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A Tool to Give Students More Control Over Their Learning

Giving students an opportunity to develop a plan for improvement is empowering and can boost academic performance.

July 21, 2023
Sneksy / iStock

As educators, we’re always seeking ways to empower students to take ownership over their learning. A simple tool that has been transformative in my classroom in building student ownership and improving academic outcomes is the implementation of student-led PDSA (plan-do-study-act) cycles.

The engineer W. Edwards Deming was introduced to PDSA cycles by his mentor, physicist Walter Shewhart, and Deming used this technique to create improvements in manufacturing for the automotive industry. More recently, PDSA cycles have been introduced into educational systems and schools as an improvement science tool. 

A PDSA cycle is a four-step process whereby teachers and students work together to create positive change. During a PDSA cycle, teachers and students create a plan for improvement; implement, or do, the plan; study if the plan’s actions were successful; and act to create long-term improvement actions based on the results of the plan. In my school district and classroom, PDSA cycles have become a part of our culture, which has led to some incredible academic growth for students, empowering them to take ownership over their own learning.

Incorporating PDSA Cycles

Plan: The first step in a PDSA cycle is students and their teacher working together to create a plan to address something that needs improvement in the classroom. My history students recently completed a writing assessment, and only 54 percent of them were proficient, most only passing with low to midrange passing scores. This data showed the potential for lots of student growth, which was a great opportunity for my class to work together to create a PDSA cycle.

I started my classes the next day by showing students the assessment data. We reflected on the assessment and talked about the data. I hung a poster on our classroom wall with the words “Plan,” “Do,” “Study,” and “Act” written in bold lettering with space below each word for me to write on the poster as my students created a plan regarding what we could do to improve these low scores.

I asked my students, “What plan can we put into place to improve our writing skills and improve our data for this assessment?” We had a great discussion and brainstormed a lot of ideas. After about 15 minutes, the students created and agreed to the following plan, which we wrote in the plan section of our poster. 

To improve our data on this assessment, our class will implement the following changes: 

  • We will retake this assessment in 10 days.
  •  We will reorganize and highlight our history notes for this unit for homework.
  • Our teacher will create daily warm-ups reviewing citing and explaining evidence.
  • Our teacher will add a minimum word count to each essay question to let students know how much they should elaborate on their answers.

Do: After students created this plan, we put it into action. We created a specific timeline and used our class poster to track data daily to see if we were meeting the milestones we set for ourselves. I tracked how many students brought in their reorganized history notes and wrote it on the poster (by the end of the 10 days, 94 percent of them had reorganized and highlighted their notes!). 

Students tracked data on their progress with practicing citing and explaining evidence on the new warm-ups that I created. And at the end of the 10 days, students retook the assessment. Every student’s score was higher than on the original assessment, and the data showed that 85 percent of the students were now proficient, with many of the scores in the exceeding range. 

Study: After students retook the assessment, we came back together as a class and looked at the data and talked about the study section of our poster. I asked the students, “Did our plan work to create the improvement we hoped for?” Students confidently answered yes, and several students described how proud they were of themselves for their higher scores and how they understood citing evidence so much better after getting more practice.

Students discussed what went well, and I wrote their ideas on our poster. They agreed that taking the time to review and highlight their notes, using warm-ups to get more practice explaining their evidence with details, and having a word count as part of the assessment were the things that were helpful in fueling their success. 

Act: After writing down a list of things that were successful in our class PDSA cycle, we moved to the act section of the poster and talked about what we learned from this PDSA cycle and what we could incorporate into our classroom in the long term. 

My students agreed that they should make highlighting a part of the way they take notes in our history notebooks, and they asked me to continue putting minimum word counts on every assessment essay question. I wrote this in the act section of the poster, and these are things that we adopted into our classroom practice, both of which led to continued success on subsequent assessments. 

It is important to acknowledge that not every PDSA cycle works—sometimes an improvement plan might not lead to the desired outcomes. But all data, even undesirable data, is a good starting point for improvement. Sometimes the act section of a PDSA cycle might be to abandon the actions that were tried and work with students to brainstorm a new PDSA cycle plan on the same topic.

As I think about this PDSA cycle and about other PDSA cycles that I have completed with my students, I’m struck by the great power that PDSA cycles have to empower students. Often, as teachers we feel like we need to be the ones doing all of the leading and teaching in our classrooms; however, if we strategically place that leadership into the hands of students, they are free to take control of their own learning, which leads to great results.

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