How to Focus on Student Learning in Your Classroom

How to Focus on Student Learning in Your Classroom

In the fall of 2016 my book Designing and Using Performance Tasks was published. It had been a big undertaking for me with a number of struggles along the way. However, once it was published, I was proud of what I had accomplished. I had a number of “aha” moments as a result of the tremendous amount of reading and research I did as I wrote the book.

If there is one thing I would want for all students instructionally is that their teacher would provide them clarity on what they are learning each day, the learning intention, and what the students need to do to demonstrate their understanding and/or application of what they are learning, the success criteria.

If you are not yet aware, I am a Visible Learning consultant for Corwin and thus I am well versed in John Hattie’s research and putting the research into practice. The research on teacher clarity revealed it has a .75 effect size on student outcomes.

On the effect size scale .40 is considered the hinge point and any influence on student outcomes that has a .40 or higher effect size is an influence that is in the Zone of Desired Effects. The .40 equates to one year of growth for one year of input or schooling, which every student deserves but is not necessarily getting.

The .75 effect size for teacher clarity is almost double (almost two years worth of growth). You can start to close the achievement gap for students by bringing focus to student learning through teacher clarity.

Simply stated, teacher clarity is when the teacher provides the learning intentions and success criteria to the students, in student friendly language, so the students know what they are learning before the lesson starts and what they need to do to demonstrate their learning (success criteria). The teacher revisits the learning intention and success criteria throughout the lesson.

One of my “aha’s” was about teacher clarity.  If you do not have teacher clarity in your classroom, you cannot provide effective feedback (.75 effect size) to students, you cannot develop assessment capable learners (1.44 effect size), and formative and summative assessments will lack alignment to what students are learning. Teacher clarity is connected to other powerful influences and just on its own it is a powerful influence that impacts student learning.

If you do not have teacher clarity in your classroom, you cannot provide effective feedback.

I have been in hundreds of classrooms as an educational coach and consultant. I have witnessed paper strips with the standards being taught that particular day, “I can….” statements and objectives written on the chalkboard. I have also seen rubrics provided to students prior to them completing a writing task or performance task. 

However, success criteria is not a rubric.  To be a rubric you need to have levels of performance for the criteria. Success criteria does have levels of performance  (4, 3, 2, 1 or Outstanding, Proficient, Not Yet Proficient, Needs Improvement). 

Progress has been made on informing students what they need to learn and to some extent on what they need to demonstrate their learning. However, I do not think enough students know what they are learning or what they have to do to be successful in what they are learning. 

Ask students in your class or several different classrooms, “What are you learning in this lesson?” And “What do you have to do to show you have achieved what you are to learn?”

Here is a challenge to you either as teacher or as leader, individually ask students in your class or several different classrooms, “What are you learning in this lesson?” And “What do you have to do to show you have achieved what you are to learn?” My guess is that you will not get to the second question for at least half of the students, because they will not be able to tell you what they are learning, but they will be able to tell you what they are doing. 

Before I get into how you create the learning intentions and success criteria, let me further discuss the connections teacher clarity has to other influences and classroom practices.

Formative and Summative assessments – Formative assessment is known as “assessment for learning” and summative assessment is known as “assessment of learning.” Formative assessments occur while the learning is occurring as a means to monitor student learning whereas, summative assessments are administered after the learning has occurred to measure how much has been learned.  If you create an assessment, it is a matter of when and how it is used that determines if it is formative or summative. 

Formative and summative assessments connect to teacher clarity because you have to know what students need to learn as well as what they need to do to demonstrate their learning in order to align questions and tasks to the level of rigor of what it is they need to learn for both types of assessment. 

If you do not know the learning intentions and success criteria, you run the risk of creating an assessment that is more challenging to students than what you actually taught them, or less challenging than what it should have been. 

Feedback (.75) – This is another powerful influence on student outcomes.  However, in order to provide effective feedback first you need to know both the learning intentions and success criteria and second you need the results of a formative assessment that is aligned to the learning intentions and success criteria to determine what level of feedback is needed. The feedback targets the learning intentions and success criteria.  There are four levels of feedback: task, process, self regulation and self. 

Assessment Capable Learners (1.44). You really can’t define an assessment capable learner, but you can describe some attributes of an assessment capable learner.  First they can answer the questions of Where am I going? How am I going? And Where to next? These equate to  What am I learning? How am I progressing in what I am learning?  and What do I need to do next to make better progress? 

Second, they use the success criteria to self- and peer-evaluate, and make adjustments to their work if necessary. Third, they use metacognitive strategies (.69) to monitor their progress on the success criteria and make adjustments to their learning tactics if necessary. Finally, assessment capable learners are in control of their learning. Learning is not done to them. They are not receptacles that information and ideas are placed but they are active participants in their learning. 

If you do not share with students the learning intentions and success criteria, students are unable to answer the questions of Where am I going? How am I going? and Where to next?

If you do not share with students the learning intentions and success criteria, students are unable to answer the questions of Where am I going? How am I going? and Where to next? If they do not have success criteria, they are unable to self or peer evaluate or monitor how they are progressing.  In these situations, students just have to hope they get to the right destination because they have no road map. 

There are two steps to complete before developing the learning intentions and success criteria.  First, you must select the standards that will be taught in the unit of study.  Second, for each standard in the unit of study you must determine the learning progression. 

A learning progression consists of what you need to teach students (knowledge and skills) in order for the students to demonstrate their understanding and application of the standard. James Popham provides the best information on learning progressions to make them understandable. The knowledge and skills are then placed in an order that students would most likely progress. I have selected a Common Core State Standard in math for the example. It is a second grade standard on the topic of time.

2 MD.7: Tell and write time from analog and digital clocks to the nearest five minutes, using a.m. and p.m.

Learning Progression One

  • Define the hours of a.m. and p.m.
  • Identify the time at which a new day starts
  • Explain the significance of noon
  • Explain the significance of midnight
  • State the number of hours in a day

Learning Progression Two

  • Count intervals of 5 to 60
  • Round to the nearest 5 minutes

Learning Progression Three

  • Compare and contrast analog clocks to digital clocks
  • State time to the three quarter hour, quarter hour, every ten minutes
  • Write time in the correct format

Once the learning progressions have been created it is time to develop the learning intentions and success criteria.  My preference is to use the SOLO Taxonomy which was developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis back in the early 1980’s. SOLO stands for the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes.  It was designed as a means to measure the level of  student understanding based on their responses.  There are five levels:  pre-structural, uni-structural, multi structural, relational, and extended abstract. 

Here is an example if students were to respond to the question:  What are the three branches of government?

Pre- structural: “I don’t know” or “Parliament.” A student does not have any understanding. 

Uni-structural: “One branch is the executive branch.”  This student can state or name a single idea but is unable to list the branches.

Multi-structural: “The three branches are: the executive, judicial, and legislative.”  This student can list the branches and that was what was the expected outcome for each student. As you can see from the two previous levels a response is not always at the intended level of the stated question.

Relational: “The legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch carries out the laws, and the judicial branch interprets the laws. Plus there is the system of checks and balances so no one branch has too much power.  The legislative branch may pass the law, but the President (executive branch) has to sign it in order for it to become law or he can veto it.  If it is signed and put into law, but is found to be unfair a person or group of people can file a law suit and it works it way through the judicial system.” This students’ response went above what was expected by showing connections between the branches of government, so the response is considered to be at the relational level.

Extended Abstract: “The three branches of government are legislative, executive, and judicial.  The systems of checks and balances does not allow for one branch to have too much power. Our country would be in chaos if there was no system of checks and balances because two branches could conspire against the people with no oversight.   We would no longer have a democratic form of government.”  This students’ response has taken it to a new level by predicting what might happen if there is no system of checks and balances and allowed to block another branch.   Another way to look at extended abstract is transferring their level of understanding to a different situation. 

These five students have a different level of understanding to a surface level question. Surface level understanding is at the uni- and multi-structural levels of understanding.  Relational is a deep level of understanding and extended abstract is a conceptual level of understanding. 

The SOLO Taxonomy has a set of verbs just as Webb’s DOK or Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy which allows you to determine what level of understanding you want students to achieve. I prefer the simplicity of the SOLO Taxonomy as it is a means to scaffold student learning.  Students have to have a surface level of understanding in order to progress to the deep.  You need both surface and deep to move to conceptual level of understanding. 

Let’s revisit the first Learning Progression on time to demonstrate how you transfer from the learning progression to learning intentions and success criteria. 

Learning Progression One

  • Define the hours of a.m. and p.m.
  • Identify the time at which a new day starts
  • Explain the significance of noon
  • Explain the significance of midnight
  • State the number of hours in a day

Lesson learning intention:

Today I am learning how time is organized in a day.

Success Criteria

I will be successful today when I can:

Uni-structural:

  • State the number of hours in a day
  • Identify the time at which a new day starts
  • Define a.m. and p.m.

Multistructural:

  • List the hours included in a.m. and p.m.

Relational:

  • Explain the significance of noon and midnight

Extended Abstract:

  • Predict (instead of hypothesize for second graders) how life would change if a.m. and p.m. did not exist.

Using the SOLO Taxonomy for planning instruction and assessment will ensure that student learning is scaffolded from surface to deep to conceptual levels of understanding.  As you reflect on questions asked in class, what is the SOLO level of the questions asked in your classroom? What about on assessments? 

If you do not have teacher clarity, you run of the risk of instruction and assessment mainly being at the surface level and rarely getting the deep or conceptual levels.  The SOLO Taxonomy is a tool that has many uses beyond evaluating the level of understanding of student responses, and planning instruction and assessment. 

The learning intention could initially be used as a pre-assessment to determine where in the learning progression students might land.  Students can use the success criteria to self-and peer-evaluate, struggling students find success at the surface level and are motivated to try the relational level, the high flyers may come into the lesson already being able to complete the surface level success criteria.  If that is the case they can be challenged by the deep and conceptual level success criteria.  The SOLO Taxonomy is a great tool to promote assessment capable learners.  Those learners who have control over their learning and are not just receptacles.

Teacher clarity is not only a powerful classroom practice, but it has connections to other powerful practices. Focus student learning in your classroom or school by creating and sharing learning intentions and success criteria with your students. It is time to focus on student learning in your classroom. Engage students in their learning journey. 

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Tracey Shiel

Tracey Shiel is author and consultant with over 20 years in the field of education. Through Thought Partners, she provides research-based educational services including balanced leadership coaching, professional development, implementation planning and execution support, and special educational projects of the highest quality. Her passion is with coaching educational leaders to achieve school and district improvement goals while enhancing leadership capabilities.