Promoting learning as an ongoing process

As teachers, we often throw around statements that we are teaching students to become ‘lifelong learners’. However, the key to students becoming lifelong learners is them realising that learning is an ongoing process, not a destination. Yet all too often our assessments are designed about assessing the end result rather than the process.

When students learn, study and then sit an exam they see the knowledge gained as the culmination of the process, and the learning stops. Indeed, in many cases the knowledge is even forgotten, as it’s only purpose (to pass the exam) has been fulfilled. And if the student didn’t pass the exam? Oh well, too late now. Do better next time.

Is this really cultivating a culture of ongoing learning? Giving pass / fail grades and moving on? Are we suggesting that it’s somehow okay if they don’t know 50%, 30%, 20% of the material, depending on what the ‘passing’ grade is?

In order for students to realise that learning is ongoing we need to highlight the cyclical nature of the development of knowledge. This means we need to stop assessing the final product alone, and allow students to reflect on and revise their work as they develop their their understanding. On this trip, I’ve seen a few interesting ways that teachers are attempting to do these things.

Standards Based Grading

A strategy which appears to be common in many of the Modeling classrooms I’ve visited is Standards Based Grading (SBG).

The idea behind SBG is that the topic is broken down into ‘standards’ which students can/should achieve throughout the topic. Specific tasks (quizes, lab reports, homework) target specific standards. These are communicated to the students with the task (so they know what they’re meant to be aiming for) and students are assessed to determine whether they have achieved this standard yet at the end of each small task (using some multi-step progression towards mastery). The teacher records each students’ current achievement level on all of the standards and continually updates this as students progress and achieve the standards. The final mark comes from the standards mastered by the end, rather than how the students perform at an arbitrary point in time. (For a more detailed explanation of simple SBG, see this post on Frank Nochese’s blog.)

The part I really like about SBG is that students are always given multiple chances to achieve the standards. Some teachers allow students to re-do previous assessments (quizes, homework, etc.) if the students have not mastered the standards required. Others will ensure that all the standards are revisited in multiple tasks so there’s always additional chances for students meet each standards. One teacher actually ensures students don’t forget past work by stating that the most recent level of achievement is the one recorded – so they can’t just ace the standard once and then coast.

Ultimately, SBG is about seeing learning as a process of development in which layers are built up over time. Students are encouraged to improve and revisit the standards covered in the past to achieve mastery. In theory, in this system every student could get full marks if they work hard enough to review, revise and re-work their areas of difficulty.

Culture of critique

Another system for instilling the idea that learning is ongoing is through what High Tech High called ‘a culture of critique’. Students at HTH often work on large projects for significant amounts of time and produce high quality products from these projects. How do they ensure they’re producing high quality work? By continually critiquing each others’ work and revising it.

They implement a peer critique cycle which consist of: analyze models >; write / create >; critique >; set goals >; revise or edit >; repeat. This critiquing cycle is reflective of HTH’s use of the iterative design process in all their subjects. Projects are not started and then finished but continually revised and improved.

However, students don’t naturally know how to critique one another and provide meaningful feedback. This video of Austin’s butterfly is an entertaing demonstration of the critiquing process and sharing it with students. High Tech High use a model of Kind (celebrate the positives), Helpful (constructive suggestions and comments) and Specific (detailed) feedback.

The key to critiquing is firstly teaching students how to provide feedback, but secondly providing students the chance to repeatedly revise work, taking on board the feedback of others. They need to have this opportunity repeatedly in order for it to really be understood – not just one draft and then final submission, like it often is done in classrooms.

Portfolio of work

At some point, every project or task must come to an end – logistically, you can’t have students revising their work forever. So another way to promote the idea that the learning continues (even though the task is complete) is through the use of student porfolios of work which include specific reflection on each task.

I’ve seen these both at High Tech High and the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut (STMHS). At High Tech High, students create a digital portfolio of their work on their own Google Sites page. This is a summary of all of the work they have completed througout their four years at HTH, and for each major project they also have a written personal reflection on the learning they gained and what they can take from the experience. A similar strategy has been used within the four year Biomedical stream at STMHS, where they develop a portfolio of their work in a physical binder and they type a reflection of one to two activities per term.

The process of reflection allows students to see what they got out of each task, and what they can take forward from it into their future projects or activities. It is suggesting to students that although this task is over, the learning process continues forward and they are continually building on the past.

So what now?

All of these strategies are ideas which could be incorporated into any classroom, either on a large or small scale.

Depending on how much freedom you have with your marking systems, SBG may be difficult to implement on a large scale within many NSW classrooms without whole-department support (although I do know one NSW teacher who has been successfully implementing it within his Maths classroom). However, the ideas behind SBG could be implemented on a more simple level initially: being transparent with students about the outcomes they’re being asked to achieve and revisiting these outcomes regularly to determine their level of mastery, even if this does not constitute their summative assessment for the subject.

A culture of critique is something which could and should be in any classroom. Developing students ability to provide feedback to their peers is very important, and if implemented even on a small scale with smaller in-class tasks (rather than the large projects at HTH) it would help students realise the cyclical nature of design and learning.

A portfolio of work is perhaps the easiest strategy to implement in any classroom. Students simply collate the work they are already doing, and then they have to write a dedicated reflection on a certain number of these activities at specific times.

Overall, as teachers we always need to consider not just how we teach but how we assess the learning of the students. What message are your current assessment practices sending your students?

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2 responses to “Promoting learning as an ongoing process

  1. Excellent and thoughtful reflection on assessment! I like the Wiggins and McTighe model of backwards design… 1. Why do I want my students to know? (Content) 2. How will I know they know it? (Assessment) 3. How am I going to teach it? (Pedagogy)

    Engineering provides a great context for valuing the process, by dealing with failures through iterations of creative and innovative design. As an engineer, how do you incorporate your skill set as a pedagogical method in the science classroom?

  2. I think the idea of backwards design is a great one, but all too often the assessment decides both the content and method, rather than the other way around!

    I have to admit I am still working out the best ways to incorporate my engineering skills into my teaching. At the moment, I think that bringing the design process into the classroom on a regular basis is the best way to do it. In addition, engineering is a great context for exploring creativity and problem solving in science. I want to get my students doing more invention activities, and in the process hopefully realise the impact that engineering has on their lives.

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