I have long believed that if assessment doesn’t immediately impact learning in the classroom, it has fallen short of both its purpose and its potential. In my own practice, I think of it this way: If I figure out what my learner strengths and needs are, I am compelled to use that information to refine my planning, my instruction, and my feedback. To ignore assessment data would be unacceptable. So, the question becomes, how might we use strengths to address needs and optimize learning?
Analyzing Student Work
In my blog post on student work and decision-making, I shared a process we use in my district to “harvest” strengths and needs from assessment artifacts. The premise of this process is that while scoring work and analyzing the resulting data invites clarity about patterns and trends, it also often generates questions about why students have experienced particular challenges in an assessment experience. The answers to the question of why can most often be answered by examining student work. Looking at assessment artifacts is akin to analyzing student thinking and it allows educators to not only verify that a challenge exists but why it exists and how they might respond most effectively.
While I always knew that student work was the key to figuring out how students were processing my instruction, my understanding of the potential of this process was enhanced through the work of my colleague Nicole Dimich Vagle. She describes a process called Pile-Stack-Plan in her book Design in 5: Essential Phases to Create Engaging Assessment Practice, and I highly recommend this book as an important assessment resource. Artifact analysis is foundational to discovering student strengths and needs in relation to the learning goals you are developing in learners.
Leveraging Strengths to Enhance Positive Tone and Review Success Criteria
Once student strengths have been identified in their work, these strengths can be leveraged the very next day in the learning environment. Imagine you have spent time analyzing student assessment artifacts and you discover an alarming number of students who have forgotten the most basic cues and conventions in their work. Instead of beginning a class with a statement like, “I was assessing your work last night and I noticed that half of you forgot to capitalize and punctuate correctly,” you can phrase it this way: “I was assessing your work last night and I noticed that half of you remembered to capitalize and punctuate correctly.” A simple shift to focusing on strength accomplishes the same goal (restating success criteria and reviewing the need for capitalization and punctuation), while establishing a positive tone in the room and reinforcing positive choices by half your learners.
Leveraging Strengths to Build Confidence and Review Success Criteria
Another way to use strengths is to start by diligently identifying them within the work of every learner and then, the next day, listing these strengths at the front of the class in preparation for review. Students could then be paired and invited to work together to identify which of the strengths listed belongs to them. Because every student is represented in the strengths, this activity serves to celebrate growth and mastery while also reinforcing multiple aspects of the work that reflect proficiency. The more often students can see success criteria represented, the more familiar they become with what makes work strong.
Leveraging Strengths to Set Goals
Another way to apply a strength harvest in a classroom context is to ask students to create a two-part goal card to place on the corner of their desks (or in their binders, or next to their pictures on the wall, etc.). Within this goal, they need to articulate one strength they plan to repeat next time they engage in learning and assessment. Perhaps this strength represents a process or strategy they will apply again (e.g. read a text to the end before determining the main idea or use a concept web to generate ideas), or perhaps this strength represents a criteria that they want to repeat in their next product (e.g. begin paragraphs with a strong topic sentence or offer a strong conclusion again in the next lab report). The second part of their goal represents one criteria or strategy they want to enhance or improve.
By ensuring the two-part goal begins with a focus on a strength, we are communicating to learners that strength builds not only current learning but future learning. It is something to be acknowledged, celebrated, and used time and time again. As strengths are enhanced, so too are learning experiences.
Leveraging Strengths to Group Learners
Once strengths have been identified within student work, these strengths can also serve as the foundation for grouping decisions. Perhaps learners are grouped by strength and these groups are tasked with creating a description of how to accomplish each of their strengths, which can then be shared with the other groups. For example, groups may create short documents with names like “Recipe for organizing your narrative writing well” or “Ways to play net games strategically.” This supports students in thinking deeply about how they achieved the strengths they did, so they can be repeated, and so these tips can be shared with learners who are still working on that particular skill or understanding.
Another alternative is to group learners according to differing strengths so they can work together to share their wealth of skills and knowledge with each other, enhancing everyone’s learning through collaboration. In this way, someone might contribute to the group the skill of generating ideas early in a project, while another classmate might offer their approach to refining work in the latter stages. Together, they celebrate their own strengths while helping others with areas of need.
In Cassandra Erkens’ book Collaborative Common Assessments: Teamwork. Instruction. Results. she describes the importance of analyzing the types of errors students are making so the instructional responses are as appropriate as possible. This book contains many ideas about how to engage in this kind of critical exploration of student work and many of these ideas can be replicated with learners.
The more adept students become at analyzing their own work and thinking about their thinking, the more independent and the more proactive they can become at addressing their own needs throughout the learning process. Students are then able to begin to group themselves during critical stages of learning such as revision, editing, correcting, generating ideas, and crafting a plan. The more often strengths are determined and openly articulated, the more easily students can enter into a community of learning where everyone has something to offer.
Making It Count
Using artifact analysis to identify student strengths and needs allows educators to construct a positive and proactive culture within their classrooms. By starting with strength, teachers can ensure both they and their learners acknowledge powerful learning before beginning to address student needs. Strengths serve the shift to frequent collaboration and goal-setting, as well as increased independence. This is when the potential of assessment becomes reality.
Dimich-Vagle, N. (2015). Design in 5: Essential phases to create engaging assessment practice. Bloomington, IN; Solution Tree Press.
Erkens, C. (2016). Collaborative common assessment: Teamwork. Instruction. Results. Bloomington, IN; Solution Tree Press.