Formative Assessment

Make Learning Last: How Diverse Learners Can Process Their Understanding

Quick reflections, surveys, and diverse perspective assessments can stabilize your instructional framework by giving students a chance for the epiphanies so critical to their learning.
A young boy is sitting at his desk beside his teacher. His left forearm is on his desk, his head resting against it. His right elbow is resting on his desk with his hand against his head. He's looking at his open notebook, working with his teacher.
Photo credit: US Department of Education via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The difficult part of exercise is getting started and sticking to it. Fitness classes are like school classrooms. There are people at different skill levels of strength and conditioning. The instructor's job is to provide an experience that challenges all participants based on where they are in fitness. Like good classroom teachers, effective fitness instructors incorporate different levels of movements into each activity so that the participants can gauge where they are and what they need to do during the session.

In classrooms, effective learning happens when teachers provide the conditions that learners find relatable. The challenge is that these conditions will vary for each learner. A common question is, "How do I meet the needs of my students when each has a different level of current understanding and tends to learn at a different pace?" The easy answer is to inform planning with various kinds of assessments, but that doesn't make the path clear for what to do.

Differentiated instruction looks at instructional planning based on content, process, and products. These areas are familiar to teachers and their assessment practices. A typical lesson delivers content to students, and then has them create products to practice and demonstrate their learning. Many of these lessons are missing perhaps the most important element in the learning equation: process.

Processing Understanding

Whether content is delivered to the whole class, to small groups, or independently, learners need opportunities to digest the concepts and skills. For example, listening to a 30-minute lecture, watching a 15-minute video, or reading three pages without a pause risks the high likelihood that the participants will only get a surface understanding. When these examples are broken by 3-4 pauses for students to reflect and explore the parts, there's greater opportunity for deeper understanding. Participants figure out what they comprehend and what remains foggy, and can communicate that to the teacher for just-in-time support before moving on to the next content part.

Processing opportunities do not take time from instruction. They do stabilize the supports for the instructional framework. Time taken during a lesson, often 1-4 minutes, ensures long-term understanding by all students. Those moments can provide learners with the critical teaching opportunities that they need -- the epiphanies.

Here are strategies that support processing experiences. Some take a short time to accomplish. Others may take longer, but they are embedded with content delivery or while completing work products.

Quick Reflections of Understanding

Good learning experiences have a flow. When a teacher follows a carefully-crafted flow of instruction, providing each learning experience like thoughtfully-laid blocks for building a bridge, pausing for too long can break the concentration; but going on for too long means that some students become lost. When time is of the essence, take 1-5 minutes for students to check in with themselves or others on what they understand and what questions remain. Consider using these reflection strategies:

  • Silent Reflection
    Have students quietly reflect on a prompt about the key points of the learning experience. Give them 15-60 seconds. Reflection is a muscle that must be exercised if learners are to become proficient. Without reflection, responses can be surface-level and fragmented.

  • Journaling
    The physical act of writing can help learners explore their understanding. Take 2-5 minutes for participants to process and record their thinking. Mix things up with quick writes and free writes.

  • Partner Conversations
    Talking to a partner helps the learners who prefer to think aloud. They can express their ideas and hear those of others. Paired with one of the previous individual strategies, partner conversations help internal thinkers clarify their ideas before participating in a dialog. Pre-assign elbow partners or clock buddies to quickly manage the pairings. Get them out of their chairs for a quick energy boost while they talk in groups.

Quick Surveys

Use surveys for quick response on fact-based information or perceptions. Sometimes a short check-in response from students is all that's needed for revising support while moving forward.

For tech approaches consider:

(For more on this subject, see my spreadsheet on Differentiation with Social Media Tools and my post 50+ Tools for Differentiating Instruction Through Social Media.)

Non-tech approaches include:

  • Hand Signals
    Thumb up signals understanding, thumb pointed to the side means understanding with some questions, and thumb down says, "I don't understand."

  • Colored Cups
    Students placing a colored cup on their desk -- green, yellow, or red -- communicates the same ideas as the hand signals.

Provide Diverse Perspective Assessments

Have students explore skills and concepts from different perspectives based on interests and/or learning preferences. These activities take more time, yet are ways to embed processing experiences in content or product experiences. They provide multiple tasks that are accomplished through different perspectives of learning preferences. These strategies support thinking about content through different lenses:

Empower Students With Their Learning

An important key to these strategies is that they give learners practice with checking for their own understanding. Processing learning is a muscular system that must be engaged frequently. Students need practice reflecting on their learning 2-3 times per lesson on a daily basis. This ensures that learners strengthen their connections to the concepts and skills for long-term gains.

How do you help students process their understanding? Please share in the comments below.