By Jan Chappuis
The preservice education my teaching colleagues and I experienced focused primarily on the act of instructing—different ways to deliver information—with no attention to responding to student work. Consequently, I, like many others, began teaching with a repertoire of four steps: plan, instruct, assign, and grade. First I planned what I would do and what my students would do. Then, I prepared the materials and resources. Next, I did what I planned, and they did what I planned. Last, I graded what they did. However, learning and teaching turned out to be far messier than I had been prepared for. Somewhere between “I taught it” and “they learned it,” the straight shot downstream to achievement sprung surprisingly into an array of diverging tributaries. Over the course of that first year, I discovered there are a thousand ways for learners to “not get” a lesson.
The belief underpinning my teacher preparation seemed to be that learning trots right along after good instruction, a sort of stimulus-response system, in which instruction alone will create learning. However, when students have continued learning needs after instruction, it is not necessarily an indication that something went wrong. Learning is an unpredictable process; instructional correctives are part of the normal flow of attaining mastery in any field.
When we teach along a straight path of “plan, instruct, assign, and grade,” we don’t weave in time to respond to students’ instructional needs. Yet, whether learning occurs is directly influenced by the steps we and our students take after instruction. This is the point at which formative assessment practices can be so effective—they provide the “back and forth” between instruct and assess that allows us to respond to what student work shows us they know and do not yet know, before we assign a grade and move on.
John Hattie (2009) calls this the zone of “what happens next” and describes it as a feedback loop. The feedback loop begins with a “knowledge-eliciting activity”—what students do in response to instruction. Teachers examine student responses—the “assessment.” Then teachers and students take action based on what students’ responses reveal they did or did not learn. The next step may be to offer feedback to the student, but it may not be. Feedback isn’t always the best teaching tool: identification of the student’s learning need determines whether feedback is the appropriate next step or whether further instruction is called for (Wiliam, 2013).
This feedback loop was missing from my beginning teaching. I was planning for instructing, but not planning for learning. When my students did something in response to instruction, I was not prepared to “loop back” and help them move further along the continuum of learning, either by giving feedback to focus their revisions or by reteaching to the parts not yet learned.
When we teach for learning, we actively seek evidence of what students do not “get.” We use assessment processes and instruments with sufficient instructional traction to identify specific learning needs for each student throughout a unit or teaching cycle. And we make sure to plan time in our teaching cycle to respond to each student’s learning needs so we can move all students forward to the point of mastery.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
Wiliam, D. 2013. Feedback and instructional correctives. In McMillan, J. H., ed. The SAGE handbook of research on classroom assessment. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., pp 197-214.
Adapted from: Chappuis, J. 2015. Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, 2e. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, pp. 203-205.