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How Do We Know If Students Are Learning?

By Kristen MacConnell
How Do We Know If Students Are Learning?

Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels

One of the most important questions teachers must answer is, “Are my students learning?” Last November/December 2020, I co-facilitated an online course for international school teacher leaders called, “Empowering Students Through Assessment.” Two questions drove the learning: (1) What classroom assessment practices will contribute most to understanding and improving student learning? and (2) What is the role of the teacher leader in supporting student learning through effective assessment practices?

The learning focused on four overarching topics: building assessment literacy; leading purposeful assessment design; leading the process for collecting evidence of student learning; and leading the process for evaluating the evidence of student learning. With over 100 international educators in the course, many effective strategies and tools were offered in response to the question: “How do we know if students are learning?” Here are some of the ideas shared by teacher leaders.

Middle School Teacher: I rely heavily on Nearpod as an ongoing assessment tool, as it allows me to get a quick snapshot of where students are in their learning by using the polls and quizzes feature.

Kindergarten teacher: We have parents upload photos and videos of their children’s work so we can better understand where students are at with their learning.

High School Teacher: I find [Go Formative] particularly good for mathematics. It has an inbuilt equation editor for writing questions. Students can also respond in a variety of ways, including drawing on their trackpad. The best thing about it is that I can view what the students are writing as they are writing it. I can then send them comments giving advice on improving their work. We have been discussing how much easier it is to review work and use the data to decide next steps when it is online like this.

High School Teacher: I have my students write/draw/doodle on an ongoing “scrapbook.” It is a tool that they use for reflection during the course. Some of my students are very artistic and creative and it is pure joy to look at their work and see their learning.

Elementary Teacher: We have utilized the app Explain Everything. Students take a photo of their work and audio record their ideas. This allows us, as teachers, to listen to student thinking and make decisions about what to teach next (or what to reteach, if necessary).

Elementary Teacher: Reflecting on learning is a key component at my school. We use Seesaw for students to post work and type/video/audio/voice type their reflection. Some teachers have guiding questions they use to make their reflections more meaningful. Over time, the hope is that we don't need the guiding questions as prompts and students will be able to reflect on what they learned and how they can continue to grow.

Middle School Teacher: I am using an observation checklist when we have group discussions after reading a short story. As I am in a virtual model, I use the breakout rooms to strategically group students so that they feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts. I ask them to record the session and then later, I watch the recordings and apply the checklist. I also use the Zoom poll to each start class with a “check for understanding question” about the previous class’s learning targets.

High School Teacher: Students post to a class discussion forum, answering a new knowledge question each week with the expectation that they apply scaffolded/exemplar skills from the course (e.g., making a claim, counterclaim, explaining limitations of arguments, etc.). These data are used to inform what skills need to be revisited and/or developed more deeply in my teaching. I have been able to use this tool in in-person/hybrid/distance learning environments.

Final Thoughts

Learning is a partnership between students and teachers. While teachers need to be able to answer the question “Are my students learning?” students need to be able to answer the questions: “Where am I now with my learning? Where do I need to be? How do I close the gap?” We asked the course participants to share some advice for other teachers and teacher leaders, based on their learning in the course. Here are some of their takeaways.

  • Assessment needs to be ongoing, not something that is only done at the end of a unit or students won’t seek and use feedback to adjust their learning.
  • Using protocols to examine and learn from student work can transform team meetings from operational meetings to learning-centered meetings.
  • When planning for instruction, you need to schedule time to provide ongoing feedback for students so that both teachers and students have time to reflect and make informed decisions about next steps for learning.
  • Teachers need to take the time to purposefully adjust, plan, assess and reflect on the alignment between what we intended for students to learn, the opportunities we provided for students to demonstrate learning and what students actually learned.
  • Team meetings should have designated time for teachers to share the assessment tasks they created with their peers so they can get feedback on those assessments.
  • Teams should create/maintain a resource bank of exemplars of student work from each unit that can be used with both students and with teachers to build a shared understanding of the intended learning for a unit. This process is especially important in international schools due to teacher mobility.
  • Giving students opportunities to learn from their mistakes is crucial to the learning process. Teachers should not penalize students who want to work towards proficiency and who ask for another opportunity to show learning. Second chances are an opportunity for students to reflect on the learning process and set goals for their future learning.
  • Teaching students how to self-assess builds confidence and agency. When students can answer questions like: What advice would you give for future students working on this project?” or “If you had one more week to complete this project, where would you focus your attention?” it helps them to take ownership of their learning.

If you are interested in learning more about “Empowering Students Through Assessment” join us for a five-day immersive learning experience in July 2021. Click here for more information.

Kristen MacConnell is Director of the Teacher Training Center Programs.

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