Assessment empowerment principle #4: Responsive learning cycles

One of the biggest lessons I learned about assessment empowerment in my classroom is that it doesn’t just require learning new practices. I also needed to recognize and shift the parts of my existing approach that just weren’t working.

Reflecting on what isn’t effective is tough. A lot of what we do in the classroom every day is what we’ve been taught to do. It’s comfortable and it’s familiar. But as we commit ourselves to assessment empowerment, we must stop and examine all our approaches. Do my plans actually move learning forward? Or am I just marching through content?

We can all find some opportunities for improvement. Embrace them! They definitely don’t mean you’re bad at what you do (because you’re not. How do I know? Because you’re reading this post, and probably long after—or long before—school hours). Look at them as opportunities instead, opportunities to begin learning about and leveraging responsive learning cycles, the fourth principle of assessment empowerment.

What frustration taught me

Consider the following example from early in my teaching career: As a ninth-grade ELA teacher, my curriculum map included using Homer’s Odyssey to teach literature knowledge and skills. I assigned students pages to read. We proceeded through reading activities, such as comprehension warm-ups and analysis exercises. I administered quizzes, and then I counted up the points from the quizzes to assign grades.

We can save time and energy as well as increase learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy if we use responsive learning cycles.

All these years later, I know that I was perpetuating a teach, test, grade model left over from 19th and 20th century educational paradigms. But I didn’t know that at the time. I wasn’t trained to view human-centered components or assessment purposes and practices—including grading—as parts of a whole, integrated process that fuels learners and learning. I viewed and used assessments as discrete events, and I applied them to learners rather than engaging in processes with learners. Students were frustrated, of course, and so was I. No one was enjoying the Odyssey as much as it should be enjoyed and, in a lot of ways, I was just helping kids develop an aversion to classic literature.

What I came to see as the key was understanding the difference between learner manager and learner empowerer. The principles of assessment empowerment guide us to be learner empowerers, and I wasn’t following many of them well. I didn’t partner with my students; I “did activities”: loosely related content and skill exercises that did not strategically leverage learner context, build relationships, or have a clear purpose aligned to a specific learning goal and progression. Unfortunately this teach, test, grade model—“learner manager” defined—is still quite common, and it undermines learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy.

How to empower students with responsive learning cycles

Responsive learning cycles are comprised of quality, human-centered, goal-driven processes, practices, and tools that fuel agency and success for all students. These cycles can and should be used to inform big-picture issues, such as district, school, and classroom assessment ecosystems, as well as day-to-day practices, including teacher and student learning routines.

We can begin a responsive learning cycle by merely asking the right kinds of questions. The answers help us start to outline our approach.

  • Who are the learners? View and use learner context as assets.
  • How do we learn together? Attend to learning environments and relationships.
  • What are we learning and why? How do we get there and beyond? Use clear learning goals, purposes, and paths.
  • How will we practice, monitor, and certify learning? Select or design quality assessment methods and tools.
  • How do we engage in feedback processes and collect evidence? Use methods and tools to elicit learning evidence.
  • What does the feedback or evidence tell us? How do we respond? Analyze, act on, and respond to learning evidence.
  • Where are we now, and what’s next? Synthesize evidence to make learning and communication decisions.

The following graphic details what this looks like.

The responsive learning cycle

The questions and answers here are not new; they build on long-established formative assessment scholarship. Working with them in the larger context of assessment empowerment and all its principles, however, helps us ensure those human-centered components and assessment purposes and practices I mentioned earlier are woven together as one, not handled separately or in opposition. When we lack cohesion, the hard work of day-to-day learning routines can become undone with a cluster of unaligned activities, disconnected summative events, or contradictory grading habits. We can save time and energy as well as increase learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy if we use responsive learning cycles.

To explore each part of a responsive learning cycle, let’s use that example from early in my career. Come with me as I go back in time for a do-over. For each question-and-answer prompt, I made a planning note-to-self that includes concrete ways I could engage with my ninth-grade students as we used the Odyssey to grow in literature knowledge and skills. I also documented outcomes and benefits.

Sample responsive learning cycle (RLC) analysis

*See “Fire up your class with student-interest surveys” for ideas on how to do a pre-reading inventory. Read “Discussion protocols” for help writing a reading discussion protocol. For help with classroom assessment quality guidance, refer to “Classroom assessment standards.” Learn how to use Two Stars and a Wish, My Favorite No, and self-assessment.

Give yourself grace

I want to be clear: no one is expecting you to tackle every part of a responsive learning cycle all at once or to excel at the practice right away. That’s just not possible! My shift to using them so I can become a 21st-century learner empowerer has taken time, includes a lot of productive struggle, and is ongoing.

I recommend starting with one part, the one that makes the most sense for your professional learning journey. Take time and practice it with your students before taking on the next part. As needed, refer back to the last column of the table above, the outcomes you can expect. That will bolster you if you’re feeling fatigued and remind you what you’re doing all of this for.

Here are a few additional prompts to help you shift away from a teach, test, grade model. Remember to be kind to yourself and to explore your answers slowly and when you’re realistically able.

  • What is a responsive learning cycle?
  • How do you already partner with your students in one or more parts of a responsive learning cycle?
  • What is at least one benefit of using the parts of a responsive learning cycle as one integrated whole, rather than separate events?
  • How can a responsive learning cycle help you shift from a learner-manager model to a learner-empowerer model?
  • What’s at least one part of the responsive learning cycle you could introduce into your practice or begin to refine this week?

To learn more about assessment empowerment, read my previous posts on this topic: “It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment,” “Begin your assessment empowerment journey with principle #1: Learner context,” “Continue your assessment empowerment work with principle #2: Learning environments and relationships,” and “More on assessment empowerment: The power of knowing your purpose.”


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