March 3, 2024

Wanna Know If Students Are Learning? Ask Them These 4 Questions

Author: Steven Anderson
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It can be a struggle to best help students understand what they are learning or for students to articulate their learning in meaningful ways. This was especially difficult for me starting out in on my teaching journey. Based on how I had been taught to be an educator the best ways to know if students are learning was to give them a test. If they failed, it was their fault and they needed to do better next time. It took me a long time to learn that in the process of learning the teacher and the student need to be partners.

Research backs this up.

Much of the research around determining the best instructional strategies to use in the classroom center around learning processes and metacognition. It isn’t the tools or technology that students use in learning that have the most profound impact. What really makes a difference is how well students understand what they are learning that day, how they can put that learning into their own words and how they can make connections to previous and next learning events.

Understanding if students are learning isn’t difficult and doesn’t take away time from actual instruction. In fact there are 4 simple questions students can ask (and the teacher to understand) to know if learning is actually taking place.

What am I learning? Before the lesson even starts students need to know what they are learning, but more importantly, how what they learn connects to something they’ve already learned. It is common practice in many classrooms to write objectives or standards on the board. When I was in the classroom it was an expectation handed down from district leadership that the objectives to be covered that day were to be on the board. If they weren’t you could be reprimanded.

There’s one problem with this approach. Standards and objectives are written for educators, not students. Their wording is often confusing and it can be difficult for students to make the necessary connections when reading them. Students should be able to understand and distill what they are learning in their own words and make their own meaning. Teachers have to drive this understanding through clarity.

Teacher clarity aims to narrow the focus of learning. By focusing on the most critical parts of instruction (learning intentions, success criteria and learning progressions) students can better understand what they are learning and more importantly, why. The research into Teacher Clarity shows that, when used consistently and accurately it can have an effect size of 0.75, nearly doubling the rates of student achievement.

How will I know I’ve been successful? Often it is a mystery to students to know how they will be successful in their current learning endeavor. Typically, they’ve seen pop quizzes or even know there will be a test at the end of the week. Success criteria goes deeper. It isn’t just students knowing what they will learn and how they know they have learned it. It’s also the processes by which students will get there. Therefore Success Criteria has both a product focus but also a process focus as well.

Shirley Clark, an expert in formative assessment says that defining process success does six things for students:

  • Ensure appropriate focus
  • Provide opportunity to clarify their understanding
  • Identify success for themselves
  • Begin to identify where the difficulties lie
  • Discuss how they will improve
  • Monitor their own progress

For maximum impact Clark explains that Success Criteria:

  • Need to be known and shared
  • Should be the same for all learners (differentiation happens with the activity, rather than the success criteria)
  • Can be used across the curriculum
  • Need to be referred to constantly by students

What is my next learning step? As part of the overall lesson, we need to not only focus on the before and during but the after as well. Students should know where on their overall learning path they are and where they are going next. This gives them the opportunity to foreshadow and draw conclusions as to where they are in this learning moment and how that will lead them to the next. This is a critical step for them to make the necessary connections to content to make learning visible.

How would I communicate what I’ve learned to others? Often times the communication of what we have learned is not even a part of the overall learning journey or is only a part of a special project or unit. But take a step back. How do we learn anything? Before the invention of the printing press learning was shared through stories and spoken word. Books were only for the wealthy. Therefore learning was very limited. After the printing press books became more widespread. Now we have even faster, more far reaching means of communication, such as social media to learn and grow.

Students need to not only understand but to participate in communicating their learning with others, beyond their desk and the walls of their classroom. That communication can come in a variety of forms like blog posts, websites, podcasts, videos, etc. The medium is dependent on what students are sharing. The bottom line is that one of the most powerful ways for the teacher and the students solidify what they know and how they know it is to be able to communicate that learning to someone else. Quizzes or exams are great for snapshots but to truly be able to distill their learning, students need to communicate that learning to others.

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