This is an edited extract from the book, School and College Curriculum Design 3: Impact. For more information on this book and the first two in the series, as well as to access a raft of free curriculum resources, visit our Curriculum Central page.
Learning intentions and criteria for success
One of the five key strategies of formative assessment is clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success.
The notion here is simple: if pupils do not know what they are supposed to be learning and how their work will eventually be judged, then their ability to learn and make progress will be stymied. Obviously, we want pupils to know what we want them to learn and to understand what successful outcomes will look like.
This talks to the three processes that are central to formative assessment:
1. Establishing where pupils are in their learning
2. Establishing where they are going
3. Establishing how they’re going to get there
Learning intentions are also helpful in that they can provide a starting point for tracking pupil progress because they summarise what is taught in each sequence of lessons or topic/unit.
However, the use of learning intentions and success criteria does not mean that every lesson must start with a set of objectives scribed on the board which pupils have to copy down. And learning intentions are not the same as activities. Setting out what pupils will do is therefore not particularly helpful; rather, we should focus on what pupils are expected to think about and learn.
I would suggest that learning intentions are measurable statements which articulate what pupils should know and/or be able to do by the end of a lesson or sequence of lessons.
Sharing learning intentions and success criteria helps pupils to understand how what they’re learning today fits into the ‘bigger picture’ and how they will be assessed. Sharing the big picture is about connecting learning, too; and making explicit the purpose of learning – articulating why pupils need to achieve the learning goals we’re setting for them and of what use their learning will be to them in the future. As such, it can increase pupils’ levels of motivation and engagement.
Classroom discussions and questioning
Once we know what we want our pupils to learn and how that learning will be assessed, we need to gather evidence about pupils’ progress toward these goals. One ‘low stakes’ way we can do this is by planning effective classroom discussions and questions. In many ways, the art of asking good questions is what good teaching’s all about. Indeed, Socrates argued that “questioning is the only defensible form of teaching”.
Activating pupils are instructional resources for each other
Slavin, Hurley, and Chamberlain (2003) argue that activating pupils as instructional resources for each other leads to large gains. But there are two important conditions that must be met: Firstly, pupils must work as a group not just in a group; secondly, every pupil must be responsible for his or her own contribution to the group.
A simple way of activating pupils as instructional resources for each other is to ensure that all work is peer-assessed before it is handed to the teacher. Self- and peer-assessment can often be effective strategies – particularly because we want our pupils to become increasingly metacognitive in their approach to learning – because these strategies: give pupils greater responsibility for their learning; allow pupils to help and be helped by each other; encourage collaboration and reflection; enable pupils to see their progress; and help pupils to see for themselves how to improve.
However, such strategies come with health-warnings. Firstly, pupils need to be helped to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to be able to assess and give feedback. Secondly, we need to provide pupils with time in lessons to process, reflect upon and respond to peer-feedback.
Activating pupils as owners of their own learning
According to Deci et al (1982), when teachers are told they are responsible for pupils’ progress, the quality of their teaching deteriorates, as does their pupils’ learning. However, when pupils are told to take a more active role in monitoring and regulating their own learning, the pace of their progress increases.
A simple method to help pupils take ownership of their own learning is to give each pupil a laminated card, green on one side and red on the other. At the start of the lesson, the card is placed on the pupil’s desk with the green side facing upwards. Once the teacher has given an explanation, if the pupil doesn’t understand it, they flip the card over to red. As soon as one pupil flips the card to red, the teacher selects a pupil who is still showing green, and that pupil goes to the front of the class and answers a question that the pupil who’s showing red wants to ask.
This is an example of metacognition. Metacognition describes the processes involved when pupils plan, monitor, evaluate and make changes to their own learning behaviours. Metacognition is often considered to have two dimensions:
Metacognitive knowledge refers to what learners know about learning. This includes:
- The learner’s knowledge of their own cognitive abilities (e.g., ‘I have trouble remembering key dates in this period of history’)
- The learner’s knowledge of particular tasks (e.g., ‘The politics in this period of history are complex’)
- The learner’s knowledge of the different strategies that are available to them and when they are appropriate to the task (e.g., ‘If I create a timeline first it will help me to understand this period of history’).
Self-regulation, meanwhile, refers to what learners do about learning. It describes how learners monitor and control their cognitive processes. For example, a learner might realise that a particular strategy is not yielding the results they expected so they decide to try a different strategy. Put another way, self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning.
I have found that metacognition and self-regulation are best developed in the classroom when we follow a 6-step process as follows:
1. Thinking aloud – The teacher makes explicit what they do implicitly and makes visible the expertise that is often invisible to the novice learner. The best thinking aloud occurs when the teacher is modelling excellence. Modelling and thinking aloud should not be too specific as this may inhibit pupils’ reflection.
2. Thinking hard – The teacher needs to set an appropriate level of challenge if they are to help develop pupils’ metacognition and self-regulation because if pupils are not given hard work to do – if they do not face difficulty, struggle with it and overcome it – they will not develop new and useful strategies, they will not be afforded the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and they will not be able to reflect sufficiently on the content with which they are engaging. Moreover, if pupils are not made to think hard, they will not encode new information into long-term memory and so learning will not occur.
3. Thinking efficiently – As well as thinking hard, pupils need to think efficiently if they are to cheat the limitations of working memory. Yes, pupils must be challenged and must struggle with new concepts if they are attend to them actively and therefore encode them into long-term memory, but if the work’s too hard, they’re likely to hit cognitive overload whereby they try to hold too much information in working memory at one time and therefore thinking fails. The trick, then, is to ensure the work is hard but achievable. The work must be beyond pupils’ current capability but within their reach. They must struggle but must be able to overcome the challenge with time, effort and support.
4. Thinking positively – Research suggests that an important factor in the effective use of metacognitive strategies is the ability to delay gratification. In other words, pupils who are better able to delay rewards in favour of studying are better at planning and regulating their learning, and vice versa. To improve metacognition, we can share the ‘big picture’ with them. For example, we can explain how today’s lesson connects with yesterday’s lesson and how the learning will be extended or consolidated next lesson, as well as how it will be assessed at a later stage. We can explain how this learning will become useful in later life, too. And we can connect the learning in one subject with the learning in other subjects, making explicit the transferability of knowledge and skills and the interconnectedness of skills in everyday life.
5. Thinking together – Our job as teachers is to help pupils move from novice to expert. Part of this process is to ensure our pupils become increasingly independent over time. In short, we need to begin with lots of scaffolds in place but slowly remove those scaffolds as pupils develop their knowledge and skills. Asking challenging questions and guiding pupils with verbal feedback, prompting dialogue, and productive ‘exploratory’ talk is a great way to do this. In practice, the teacher might achieve this by encouraging pupils to think in advance of a task about what could go wrong then, afterwards, to discuss what they found hard about the task. ‘Dialogic teaching’ is a particularly effective method of managing classroom interactions because it emphasises dialogue through which pupils learn to reason, discuss, argue, and explain.
6. Thinking alone – As pupils move from novice towards expertise, they become independent learners and, with a greater degree of autonomy, make active choices to manage and organise their own learning. But even as pupils become independent, they need their teachers to provide them with timely feedback and to help them to plan, monitor, and evaluate their progress. The teacher, as the expert, initially takes responsibility for monitoring progress, setting goals, planning activities and allocating attention for example. Gradually, though, the responsibility for these cognitive processes is given over to the learner. The learner becomes increasingly capable of regulating his or her own cognitive activities.
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