Learning Strategies

A Student Agency Game Plan—How to Use Data to Bridge Choice and Accountability

By Winnie O'Leary     Jun 26, 2017

A Student Agency Game Plan—How to Use Data to Bridge Choice and Accountability

A few years ago, Harvard’s Achievement Gap Institute conducted a study on teaching and student agency. The study recognized agency as potentially “…as important an outcome of schooling as the skills we measure with standardized testing.” Indeed, when students take ownership of their education, they become more invested in the outcome. Learning about things that fascinate them helps them pay closer attention, process more efficiently, and engage in critical thinking. Students work harder, persist longer, and put their best foot forward.

However, the Harvard researchers also acknowledged the need for accountability, and the challenges this poses for educators. How do we provide opportunities to build student agency while also staying true to the standards and expectations we are required to teach, and against which students are assessed on high stakes exams? How do we integrate this empowering approach to instruction without losing sight of the necessity of mastery?

The connection between what a student enjoys and what she needs to learn is  actionable data—something the educational world has plenty of thanks to the proliferation of both testing and technology. Data is a tool that can be as valuable as a teacher’s red pen, when used correctly. Unfortunately, much of that data is uninspiring, hard to use, and disconnected from work that is being done in the classroom. 

So, how do we use data to support student agency? Here are three steps to get you started:

1. Share Meaningful Data

You can start the process by regularly sharing meaningful data with your students. Use data from formative assessments, unit tests, and state exams to start and guide conversations. Ask open-ended questions such as:

  • What does this data mean?
  • What do I need to focus on?
  • How can I use what I am interested in to achieve the skills and standards that are expected?

Technology can help. Online programs, for example, not only provide resources to more easily integrate formative assessments into every lesson, but they also help you quickly gather, analyze, and access data. Usage data and mastery tests within online curriculum solutions can help you determine how students are progressing through the material. Classroom assessment tools can help you benchmark students as well as carry out quick class-wide checks for understanding by leveraging clickers or students’ own devices. When this data points to a topic, concept, or skill that a student is struggling with, discuss it!

On the flip side, make note when a student’s performance is outstanding; a brief encouraging chat can go further than you might expect in building critical self-confidence or nurturing a budding passion.

2. Make a Game Plan

As teachers, we’re always planning our next lessons. The value of focusing on student agency is that our students become partners in the process, and also become more invested in their own learning. Such a student might flag dividing fractions as a challenge and the map out a plan to use an online math program for extra practice. Specifically, when students are invested in their own learning, they:

  • look at their own data
  • identify skills or standards that may be hazards
  • classify them as areas of need
  • develop plans to address the skills
  • note the results of the plan

For teachers, the ability to provide unique opportunities to achieve these results—through project-based learning, competency-based assessments, or other creative approaches—is a mind-shift. It requires blending the actionable data and our understanding of the individual learning and expression habits of every child.

Again, technology can make a difference. Instructional tools like personalized learning paths and online curriculum open up access to new kinds of resources for targeting instruction, not only when it is convenient to the teacher, but when it is convenient to the student. We can teach in ways that resonate with individual students, through multimedia, for example, or guided, hands-on projects.

Instructional technology is never going to reveal to our students what they are passionate about, but it can encourage and support student agency.

3. Focus on Growth

Prioritizing student agency doesn’t discount the value of standards and assessments; instead, it reaches beyond them. Once your students are comfortable with their own data—from benchmark exams, formative assessments, mastery tests, high-stakes assessments, etc.—and you’ve worked together to plot out clear goals and learning paths, it’s time to focus on growth instead of just proficiency. Of course, students still need to master content; this speaks to the core expectations of a grade level. But it’s the combination of growth plus mastery that truly equals meaningful education.

Set student growth goals with the overarching mastery goals in mind, so that together you and your students can focus on the areas that need to be strengthened. Then, use the data you have to show students how they’re progressing. For example, share data from two different exit tickets you’ve administered on the same topic, and talk to your students about the improvements in their results. It’s powerful for students to see evidence that their concentrated efforts can lead to positive change.

Think of the journey towards student agency as an adventure in education; student choice and accountability are two key components to every student’s learning, and data is the bridge we have to connect the two. By really digging into the assessment data at hand—and using it to ask questions, engage in critical reflection, and track progress—we can help our students take ownership of their learning while working toward the skills they need to master. And when we take the leap to give our students a say in where their concentrated efforts are being made, they can each truly put their best foot forward.

Learning Strategies

A Student Agency Game Plan—How to Use Data to Bridge Choice and Accountability

By Winnie O'Leary     Jun 26, 2017

A Student Agency Game Plan—How to Use Data to Bridge Choice and Accountability

A few years ago, Harvard’s Achievement Gap Institute conducted a study on teaching and student agency. The study recognized agency as potentially “…as important an outcome of schooling as the skills we measure with standardized testing.” Indeed, when students take ownership of their education, they become more invested in the outcome. Learning about things that fascinate them helps them pay closer attention, process more efficiently, and engage in critical thinking. Students work harder, persist longer, and put their best foot forward.

However, the Harvard researchers also acknowledged the need for accountability, and the challenges this poses for educators. How do we provide opportunities to build student agency while also staying true to the standards and expectations we are required to teach, and against which students are assessed on high stakes exams? How do we integrate this empowering approach to instruction without losing sight of the necessity of mastery?

The connection between what a student enjoys and what she needs to learn is  actionable data—something the educational world has plenty of thanks to the proliferation of both testing and technology. Data is a tool that can be as valuable as a teacher’s red pen, when used correctly. Unfortunately, much of that data is uninspiring, hard to use, and disconnected from work that is being done in the classroom. 

So, how do we use data to support student agency? Here are three steps to get you started:

1. Share Meaningful Data

You can start the process by regularly sharing meaningful data with your students. Use data from formative assessments, unit tests, and state exams to start and guide conversations. Ask open-ended questions such as:

  • What does this data mean?
  • What do I need to focus on?
  • How can I use what I am interested in to achieve the skills and standards that are expected?

Technology can help. Online programs, for example, not only provide resources to more easily integrate formative assessments into every lesson, but they also help you quickly gather, analyze, and access data. Usage data and mastery tests within online curriculum solutions can help you determine how students are progressing through the material. Classroom assessment tools can help you benchmark students as well as carry out quick class-wide checks for understanding by leveraging clickers or students’ own devices. When this data points to a topic, concept, or skill that a student is struggling with, discuss it!

On the flip side, make note when a student’s performance is outstanding; a brief encouraging chat can go further than you might expect in building critical self-confidence or nurturing a budding passion.

2. Make a Game Plan

As teachers, we’re always planning our next lessons. The value of focusing on student agency is that our students become partners in the process, and also become more invested in their own learning. Such a student might flag dividing fractions as a challenge and the map out a plan to use an online math program for extra practice. Specifically, when students are invested in their own learning, they:

  • look at their own data
  • identify skills or standards that may be hazards
  • classify them as areas of need
  • develop plans to address the skills
  • note the results of the plan

For teachers, the ability to provide unique opportunities to achieve these results—through project-based learning, competency-based assessments, or other creative approaches—is a mind-shift. It requires blending the actionable data and our understanding of the individual learning and expression habits of every child.

Again, technology can make a difference. Instructional tools like personalized learning paths and online curriculum open up access to new kinds of resources for targeting instruction, not only when it is convenient to the teacher, but when it is convenient to the student. We can teach in ways that resonate with individual students, through multimedia, for example, or guided, hands-on projects.

Instructional technology is never going to reveal to our students what they are passionate about, but it can encourage and support student agency.

3. Focus on Growth

Prioritizing student agency doesn’t discount the value of standards and assessments; instead, it reaches beyond them. Once your students are comfortable with their own data—from benchmark exams, formative assessments, mastery tests, high-stakes assessments, etc.—and you’ve worked together to plot out clear goals and learning paths, it’s time to focus on growth instead of just proficiency. Of course, students still need to master content; this speaks to the core expectations of a grade level. But it’s the combination of growth plus mastery that truly equals meaningful education.

Set student growth goals with the overarching mastery goals in mind, so that together you and your students can focus on the areas that need to be strengthened. Then, use the data you have to show students how they’re progressing. For example, share data from two different exit tickets you’ve administered on the same topic, and talk to your students about the improvements in their results. It’s powerful for students to see evidence that their concentrated efforts can lead to positive change.

Think of the journey towards student agency as an adventure in education; student choice and accountability are two key components to every student’s learning, and data is the bridge we have to connect the two. By really digging into the assessment data at hand—and using it to ask questions, engage in critical reflection, and track progress—we can help our students take ownership of their learning while working toward the skills they need to master. And when we take the leap to give our students a say in where their concentrated efforts are being made, they can each truly put their best foot forward.

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