How We Know Students Are Learning

By Dr. Jennifer Friedman, Dean of Student Learning and Guest Blogger

With ascantronll of the progress we are making toward creating the best educational environment for our students, one might wonder how we know our students are learning. At Hillel, we constantly ask ourselves four important questions:

  1. What do we want our students to know?
  2. How do we know they are learning it?
  3. What do we do if they already know it?
  4. What do we do if they are not learning it?

The first question frames our curriculum, and the students’ learning goals. The second question relates directly to assessment. The third and fourth questions relate to how we personalize student learning, and differentiate our curriculum in order to meet various student needs, and they will be the subject of a future blog.

Since adopting this framework (from the Professional Learning Community model I have discussed in previous communications), both in my career in the public school system and at Hillel, I have seen firsthand the dramatic improvements to how we view student achievement, and how our focus has shifted to student learning rather than teacher instruction. In addition, the emphasis at Hillel on collaboration and building community within the school setting has had an extremely positive impact on school culture.

As we continue our evolution as a 21st-century educational community at Hillel, these four questions become even more salient. The assessments related to curriculum, and the curriculum itself, are less rigid, opening up opportunities to assess student learning in a myriad of new ways. A multiple choice test at the end of a unit of study, in order to gauge what a student has learned, is now but one method of assessment, and a narrow one at that. We seek to understand what a student has learned in a broader way, in multiple subjects and integrated units; a final product might be an artifact, incorporating one’s creativity. We aim to glean a student’s critical thinking process, collaborative efforts, applied knowledge, and ultimate internalization of his or her learning. So, how might we assess these complicated constructs, along with acquisition of content knowledge and skills?

The answer lies in our ability to specify explicit objectives within each learning project. These objectives can be measured in multiple ways, using specific criteria. For example, students may create a culminating project that incorporates Language Arts, Math, Science, Tanakh, and Art. They will use the skills and content learned, specific to each class, and perhaps build a model. Performance-based measurements, such as observation, written and verbal explanations to probing questions, and real-world tasks are reviewed based on a rubric, or outlined expectations. Eventually, instead of grades, we will keep a portfolio of student work that imparts what the student has actually learned vs. how the student performed on a test. And while our fifth through eighth graders do take an annual standardized test as a tool to check where Hillel students are performing relative to their same-grade peers across the country, our model taps the foundation of core academic knowledge that is then subsumed within the problem-solving and critical thinking required in an assessment. These skills are essential for our students to succeed not only in learning, but in life. What a different world we are in compared to when we all sat in silent rooms filling in bubbles on a scantron. And, what a much better educational place to be!

 

 

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