Continue your assessment empowerment work with principle #2: Learning environments and relationships

School environments and relationships are key to students’ success, well-being, and self-efficacy. COVID-19 reminded us of this. It also reminded us of how critical effective assessment processes are for learners, while research into learning during the pandemic proved what we all feared was true: this last year has exacerbated educational inequity.

Safe spaces and interactions are so important to children that attending to learning environments and relationships is the second principle of assessment empowerment. But what does it look like to authentically partner with students to foster a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible culture of learning from day one? How can we leverage high-impact responsive learning processes, like goal-setting, feedback, and self-assessment, to support this work? Let’s explore a couple sample scenarios.

Examples to follow

The day-one scenarios below can help us build fruitful learning environments and relationships with students. They’re based on the stars-and-stairs framework to prompt us to remember to celebrate what’s working and identify next steps. Rick Stiggins et al. describe the value of this model in Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: “All learners, especially struggling ones, need to know that they did something right, and our job as teachers is to find it and label it for them, before launching into what they need to improve.” It’s important to give educators stars (validation/celebration) and stairs (action steps), just like we do for our students, because we, too, need constructive input to learn and grow.

Each day […] we can collaborate with our students to make small learning environment and relationship moves that are prudent investments in overall learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy.

Scenario 1

It’s the first day of a new semester. As the freshmen enter the room, Mr. Sadler hands out the course syllabus. This contains all the information they need to be successful in physical science, including class rules, procedures, learning targets, and major projects. Students choose their own seat, and after the bell rings, Mr. Sadler greets the class from the front of the classroom and begins to read through the information on the syllabus.

Mr. Sadler makes several great educator moves, and there are also opportunities to have an even bigger impact on his students. Before reading our feedback ideas, take a moment to think about what stars-and-stairs feedback you would give him.

Stars (validation/celebration): In what ways has the educator…

  • Authentically partnered with students to foster a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible culture of learning?
  • Set up success for high-impact responsive learning processes, such as student goal-setting, feedback, and self-assessment?

Stairs (action steps): What are some steps or adjustments the educator could make to…

  • More authentically partner with students to foster a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible culture of learning?
  • Further set up success for high-impact responsive learning processes, such as student goal-setting, feedback, and self-assessment?

Here’s our feedback for Mr. Sadler:

  • Stars: You positioned yourself to interact with students right as they came into the learning space, which is a great start to establishing relationships. You then used the syllabus to communicate important rules, procedures, learning goals, and projects, which is one way to make information and learning goals clear to students. When learning information and goals are clear, it makes student goal-setting, feedback, and self-assessment processes inclusive and accessible because the expectations and processes are not assumed or hidden.
  • Stairs: As students enter the room, you could make sure to say hello. You might not know the students’ names yet, but deliberately saying hello to every single student is a small but meaningful gesture. As students come into the room, you could also let them know how you’d like them to be seated. For many students, the seemingly simple act of determining one’s own seat is overwhelming. It can be like entering a social and emotional minefield, which takes away from brain power needed for responsive learning processes. Having a procedure for where to sit, especially on day one, can help minimize stress and lay the groundwork for later inclusive and accessible interaction procedures. Note that establishing procedures for where to sit is different from assigned seats. For example, you could ask students to fill in the back row first and explain that you’ll work on seating together later that week. Seating procedures can be co-created with students, which is a way to shift from the learner-manager to learner-empowerer model we’ve talked about before. After the bell rang, you greeted your students, another good start. Before digging into the syllabus information, next time you could add a way for students to greet each other, which would begin to lay the groundwork for later collaboration like peer feedback. Instead of reading the syllabus to the students, you could try a jigsaw or other collaboration strategy to engage the students in digesting the syllabus information in pairs or small groups. This would also provide valuable formative information regarding what the students understand and need clarified as well as what their strengths and needs are when it comes to processing information and working with peers. Eventually, you may even consider collaborating with your students to shape sections of the syllabus together, such as fleshing out rules and procedures with a social contract or class constitution, which would also support the shift from learner-manager to learner-empowerer.

Scenario 2

It’s the first day of a new unit in Mrs. McKanney’s sixth-grade language arts class, and she wants to gather information about students’ current abilities analyzing text so she can differentiate lessons and resources accordingly. As students return from lunch, a pre-assessment is waiting for them on their desks. Mrs. McKanney directs them to have a seat, stop talking, and do their work.

Just like Mr. Sadler, Mrs. McKanney makes several great educator moves, and there is also room for action steps. Before reading our feedback ideas, take a moment to think about what feedback you would give her. Use the same stars-and-stairs feedback prompts from scenario 1.

Here’s our feedback for Mrs. McKanney:

  • Stars: It’s wonderful to see that you know pre-assessment information can be incredibly valuable for differentiation and making other instructional decisions. Rather than making unit or lesson-planning choices based on assumptions, you’re gathering information about students’ strengths and needs, which is part of assessment empowerment principle #1, learner context. Collecting this information is a perfect way to show respect and appreciation, which builds trusting relationships needed for later processes, such as using teacher or peer feedback. You also had the pre-assessment ready on students’ desks. This can help kids transition from one environment to another: in this case, from lunch back to the learning space. Transition cues can help students feel emotionally and socially safe and ready to learn.
  • Stairs: You clearly know the value of pre-assessment information, but do students? If they don’t, the pre-assessment waiting for them on their desk can be scary or stressful, a “gotcha” event, which can undermine the work you’re doing to build strong learning environments and relationships. To minimize stress and gather the best assessment results, you could try telling the class about the assessment process before breaking for lunch. That way they know what to expect when they return. You could engage them in discussion prompts about the pre-assessment. The prompts could elicit students’ definitions and reasons for the pre-assessment. They could also clarify how you will and won’t use the results. Engaging students in this discussion can be a way to shift from a learner-manager to a learner-empowerer model because you’d be using pre-assessment as a process accomplished with students, not as a process done to students.

Creating the “right conditions for optimum learning”

As Zaretta Hammond explains in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, “It is our responsibility to create the right conditions for optimum learning.” Deliberately and collaboratively creating the right conditions for optimum learning from day one is critical, especially after all we experienced during the pandemic. Relationships are especially critical because, as Hammond adds, “The brain seeks to minimize social threats and maximize opportunities to connect with others in community. […] Positive relationships keep our safety-threat detection system in check.” And the safer we feel, the easier it is for responsive learning processes that positively impact learners and learning to take place.

Deliberately and collaboratively creating the right conditions for optimum learning from day one is critical, especially after all we experienced during the pandemic.

Each day, including on day one, we can collaborate with our students to make small learning environment and relationship moves that are prudent investments in overall learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy. What moves do you already make? What moves will you try today?

Here are some suggested next steps for individuals or teams:

  • Think of your own day-one scenario. Use the stars-and-stairs feedback prompts included in this post to think about how to refine the learning environment and relationship moves in your scenario. Try out your refined moves and ask students for their feedback.
  • Ask your students to submit ideas for building nurturing environments and relationships. Kids often have the best ideas for practicing how to interact and connect. Plus, using students’ ideas is another great way to build trust and partnership, not to mention ease your workload.
  • Ask a trusted colleague to observe you and your students and provide feedback about learning environments and relationships in your classroom. Use your colleague’s feedback to refine your moves.
  • Connect to equity beliefs and practices. How is collaborating with students to attend to learning environments and relationships a powerful, actionable way to apply equitable beliefs and practices? Think about the equity beliefs you hold, both as an individual and as a school or district, and consider writing them down so it’s easier to be intentional in your practice. For ideas on how to document equity beliefs and practices, read our equity statement.

To learn more about assessment empowerment, read “It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment,” “Begin your assessment empowerment journey with principle #1: Learner context,” and “More on assessment empowerment: The power of knowing your purpose.”

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