6 Steps for Accelerating Learning After the Pandemic

By: Deana Senn

 

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “accelerating learning”?

Often, you may hear about strategies such as expanding the school day. I agree that expanding the school day is one way to accelerate learning. I would like to propose a different way.

It used to take about 5 months to cross the United States by wagon. It now takes about a week to make the same trip by car. This isn’t because we extended the amount of time we spend traveling each day – it’s because cars are more efficient than horse-drawn wagons.

In order to accelerate learning, instead of spending more time in classrooms, let’s focus on optimizing our teaching-learning systems.

It used to take 5 months to cross the U.S. by wagon. Now it's 1 week by car. More efficient vehicle = faster travel. To accelerate K-12 learning, let’s optimize our teaching-learning systems, not just focus on extending the day.… Click To Tweet

What is acceleration learning?

We can accelerate learning and become more time-efficient by being purposeful in every instructional action.

Teachers engage in as many as 1,000 interpersonal exchanges in a day (Jackson, 1990, p. 11). This means a school of 20 teachers engages in over 20,000 interpersonal exchanges each day impacting students. A school acceleration plan needs to leverage the instructional actions across the school in order to be efficient and have the biggest impact.Unaligned instructional actions (cloud of arrows going in all different directions) vs. an acceleration plan with all actions and systems focused on student learning (cloud of arrows all going in one direction and pointing to a target that says “student learning”).

 

6 steps for accelerating learning

Let’s look at how we can be more efficient both in the classroom and across all people who support student learning.

In the classroom, there are three steps to focus on if we want to increase our efficiency of the teaching-learning process.

      1. (Re)Engage students as partners in learning
      2. (Re)Focus on rigorous grade-level, standards-aligned learning
      3. Support the gaps in learning with structures and supports

Across all people who support students there are an additional three steps:

      1. Tighten the connection between your intervention system and your daily core instruction
      2. Help tutors align with your core instruction
      3. Leverage your relationships with caregivers

As you read about each of the six steps, think about which of these steps will have the biggest impact in your school/classroom. How can you concentrate your efforts on one or two steps? There is not enough time in the day to become efficient in all six. Spend your energy where you will get the largest return.

Have your teachers been talking about how apathetic the students are? Start with engaging students as partners in learning.

Since the onset of the pandemic, do you have the highest caregiver interaction that you’ve ever seen? Start with leveraging those relationships.

Aligning systems takes time, so start where you’ll see the greatest results and move forward from there.

 

IN THE CLASSROOM:

 

1. Engage students as partners in learning
A teacher sits on a desk facing a circle of students and listens to their feedback and ideas.

There are two quick wins to think about when focusing on engaging students as partners in learning. The first is simply adding processing questions into lessons. The other is getting students to reflect on their learning in genuine ways that will help them learn.

 

PROCESSING QUESTIONS
There are simple techniques to integrate processing questions into your lessons. A quick way to start is to add a couple of processing questions into your slides if you are presenting a lecture. Determine ahead of time who you want students to talk to in order to answer the question. This can be a quick turn and talk or a longer collaborative problem-solving activity. You can also set a timer for every seven minutes. When it goes off, have students re-explain to each other what they just learned. Remind them that using their notes, textbook, worksheet, anchor charts, and each other is totally part of the learning. This is not a test. But here’s the key … you can’t skip over these questions because you’re running out of time or because you think the kids don’t need time to talk. They do. I promise. Even if they know the answer, they need time to recall it and they need time to ‘own’ the knowledge.

REFLECTING ON LEARNING
When students reflect on and assess their own learning, they learn more deeply and increase their achievement. A recent research study confirmed this fact. I can completely geek out on research and this is one of those studies that makes my heart happy. A review of 33 studies in K-12 education in the United States found a positive effect of formative assessment on learning (Lee, et al., 2020). The most important finding from the study, however, was that formative assessment interventions were most effective when they focused on student-initiated self-assessment, with an effect size of .61 (see figure 1).

To put this into perspective, a student who scored at the 50th percentile in the control group would have been at the 61st percentile in the formative assessment group and the 73rd percentile in the student-initiated self-assessment group.

The bottom line? Student-initiated self-assessment helps raise achievement and doesn’t add “one more thing” to your plate during teaching and learning.

Simple suggestions:

      • After your students “re-explain to each other what they just learned,” ask them to rate themselves from 1-4 on how well they did. Were they able to re-explain everything they were supposed to learn? Or do they have gaps they need to work on?
      • Ask students to reflect on if they are able to demonstrate the lesson’s learning target and success criteria. This way, students are intentionally connecting the skills they are being asked to demonstrate and the learning they were supposed to gain in the lesson.

 

Bar graph showing percentile differences of student achievement in three groups: classrooms that used no formative assessment vs. those that did use formative assessment vs. those that used formative assessment with student-initiated self-assessment strategies.

Figure 1. A review by Lee, Chung, Zhang, Abedi, & Warschauer (2020) found that a student who scored at the 50th percentile in the control group would have been at the 61st percentile in the formative assessment group, and at the 73rd percentile in the student-initiated self-assessment group.

 

2. Focus on rigorous grade-level, standards-aligned learning

Two elementary-aged female students engage with a science experiment using a microscope.

The key to becoming more efficient in the teaching-learning process is to focus on what students will learn and how they will learn it, not what you will teach them. This subtle but necessary distinction helps put the focus on the end result: student outcomes.

If we are focusing on learning, students need to demonstrate the combination of knowledge and skills from multiple standards as those knowledge and skills are used in real life. It’s not enough to teach the skills in combination or make connections to real life. The learning needs to be in combination and demonstrated as we do in real life.

For example, no one has ever stopped me on the street and said, “Please ask and answer questions about the text you just read.”

Instead, I might need to ask and answer questions as I read online reviews and choose my next vacuum cleaner.

Or, I might need to ask and answer questions as I have a conversation with a friend about how my favorite author uses imagery to easily convey large amounts of information about settings and feelings.

Demonstrating academic knowledge and skills as they are used in real life also includes the skills and roles specific to the subject area – and ultimately, to particular professions.

For example, in math the task needs to incorporate the applicable mathematical practices.

In science, it means intentionally identifying the appropriate science and engineering practices.

Tasks that are truly rigorous require students to not only demonstrate knowledge, but to do so by demonstrating the practices that real mathematicians and scientists incorporate into their work on a daily basis.

The key to a more efficient teaching-learning process is focusing on what and how students will learn, NOT what you will teach them. This subtle but necessary distinction puts the focus on the end result: student outcomes. - @DeanaSenn Click To Tweet

 

3. Support the gaps in learning with structures and supports

A desk with an open book, agree/disagree cards, a summarizing mat, and a laminated resource to support student learning.

(Pictured: Example of student learning supports from the Academic Teaming Resource Pack)

Teaching is tiring. It can be downright exhausting if the teacher feels they are solely responsible to support the gaps in learning, especially in this time in history where we might have the most varied learning from the last school year.

How can you support students with structures they can use themselves instead of exhaustively running from student to student?

As you plan a lesson, also plan some simple supports to have at the ready.

    • Can you put key information on an anchor chart so students can remind themselves of their learning?
    • Is there a textbook or worked example that students can consult if they get stuck?
    • Are there manipulatives or other supports that could help students thinking out the process?

The extra 10 minutes it might take you to assemble those supports will save you an endless amount of energy during the lesson itself when you can point to the anchor chart or remind the student to put a stickie on page 45 to look at the example rather than re-explaining the lesson 32 times.

 

 

ACROSS ALL PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT STUDENTS:

 

4. Tighten the connection between your intervention system and your daily core instruction

Two hands connecting two puzzle pieces to represent the connection between the academic intervention system and daily Tier 1 core instruction.

One of the hardest parts of an effective intervention system is targeting the needs of each individual student for “just in time” learning and remediation. Often, schools create a six-week or longer intervention plan that is tied to long-cycle formative assessments, such as district-created quarterly assessments or unit tests.

The good thing about long-cycle intervention plans is that they are grounded in data and allows the intervention teacher to make a plan for remediating specific standards.

The struggle with waiting for the long-cycle formative assessment to guide intervention decisions is that students often don’t see the connection between what they are learning in class and what they are practicing in interventions because the interventions lag weeks behind core classroom work.

Another struggle is that the student may have gained the targeted skill in core instruction after the long-cycle formative assessment. Now the student still has to sit through a remediation lesson because they need to prove they have mastered this skill before they can be removed from intervention.

Conversely, if we have a system for documenting which daily learning targets a student has achieved, we don’t need to wait for the long-cycle formative assessment. The intervention cycle can be shortened and targeted more efficiently.

I’ve seen schools that ran one-week intervention cycles. Every week the students were identified for intervention per learning target. The immediacy of one-week intervention cycles requires a system for communication and identification to be that agile.

Even if you don’t want to make as drastic a change as one-week intervention cycles, just imagine if you cut your current cycle’s time in half. Think about how much more immediate your support for students would be.

When we think of it this way, it becomes a moral imperative to shorten our response time for interventions. Shorter-cycle interventions are very possible if we use learning target data for decisions rather than waiting for longer-cycle formative assessment data.

 

5.  Help tutors align with your core instruction

A female academic tutor and female student sit together at a table in the school library.

More schools are using tutors and more administrators are thinking about how to improve communication and alignment between tutoring programs and core instruction.

If we are going to leverage our tutoring systems, we can’t leave identifying the standards and curriculum up to the tutoring organization.

We also need to help tutoring programs identify the students and the standards that need the most focus using the same data we used to plan interventions. We need to facilitate conversations – ideally around individual students, or if not, then around trends in grade levels.

Reflection questions to help align tutoring and interventions:

    • How are you differentiating your tutoring from your intervention in terms of students/standards?
    • How will your tutors know where the students’ gaps are?
    • How will the tutors document individual student progress?
    • How are your interventionist and your tutor communicating with each other and with the classroom teacher?

 

6. Leverage your relationships with caregivers

Parents and their child meet with the classroom teacher.

Progress reports can’t wait until mid-cycle tests such as fall or winter diagnostics. Ongoing communication to the people who support our students outside of school is key.

That communication could mean a reporting program that caregivers can access at any time, or it may mean bi-weekly printed updates sent home with the students. Texts and emails can also be helpful – keep the lines of communication going!

Don’t let the communication systems you developed and the caregiver relationships you enhanced during the pandemic falter simply because students are back face-to-face. In order for learning to be accelerated next school year, we need all adults pulling together.


As I stated in the beginning, don’t try to implement all six steps. Choose the ones that you think will have the biggest impact on accelerating learning and do those well. Good luck and let me know how it goes in the comments section below!

At Learning Sciences International, we are focused on supporting leaders and teachers to increase engagement, ensure equity, and close achievement gaps through student conversations and rigorous learning.

If you would like support implementing the ideas you have read in this blog, I recommend the following products:

 

Resources

 

References

Jackson, P. W. (1990). Life in classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Lee, H., Chung, H. Q., Zhang, Y., Abedi, J., & Warschauer, M. (2020). The effectiveness and features of formative assessment in US K-12 education: A systematic review. Applied Measurement in Education, 33(2)124-140. https://doi.org/10.1080/08957347.2020.1732383

 

About LSI

Our vision for education is to close the achievement gap. Equip all students with the social, emotional, and cognitive skills they need to thrive in the 21st century. Expand equity by giving every child access to rigorous core instruction that empowers learners to free themselves from generational poverty.

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Comments (1)

  • Innovative article

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