Kim Bailey is former director of professional development and instructional support for the Capistrano Unified School District in California. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Chapman University in California. Follow @bailey4learning on Twitter.

Start Your Year by Building a Learning Partnership with Your Students

It’s here. The start of the school year—that crucial time when educators excitedly “set the stage” with their students and jumpstart their vision for a successful learning experience in their class. It’s an official opportunity to initiate a strong learning partnership with students that empowers them to grow in their independence and empowerment as learners (Popham, 2011). Sounds good, right? Yet, if we think about the typical approach to setting the stage at the beginning of the year, it often falls short of establishing a strong foundation for that partnership.

Often, our kick-off message to students tends to be one-way. We might outline the content our students will be learning, then describe how the class will be organized including the grading or point structure, and finally, dictate the rules for acceptable student conduct. Sometimes we even cap off the process with a requirement for students to get parents’ signatures on the syllabus. While students need this information, does it really hit the mark in establishing that learning partnership we envision as ideal? This year, why not rethink both the what and the how you approach the beginning of the year. Why not actively engage your students in a collective conversation about the culture of learning that will be fostered in your class throughout the year.

Evidence of a Culture of Learning

Let’s clarify what is meant by a culture of learning. In a culture of learning, all members (teachers and students) share habits and beliefs about learning and work collaboratively in alignment with these beliefs to continuously improve learning. When looking at key characteristics within this type of environment, we would see the following:

  1. Students would be clear on their learning targets. They know the specific concepts and knowledge they should be striving to attain and what the evidence of “knowing” and “understanding” looks like.
  2. Students have a good understanding of what quality work looks like. They are empowered and ideally have input into the design and practical use of rubrics and other aspects of quality work.
  3. Students have multiple opportunities to give and get feedback. They know that feedback is an opportunity to learn more, and in a safe environment, they give and receive feedback that is specific and focused on clear targets of quality and accuracy that can be improved. Feedback is viewed as an effort to help them reach their learning goals, not as criticism.
  4. Students have strategies and support for improving their learning. Students have a growth mindset that empowers them with the knowledge that they can improve their learning using effective strategies and using the feedback provided. They have multiple opportunities to improve upon their work and aren’t penalized during the formative learning process.

These indicators don’t occur by accident. They occur when teachers partner with students and systematically build the culture and skills necessary for such empowerment (Bailey and Jakicic, 2017).

How to Establish a Learning Partnership

So how might you launch your year with students in a way that gets them on board with a partnership leading to this type of classroom culture? You can work with your course or grade-alike collaborative team to customize the best approach for your context, but below is a suggested structure for the conversation.

Organize students into teams of four to six students. Give teams the opportunity to collaboratively discuss their ideal learning environment by prompting them to share successful learning experiences in both non-academic and academic areas.

Here are some prompts you might use:

  • Share an experience in which you needed to learn how to do something or improve how well you could do it (e.g., learning to shooting baskets, ride a bike, play an instrument). What helped you learn what you needed to do? Was it easy or challenging?
    • How did you improve in this skill? (e.g., you might hear responses such as setting small goals, watching others, practicing difficult tasks repeatedly, etc.)
    • What type of helpful feedback did you get from your coach, parent, friend, or teacher as you learned? How did you use that feedback? (e.g., you might hear how the feedback was specific, presented as a positive, or balanced with strengths.)
  • Now let’s talk about an academic area. What would help you know what you need to learn? If you were struggling to learn something in this class, what would help you improve? What type of feedback is valuable? How might you use this feedback?

Have teams debrief their conversations as you facilitate a class summary using a chart to capture the big ideas (see a sample template that can be created on chart paper, or generated as a shared Google Doc).

First, ask students to describe the characteristics of a classroom culture that would help them accomplish their learning goals. Then, ask them to describe actions that would support high levels of learning within the classroom environment throughout the year. Finally, if this is the goal of the class and together the teacher and students created a true partnership to promote learning, then what teacher commitments or agreements would be essential? What student commitments/agreements would be necessary? Throughout each part of the conversation, you can ask prompting questions as appropriate or needed in order to address key characteristics and/or actions seen within a learning-centered classroom.

What would we see in our classroom if we had a culture of learning? What actions would help us learn at high levels? What commitments/agreements will we make so we can work together to achieve our goals?
Teacher Students






As an example, here’s a completed chart:

What would we see in our classroom if we had a culture of learning? What actions would help us learn at high levels? What commitments/agreements will we make so we can work together to achieve our goals?
Teacher will… Students will…
  • We recognize that we all learn at different rates/paces. We may not get things on the first try, but we will work to improve our learning.
  • We celebrate our strengths but also work to improve our learning.
  • Feedback is viewed as an opportunity to improve.
  • We keep a safe climate so we don’t judge others.
  • We use evidence to make decisions about the quality of our work and possible next steps.
  • We share responsibility for our learning with the teacher.
  • Frequent check-ins on our learning (aka formative assessments)
  • Use of rubrics to consider ways to improve our work
  • Activities to give each other feedback in a positive way
  • Use of information from our assessments to improve our learning
  • Opportunities to correct or revise our work
  • Ensure that the learning targets and relevance are clear and that there are no surprises.
  • Check to ensure that students understand.
  • Use information from the check-in assessments to support learning, not penalize the grade.
  • Use examples of quality to ensure that students are clear on expectations.
  • Help students learn how to use feedback.
  • Value student input.
  • Value and take advantage of the feedback to improve our work.
  • Fully participate in our check-in/formative assessments so our teacher can adjust the pace or provide additional support when needed.
  • Use homework to practice and apply new skills or concepts.

Building a shared vision in partnership with your students is just the first step. There are many ways to keep the vision alive as you work to make it a reality. Your shared vision, the compatible actions, and the partnership commitments can be referenced throughout the year, particularly when initiating a new expectation, such as student-designed rubric or building in greater independence or asking students to pre-evaluate and improve their work prior to turning it in. General reflection activities about the class culture of learning can be woven into class discussions using the prompting question “What are we doing well?” to examine areas of strength and areas that might be enhanced. Establishing a shared vision with your students and making collective commitments can help set the stage for a successful year. Take those first steps and look for powerful learning!


Bailey, K. and Jakicic, C. (2017). Simplifying Common Assessment: A Guide for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Popham, W. James (2011). Transformative Assessment in Action: An Inside Look at Applying the Process. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.


  1. Sally White

    This is why you are so missed at CUSD, Kim! Excellent article!!!


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