A few years ago, I was part of an Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) looking for ideas to promote whole school improvement. My principal, who had read John Hattie’s Visible Learning, steered us toward Hattie’s effect size meta-analysis, which had compiled data from hundreds of studies to rank influences related to achievement. 138 influences, ranging from home factors to school environment to teaching tactics, were ranked and listed. Sitting atop the ranking was “Self-regulating students”. At the time, no one on the team was familiar with practices, strategies or teaching tools that promoted or strengthened “self-regulation” but its effect size, which doubled almost all other influences, was too strong to ignore. Thus, we as a team began our journey to increase school-wide achievement through self-regulation.
While self-regulation has gained steam with Hattie’s increasing influence, back in 2013 there wasn’t a lot to find about schools building self-regulation within their classrooms. Without a blueprint to follow, we began to experiment on our own. A fellow ELA teacher and I began asking our students to complete self-assessments before and after our tests and quizzes. What we found was something that I only recently learned has a name: the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, my least capable students reported the highest level of confidence, while my most capable students were much more cautious. Though, I find Dunning Kruger effect to be fascinating, in truth, I don’t believe that this phenomena fully explains what was actually happening in my class. Instead, I think my lowest students knew that they were the lowest. However, they, along with their more successful peers, were doing what traditional education had taught them to do their entire lives: get the right answer. Of course, for struggling students, the right answer is “I’m going to do great!”. Meanwhile, my more acute students had decoded the self-assessment task to be one where I was looking for self-improvement. Therefore, for them, the right answer required them to tell me that they had lots of things to work on. In short, our attempts at self-assessments were thought provoking on many levels but, in terms of self-regulation, they failed spectacularly. So with no where else to go, we turned our attention back to Visible Learning and found our answer in Hattie’s emphasis on teacher clarity.
Hattie’s writing on teacher clarity is research that I believe every teacher should read. In summary, Hattie advises teachers to “Know thy Impact”. To do so, he asks teachers to look at their lessons through the eyes of their students with the goal of empowering every student to be capable of answering three basic questions about each lesson: 1.) What am I doing? 2.) How am I doing? 3.) Where to next?. Upon reading Hattie, I realized why our self-assessments had failed. Our students couldn’t self-assess because they weren’t expected to articulate their learning targets on a daily basis. They had never been exposed to the success criteria that would allow them to pinpoint their own strengths and weakness in performing a particular task. They had never connected the lessons at hand with overarching goals of the unit. Quite simply, they weren’t being asked on a daily basis, “What are you doing? How well are you doing it? Where to next?”. Thus, we as an ILT and a whole-school community began a multi-year-long journey toward teacher clarity by applying learning targets and success criteria to our classrooms.
Learning Targets immediately changed my classroom. As I, and many of my peers could attest, you can feel the difference in your class when you begin to use learning targets as a tool to self-regulation. Learning Targets pinpoint goals for students and help me to sharpen and focus my lessons to the essential of the target. As I began to align my targets to my lessons and their exit slips, my students became more aware of their own successes and needs and I began to see some benefits of self-regulation. Ideally, self-regulation gives achievement a turbo boost by creating a more powerful feedback loop for students. Most students rely on teachers for feedback, however, self-regulating students give themselves their own feedback which fast forwards their learning. However, while learning targets increased my students awareness of their own abilities it still felt to me like there was more work to done. Students needed more than just a target to self-assess, they needed practice analyzing their own mistakes and applying their own feedback to increase their skills. I knew this intuitively but for a long time I didn’t know how to go about creating such an opportunity. Only recently did I come across the answer; Going gradeless!
How does stripping assessments of grades help to build self-regulation? To begin, it creates a whole new paradigm of what an assessment is. By giving students an ungraded assessment, which I call checkpoints, we free the students of the stress of doing well and emphasize learning well from their mistakes. The questions on checkpoints are explicitly aligned to the units’ learning targets for the sake of clarity. This clarity allows students to follow-up the assessment with a rigorous self-assessment and opportunities to reflect. Students assign themselves proficiency ratings based on the feedback from the assessment and use their own self-regulatory skills to set goals to improve. Within a unit, several checkpoints allow students to track their progress (standards from early sections are repeated on each checkpoint) and to prepare for their summative (graded) unit assessment.
What learning targets added to my lessons, checkpoints have given to my assessments. Every checkpoint is an opportunity to grow. Improvement and reflection are emphasized over grades and, perhaps most importantly, every student is given time to learn a standard over multiple assessments. I’ve only just begun my use of checkpoints, however, I already feel the difference they make in a classroom. Rather than merely preaching the idea of effort and growth mindsets, checkpoints allow me to enact those ideals by engaging students in their own learning and giving them multiple opportunities to succeed. I still have much to learn and it’s already been an incredibly steep climb but I enjoy the work of improvement, both of my own and of my students.