Inspiring learners to act on formative assessment evidence

As you may have seen in my previous post, I like to replace the word “data” with the term “learning evidence.” This helps me stay focused on making sure information is gathered and used in ways that propel students’ academic success, well-being, and self-efficacy. There are all sorts of ways to partner with students to gather learning evidence in this manner (check out suggestions here). The critical next step is to actually use this evidence with students to make responsive teaching and learning moves.

As NWEA CEO Chris Minnich wrote in a recent Hechinger Report, “Data matters, but only if it leads to effective teaching action.” In a day-to-day learning setting, this means using the learning evidence with students responsively—in ways that are swift, positive, appropriate, and needed to attain learning goals. Inspiring students to act on formative assessment evidence is one of the seven responsive learning cycle practices.

From my own classroom and instructional support experience, I know it can be really challenging to collaborate with students to use learning evidence responsively. It’s easy to fall back into using data to manage learners instead of empower them. And sometimes we’re simply paralyzed by the amount of learning evidence in front of us and we don’t know what to do next.

Student and educator lives are busy, complex, and ever-changing. The challenges are real. But if we don’t use learning evidence with students responsively, we miss out on a powerful lever that ensures learning success.

In this post, I’ll share my own experience using this approach in the classroom. You’ll come away with some suggestions for celebrating the hard work you’re already doing, as well as some ideas for next steps to take.

Foundational practices and a debrief frame

Using learning evidence in partnership with students can feel like an interruption or even scary. It takes foundations of trust and learning culture routines for the use of learning evidence to feel meaningful and positively impactful.

At the beginning of the year or quarter with my eighth-grade social studies students, we started with small, low-stakes, and even silly exercises to build up to using learning evidence in larger, higher-stakes situations. Digital game apps like Kahoot! or Quizlet not only helped my students explore the basic understandings of vocabulary or concepts they needed to meet their learning goals, but also baked in some dedicated time for us to debrief the results together and discuss next steps. To guide the debrief, I used sentence starters such as:

  • Questions ___ were easy for me to answer because ___.
  • Questions ___ were not easy for me to answer because ___.
  • To be ready for the next exercise with this learning goal, I will ___.
  • One thing that can help me be successful with the next exercise for this learning goal is ___.

I designed these debrief prompts to guide my students to capture what they noticed about the results and then do something with the learning evidence relevant to the learning goals. The prompts also centered on learning instead of scores, normalized that everyone has next steps, and gave students the opportunity to say what would help them. In other words, the debrief prompts inspired my students to take action instead of calling attention to mistakes or shortcomings. In addition, the debrief revealed valuable information that showed me where I needed to improve; for example, how I phrased questions or how much preparation I allowed my students. My students could see that I was using data from them to learn and take responsive next steps. For their complete buy-in, I had to model listening to their debrief and taking responsive action.

You might wonder, where do these debrief sentences come from? That’s another tip I learned along the way that can save time and energy: have a go-to learning evidence debrief frame. “Learning evidence debrief” is really just my low-key way to say “data analysis,” so you might already have or be able to search for your favorite data analysis frame.

My favorite base frame is the “Here’s what. So what? Now what?” protocol that originated with Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman. Rather than inventing guidance or prompts from scratch, you can just modify this base frame to fit the learning goal, exercise, and students. Notice that the debrief guidance sentences from above fall under the parts of the “Here’s what. So what? Now what?” data analysis frame:

Here’s what and So what?

  • Questions _­­__ were easy for me to answer because ___.
  • Questions ___ were not easy for me to answer because ___.

Now what?

  • To be ready for the next exercise, I will ___.
  • One thing that can help me is ___.

By starting small and practicing these processes often, my eighth graders learned to make their own set of questions, quiz each other, and debrief the results together. They trusted that the learning evidence would be used responsively. Ultimately, they found it easier to handle more complex or higher-stakes learning evidence situations, such as peer feedback, mid-unit assessment, or summative assessment.

Because the foundations were there—compared to earlier in my career, when I didn’t know how to use these processes—my eighth graders exhibited fewer “problem” behaviors such as disruption, reluctance, or absence. When it came time for reporting or grading, there were few surprises or frustrations because students had been partners in the processes all along.

For more ideas on how to build foundations for using learning evidence with students in meaningful and powerful ways, check out previous posts in this series:

How I partnered with students to make “moves” during the learning journey

Being truly responsive—using learning evidence with students throughout the learning journey to take positive, swift, appropriate, and needed action—is a dance. You can plan some dance moves ahead of time, while others need to be done in the moment. Without structures for action, this dance can feel overwhelming. That’s why, just as I have a go-to learning evidence debrief frame, I have a go-to frame for responsive moves: the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines.

As you may already know, the UDL Guidelines are “suggestions that can be applied to reduce barriers and maximize learning opportunities for all learners.” They are organized into three categories: engagement, representation, and action and expression.

These categories provide a host of options that educators and students can use to make planned and in-the-moment “moves” in response to learning evidence. When my eighth-grade students and I used this approach, the manageable options helped us feel inspired to use learning evidence to take action, whereas we might have felt frustrated or overwhelmed without such a structure. Here’s how we did it:

Engagement options for increasing interest, effort, persistence, and motivation

  • Planned: Before we studied the branches of government and roles of citizens, I used a Google Doc to survey students and gather information about their prior knowledge and interests related to these topics. I used this information to build into the unit plan choices for specific issues and resources students could explore and connections they could make to their interests.
  • In the moment: At one point during the learning journey, I noticed that a student was struggling with the Kahoot! and Quizlet games that we used to build knowledge and vocabulary. She was reluctant to participate, and the results of her completed games didn’t match what I knew she could do. When I checked in with her, she said the games were too loud and distracting. We worked together to load the game questions into a Google Form that she could complete in a quiet environment without a time crunch. From that point on, her results—the learning evidence—matched what I knew she could do. The Google Form was also useful for students who were absent or for support staff and caregivers who wanted to see examples of what we were learning.

Representation options for taking in and processing information

  • Planned: Based on what I learned through conversations with students and from observing them in action, as well as the literacy skill data available in our learning management system, I knew who needed visual or auditory support and who would probably need text support. With this learning evidence in mind, I set up stations about once a week where students could review or extend their learning in different modalities. One area of the classroom was for studying and retaking a quiz with text tools, while another station was for studying and retaking a quiz with verbal or auditory tools such as voice recordings or video. A third station was set up for students who either didn’t need review or retake or had finished these tasks. At the third station, students chose from a short menu of choices for extending their learning. This was a way to build in doable routines and structures that normalized learning differences and attended to review as well as extension needs.
  • In the moment: It is easy for me to assume that eighth graders prefer digital learning tools, but that’s not always the case. During pair and trio note-taking time, I noticed that a handful of my students were getting lost in our digital unit outline; the tool was not helping them to organize and process the learning information. They were off task and avoiding the exercise, plus they were not demonstrating that they already knew the information with verbal cues. After checking in with the students to better understand what was getting in their way, we created a paper-and-pencil option that guided them to recenter their focus on the key ideas of our learning goal instead of getting confused by the digital tool.

Expression and action options for navigating the learning environment and demonstrating learning

  • Planned: For the government and civics unit summative assessment, the eighth graders could choose to state an explanation either verbally or in writing. To make this possible with 145 students, I had students either type in a Google Doc or use a screencast app. The summative assessment included a self-assessment, which also helped make grading the written or verbal summative assessment way easier from a teacher perspective. Usually, the students’ self-assessments were spot-on, which reduced the grading workload. I explain this further in my article “The importance of self-assessment.
  • In the moment: Eighth graders. Wow. I wish I could bottle up their energy and sell it. The need to move—or at least not be always seated—is real. When learning evidence, including observation, indicated that students were losing focus or getting stuck, I was always ready to encourage a stretch, movement, or a change in body position. I learned that when teachers remain flexible enough to let students state an explanation in their own way—while pacing the room, for example, or while sprawled out on the ground—they can unlock student success and avoid power struggles.

Closing thoughts

Learning evidence—also known as data—can be incredibly powerful. But as Chris Minnich reminded us, we need to make sure we’re using it to take action. Learning evidence is most powerful if we use it in partnership with students to make responsive moves. Doing this effectively requires foundations and structures, but it’s worth the investment. I hope the examples I shared above help you acknowledge all the hard work you’re already doing and inspire one new thing you’d like to try with your students.

A quick note about what is missing from this post: I did not address feedback processes, which also help us to partner with students to gather and apply learning evidence. Stay tuned for my next post! I also want you to notice that the planned and in-the-moment moves I used with my eighth graders occurred during the learning journey. In other words, these moves were formative ones. In a future post, I’ll explore strategies for using summative learning evidence with students to make end-of-learning-journey determinations such as grades and program placements.

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