How to get to know your students

“What do those tests determine about my being?!”

My oldest child is currently a junior in high school, which means she has large assessments coming up. Think the year-end state summative and college entrance exams. In our most recent conversation about them, she hit me with the question above, which definitely caught my attention. She wants answers to all the right questions: What would they do for her? How much would they impact her life? What’s the big deal?

Large, medium, and small assessment processes, when designed and used well, are powerful mechanisms that can propel learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy for all students. Learning-centered assessment systems and practices could do a lot for my daughter, including involving and engaging her so she can find authentic purpose for her investment of time and energy.

So how can we make sure our assessment processes remain learner- and learning-centered? By examining what we truly think about teaching and then taking actions to increase student agency. We can’t know how to authentically increase student agency if we don’t study learner context.

It all starts with a shift in mindset

As I described in “It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment,” the first post in our series on assessment empowerment, we must shift from a learner-manager mindset to a learner-empowerer mindset if we want to be effective educators. This calls for thinking less about how to manage students with tests and more about how to empower them with assessment processes.

Learner context is information about learners’ strengths, interests, identities, funds of knowledge, and needs.

This shift helps students use assessment processes as growth tools and as opportunities for collaboration; it helps them use assessment as a way to reveal important information about their strengths and next steps. This shift also helps us make sure we’re actively thinking about how to collaborate with learners to achieve growth, agency, and success. We must be working with them rather than applying disconnected or disempowering testing events to them.

Then comes a change in actions

To successfully put the learner-empowerer mindset into action, we have to look at the structures of our educational ecosystem and day-to-day practices. The five principles of assessment empowerment can guide you in collaborating with kids in ways that apply the learner-empowerer mindset. I dug into all five of these principles in the blog series I mentioned earlier. They are:

  1. Analyze and apply learner context.
  2. Cultivate a community of learning.
  3. Attend to assessment purpose.
  4. Engage in responsive learning cycles.
  5. Exchange learning evidence information.

The seven iterative practices of responsive learning cycles (that is, the ways we make #4, above, happen) can help you ensure your day-to-day actions and those of your learners remain aligned to the learner-empowerer mindset. Those practices, listed in my post “Assessment empowerment principle #4: Responsive learning cycles,” are as follows:

  1. Embrace learner context.
  2. Strengthen learning culture.
  3. Clarify learning paths.
  4. Identify quality assessment processes.
  5. Engage learners in collecting evidence of learning.
  6. Respond to learning evidence.
  7. Synthesize evidence to certify learning.

Why we start with learner context

You probably noticed that the principles of assessment empowerment and the practices of responsive learning cycles both start with learner context.

Learner context is information about learners’ strengths, interests, identities, funds of knowledge, and needs. Both the principles and the practices contain prompts for attending to learner context because it is so critically important that our teaching and learning structures and practices are not based on assumptions, comparisons, or outdated models. To ensure learning success, well-being, and self-efficacy for all students, assessment processes must be an integrated part of responsive teaching and learning. They must remain learner- and learning-centered in all layers of the educational ecosystem, even through challenges and disruption.

When assessment structures and practices become disconnected from learner context, we risk perpetuating inaccessible, unengaging, exclusive, and unfair processes. This disconnect may be a reason why my daughter had to ask, “What do those tests determine about my being?!”

Several of my colleagues give even more reasons why it’s so important to make sure structures and practices are informed by learner context. Rather than attempt to capture them all here, I encourage you to read the following posts:

Actions you can take right now

So what does it look like when educators and learners effectively use learner context? In my blog post “Begin your assessment empowerment journey with principle #1: Learner context,” I gave two examples. The first was a ninth-grade ELA teacher who wanted to get to know her students in preparation for teaching and learning about analyzing character development. In my second example, a school’s principal and ELL specialists used existing systems and engaged learners’ caregivers to inform how to make sure their multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) truly serves bi- and multi-lingual students. Notice that in these two examples I call out what the educators were able to do to positively shift learning systems (such as a learning unit and MTSS) and day-to-day practices (such as using learner context in lesson plans and engaging in empathy interviews with caregivers).

When assessment structures and practices become disconnected from learner context, we risk perpetuating inaccessible, unengaging, exclusive, and unfair processes.

There are many different aspects of learner context and just as many ways to gather and apply it. It is very easy to drown in too much information. Here are some things to try that can help you gather and understand the information about who your students are and what they bring to your classroom every day.

  • Examine the large learning goals. Deeply understanding the rigor, complexity, and progression of learning goals will save you time and energy. Large learning goals can include content standards, social-emotional skills, and developmental milestones.
  • Determine what learner context information you need to achieve the large learning goals. For example, you may want to investigate what students already know and what they can already do related to the goal, what interests them about the goal and why, or how the goal connects to their personal aspirations and sense of self or community.
  • Turn to tools that can help. When I’m ready to gather learner context information, I like to use the tools of improvement science or human-centered design. Los Angeles Unified School District has an empathy interview protocol that can help you tailor questions to the learning goals you’re achieving with your students. Consider using these questions with your students in an interview or survey.
  • Gather info from students in multiple ways. I use student-interest surveys, student inventories, and student-driven conversations. I also like the Universal Design for Learning guidance for gathering knowledge of learners and context and employing a 360 tool, which uses a standard set of questions to get a 360-degree—or full—view of a student (here’s an example).
  • Collaborate with colleagues to use data in empowering ways. There is usually quite a bit of student demographic and learning evidence data at educators’ fingertips, which can be studied to gain insights about learner context. A caution: it is important to approach data with an asset-based view rather than overfocusing on deficits. Colleagues, such as instructional coaches and SPED or ELL staff members, can help you study data for valuable background information and information about what learners know and can do. Another way to help you view and use demographic and learning evidence data in an asset-based way is to ask caregivers to share a child’s strengths.

For more ideas on how to take the next step in connecting with your students, read “Teach using the lived experiences of your students,” “Exploring cultural concepts: Funds of knowledge,” and “A 4-part system for getting to know your students.”

Shake things up

It’s very easy to make system and day-to-day decisions based on assumptions, comparisons, or outdated models. I know I did when I was in the classroom! The pace of both the school year and day are incredibly fast. Never mind the layers of other significant challenges, not the least of which is COVID-19.

It may feel strange or even impossible to stop and insist on taking the time to examine learning goals. It may feel even less realistic to collaborate with your students to learn about their context. But that information can be critical in helping you achieve the learning goals with students. Think of the time we could ultimately save and the challenges we could mitigate if systems and practices were consistently informed by learner context gathered and used with students! Kids like my daughter wouldn’t be wondering what tests were for; they would know and (dare I say it) be excited to use assessment processes to get to know themselves better.

I’ll admit that many assessment decisions are outside our control. A school-wide assessment is selected by the principal, board, or district leadership. State tests are determined by government officials. But we have more power than we think in the classroom. We have a tremendous opportunity to rethink and realign what drives learning structures and processes every day. Let’s use the valuable resources and assets that have been there all along: our learners and their context.

The following reflection prompts can help you think more about this work and refine how you get and use information about students:

  • How do I gather, understand, and use students’ context to inform assessment processes that fuel learners and learning?
  • Which of my existing strategies are worth continuing?
  • How can I improve my methods for gaining learner context?
  • In what ways are my students engaged as active agents in contributing, gathering, and using their context?
  • What specific examples of my students’ self-efficacy can I keep encouraging?
  • What are some new ways I can increase student agency?

You can also learn more about NWEA professional learning offerings designed to help you do this work on our website.


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