using well-designed assessments. Ideally, a good formative assessment tells us exactly how far a student is from hitting specific learning targets. Once we know this information, we can implement strategy 6 in order to help students move closer to the target. Chappuis begins her discussion of this strategy by pointing out the two biggest roadblocks to successful implementation:

  1. Fitting a feedback loop into your schedule
  2. Grading work too early

A good feedback loop allows the instructor enough time to diagnose student learning needs and allows the student enough time  to receive additional instruction or practice to meet these learning needs. Because of how taxing the feedback loop can be, instructors are easily tempted to grade students who really aren’t ready to be graded just so they can move the rest of the class on to the next unit. To address these concerns (which I am sure every instructor can attest to at some point in their career), Chappuis goes into detail about the four requirements for proper implementation of strategy 6, which I’ll quote here:

  • A belief that further instruction will benefit students
  • A desire to devote time to increasing achievement and developing achievement-related attitudes and behaviors
  • A repertoire of instructional strategies suited to the learning needs uncovered
  • A willingness to leave off grading work that is for practice

Setting Students Up for the Win

To start, Chappuis offers some research to prove that a teacher can make a difference in both a student’s learning and attitude. First, she sums up research by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who analyzed the practices of a wide variety of organizations in order to find out what predicts losing and winning streaks. Kanter found that one common element among organizations that could transform losing streaks into winning streaks was “a leader who helped people gain the confidence they needed to invest the effort required to succeed”. Furthermore, Kanter found that leaders who can inspire this sort of success perform two tasks: (1) They give people new chances to succeed and (2) They eliminate barriers to success.

Kanter’s research can easily apply to a teacher’s interactions with students. Chappuis points out that low achieving students are often just stuck in a losing streak from which they have no motivation to escape. Based on Kanter’s notion of a good leader, the teacher can inspire the requisite motivation in students by allowing students multiple opportunities to prove mastery of learning targets and by removing as many roadblocks as possible.

Practically speaking, this means, first, offering students chances to retest, revise, or resubmit their summative evaluations when they fail to demonstrate mastery. Second, it means focusing assessments on the learning targets that matter rather than extraneous requirements. For example, a math teacher doesn’t need to take off points for accidental mistakes with arithmetic if the real learning target is algebra skills. Likewise, an English teacher doesn’t need to mark off for every single grammar error if the assessment is really about organizing ideas. It’s not that arithmetic and grammar aren’t important; it’s just that not every assignment needs to assess every single learning objective.

Practical Tips for Practice

In the next section, Chappuis gives some guidelines for building practice into a learning sequence that should help instructors deal with the problem of never having enough time for a feedback loop. First, she points out that during practice is the ideal time for instructors to intervene and correct mistakes and misconceptions before they take root in students’ understanding of the learning target. Next, she shares research which finds that practice is best spaced out in small intervals rather than large chunks because it leads to more learning retained over a longer period of time.

Additionally, Chappuis makes it clear that if students don’t know why they are practicing, or if they can’t see how the practice is tied to a learning target, they are far less likely to gain anything from the practice. To this end, the more we can create opportunities for practice that immediately and obviously prepare students for future tasks, the more our students will learn from them.  And, the more that these practice activities are scaffolded so that students slowly work towards more difficult tasks, the faster they will be motivated out of their losing streaks by frequent small wins.

Redirecting the Students’ Aim

If practice and other formative assessments are telling you that students are missing the learning target, then it’s time to pick the right instructional strategy to set their sights back in the right direction. In this next section of the chapter, Chappuis gives numerous examples across multiple disciplines of methods to give students a second chance at learning. Instead of summarizing all of them, I’ll offer a brief list of some of the highlights:

  • Give students multiple choice questions and ask them to select the correct answer and ONE incorrect answer. Then, they must explain why the correct answer is right and why the other one is wrong.
  • Have students complete a graphic organizer designed for a specific pattern of reasoning, such as a Venn diagram for learning targets focused on comparing and contrasting.
  • For performance tasks evaluated with rubrics, scaffold instructional activities to target only one criteria at a time.

At first, the advice offered by Chappuis in this section seemed ideal but impractical to me. I mean, do I really have time in class to offer further instruction for each of my students targeted specifically at the learning targets that they are struggling with? But then I remembered an old adage that I’ve tried to live by in my classroom: “A teacher’s job isn’t to teach students everything that they need to know. A teacher’s job is to create an environment in which students can learn everything that they need to know.” (Okay, it’s not really an old adage. It’s just something I started telling myself a year or so ago.) To put it another way, a good classroom puts students at the center of the learning rather than the teacher.

Ish Stabosz - Crosshair

In order to move beyond my high-minded theories and actually create a practical method that I could implement, I’ve come up with a lesson planning template specifically meant to be used to create follow-up lessons to a diagnostic assessment. Click the link and check it out. Scroll down to the second page to see an example of the template in action.

This sample lesson would be for the first class after I have reviewed my students’ rough drafts for their response essays. Basically, I’ve identified 3 core learning targets and given students instructions for what they need to do if they failed to meet a target. Then, I also indicate the next steps for students who have hit all of the targets. If you read the sample, you’ll notice that there is only one activity where I would need to be actively leading anything. Primarily, then, this would be a student-centered class, leaving me plenty of time to work around the class and give students the one-on-one time they need.

Teacher, Stay Thy Grading Hand

Way back in chapter 1, Chappuis demonstrated that students with an attitude oriented towards learning achieve far deeper understanding than students oriented towards grades or task completion. In this chapter she reiterates this by asserting that “our assessment practices must reinforce the message that if students work hard and do the learning, the grade will follow”. The standard in most classrooms, however, is that a student’s grade is the weighted average of every assignment in the grade book. If they don’t complete the homework, or if they bomb a quiz, their grade is harmed for the rest of the semester. Even if they end up learning just as much as another student and doing just as well on the summative exam, their grade can’t catch up because of a fall early on.

Chappuis’s argument is that grades should be delayed until a student is ready to be graded. Practically speaking, this means that formative assessments have no place being graded. They are meant to form learners, not to evaluate them. The proper place for grades is in the summative assessment – the exam, chapter test, final draft, project, etc.

Now, a lot of readers (myself included, at first) are probably wondering “If I don’t assign points, students won’t do the work”. This might be a valid concern, but I’ll offer a few quick arguments against this line of reasoning:

First, if that truly is the attitude of your students, then they obviously don’t have a learning orientation. That’s a pretty clear task completion orientation. What this means is that even if you can get them to do the work by tagging a grade to it, the student isn’t going to learn much because they are only doing it to get it done rather than to learn. The cure here is to transform your classroom atmosphere into one centered around learning.

Second, if students are only doing the work to get a grade, it is very likely that they don’t see the value of the work. To cut this problem off at the pass, you have to give your students several opportunities early on to realize that the work does matter. Early in the semester, consider scheduling several quizzes or similar quick assessments to demonstrate to students that the homework and classwork are actually helping them learn, and that not doing them is hindering their learning. At the same time, you need to strive to ensure that the work you assign is actually meaningful.

Finally, if you do need an external motivator to get students to complete the work, you can still find a way to do this without grading formative assessments. Simply put policies in place such as the following:

  • Students will not be permitted to submit a summative assessment until all related formative assessments are completed.
  • Students have the option of resubmitting a summative assessment for a higher grade only if they have completed all related formative assessments.
  • Students who fail to complete two formative assessments within a two week period must schedule a meeting with the instructor to review progress in mastering learning targets.

Not grading everything is a risky proposition. Trust me, I know. Whenever you go jogging in a new pair of sneakers, you risk falling flat on your face. But that’s just a chance to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get it right the next time. Give it a try, even if it’s just for one class. See how your attitude, and more importantly, the attitudes of your students, change once your grading practices are focused on learning rather than completion.

That’s it for strategy 6. In my next post, I’ll bring us home with a look at the final strategy of assessment for learning: Provide students opportunities to track, reflect on, and share their learning progress.

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