Formative Assessment

Using Learning Progressions to Build Student Confidence

Scaffolding assignments provides clear checkpoints for students, allowing them to feel successful at acquiring new skills.

May 7, 2024
Dan Page / The iSpot

If you’ve never felt successful at something, how do you know it’s possible? More precisely, if you haven’t seen progress toward success, do you have any reason to believe that your effort is paying off or that it’s even worth trying?

This is what I think about when I start planning an assessment sequence for any bit of learning I’m asking students to do. How am I building assessment sequences to help students see their success and growth so they build the confidence they need?

To explain this, I’ll start by sharing what I used to do that didn’t build student confidence. Let’s say, for example, that I’m trying to teach students to write complete sentences, but to assess that, I’m asking students to write an essay. If the essay is the only work I’m using to assess whether a student is learning how to create complete sentences, how are students going to feel approaching that assessment?

Hacking Student Motivation cover
Courtesy of publisher

For starters, the only evidence they have to support whether they will be successful is how they did in previous classes or the grade they got on the previous essay. This is why we so often see students get trapped in a performance loop. Students who got an F on their last essay will approach the next essay with that evidence and convince themselves success isn’t on the table for them. The students with an A might find themselves on the opposite end of the spectrum, full of confidence and convinced they have nothing left to learn. At this point, the assessment process does nothing more than cement identities students have already created for themselves.

How do we shake these identities and approach the assessment process in a way that breaks this narrative for students and provides them with evidence that success is possible for them this time? The answer stems from learning progressions. With learning progressions, we focus on how we scaffold the learning process to make it clear and explicit for students to support them when they get stuck. However, the learning progression also helps to create an assessment sequence that we can use to help students build their confidence and gather evidence to support a narrative of success.

Here’s what this could look like. Let’s go back to the example we were just looking at with students learning to write complete sentences.

Phase 1: I can define nouns, subjects, verbs, and predicates.

Phase 2: I can identify nouns and verbs when given sentences.

Phase 3: I can correct errors in end- of-sentence punctuation when given an example with errors.

Phase 4:  I can write simple sentences and identify the subject and predicate.

Phase 5: I can combine simple sentences together into compound sentences.

We now have a foundation for building an assessment process that scaffolds student confidence. Again, the goal is to provide students with evidence that they can be successful. If the end goal is to write a full essay with complete sentences, then this progression tells us how we can build an assessment sequence that helps provide students with evidence that shows their competence at each stage, which, as we’ve talked about before, engages them in a competence-confidence loop to build their ability to see success along the way.

In my classroom, I often use the term checkpoints when I talk about assessment with my students. I like to help them see each assessment as a stopping point to make sure they understand the basics before moving on. For our first checkpoint, I would have a digital, automatically graded assessment that checked phases one and two together. Through a series of intentionally designed multiple-choice questions, students would check to see if they know what nouns, verbs, subjects, and predicates are.

The goal here is to create an early stage of success for students, which is why I prefer to provide an automatically graded assignment for this checkpoint. When I don’t have to grade it, it makes it much easier for me to allow students multiple attempts at this checkpoint. Typically, at this stage, I tell students to wait until they get above 90 percent before they move on. It is rare that students get stuck here because of the simplistic nature of the concepts at this phase, but if they do, I often leverage time outside of class to support them, whether it’s during my thirty minutes of contracted time after school or a twenty-minute support period we have built into our schedule.

From there, I create a second checkpoint for students to see if they learned phase three of the learning progression. With this example, because this phase still focuses on lower levels of thinking, it’s possible that I can also automate this assessment process using a digital tool.

I do want to mention that when we automate assessments, it’s key that we are intentional in helping students see the questions they get wrong or right as feedback. I ask students to fill out a half-page sheet that requires minimal time and energy when they attempt a checkpoint, and it helps them reflect on the assessment and what it showed them. On this sheet, I ask the following questions:

• What questions did you get right?
• What did it show that you learned?
• What questions did you get wrong?
• What does that mean you should learn next?

The goal is to keep this simple and to focus on helping students see how the assessment connects to learning, both in what they’ve already done and the learning they have yet to do.

When we get to phases four and five, I can assess this work through the writing we were already working on in class. Often, phases four and five are set up to allow me to assess those skills within the curriculum or whatever writing I planned, so those assessments are already built into the curriculum. The difference, though, is that now I have already scaffolded student confidence so they have evidence showing they can be successful on this assessment.

However, we have to make sure we encourage confidence through meaningful information, not just through surface-level praise. It can be so tempting to tell students, “You’ve got this! You’re going to do great!” but there are two problems with that. The first is that we become the source of confidence-building in this situation, wherein the student relies on us as an external source of confidence. This is temporary and easily broken. Second, it doesn’t connect their confidence to previous learning and effort. Confidence builds when students see the connection between their past success, their level of effort, and their ability to see success in the future. When we take out any of those three, we’re left with a shaky form of confidence.

What we want to do, and the solution to the fear students have about assessments, is to find their confidence by using evidence that they can be successful by clearly sequencing assessments to build competence and confidence along the way. When we do that, students can use assessments for learning and see their value because it’s not just a one-time "gotcha" moment or a tool for ranking and sorting. Rather, the sequence becomes a path, a series of stepping stones, and each one helps them find their way to the next one.

From Hacking Student Motivation: 5 Assessment Strategies That Boost Learning Progression and Build Student Confidence (pp. 76-80), by Tyler Rablin, Highland Height, OH: Times 10 Publications © 2024 by Times 10 Publications. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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