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The Process of Learning

The act of learning is a tricky thing. Schools and educators have tried for centuries to find the best way to help students learn, but like most things in life, there is no exact science. Everyone learns differently and so there is no one-size-fits-all, as much as educational programs would like you to think. What we do know is that there is sort of a tipping point where students go from knowing about something to understanding it. This is the moment where learning happens, but when does this tipping point occur? It does not happen beforehand; otherwise, the student would have already learned it. Nor does it happen at the end when taking the summative assessment, for rarely does someone sit down with a test and about halfway through, the lightbulb goes off and suddenly he or she has it. The learning happens somewhere during the middle of the process, and yet a summative assessment is often how we determine whether someone has mastered what it is they were supposed to have learned.

Even though we have been in this schooling game for hundreds of years, the way learning is presented in the traditional sense still looks the same. The formula is to expose students to something they do not know, let them practice this until they understand it, and then have them prove to us they have learned it through some sort of assessment. It looks like this:

This goes for something as elementary as basic addition to advanced calculus. There is a fundamental flaw with this structure, however, in that it assumes everyone is learning at the same pace, so when the lesson gets to its appointed end, all students are in a place to show they have learned. 

In actuality, we know that students learn at different rates, some getting things before others, and so when you get to the end, some students have had it for days or longer, while others still are not there yet. Most students have learned it in the middle of the process:

It does not make sense that we measure this learning at the end. This would be like diagnosing a patient after they are cured (or have died). Would it not make more sense to measure the learning as it is occurring? Would it not make sense to measure the learning during the process when understanding occurs? To capture that moment when the lightbulb goes off for the student? How inspiring would that be to both student and teacher?

One could make an argument if the student is able to learn during the process, then he or she will display this ability on a summative assessment. Is this a perfect correlation, however? Are all students who understand what they have learned able to display this in a final assessment? Are there students who do not understand what they learned and yet perform well on the summative assessment? How do we get a truer picture of what learning took place? The answer, we assess them during the learning process, not at the end. We also have to realize that some students’ process is going to be much longer than others, but we as teachers have to be ready to determine this mastery when it does happen.

Some would argue this grading of the process is already being done with formative assessments. Formative assessment is defined as:

• A range of formal and informal assessment procedures during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment.

When you read the first part of the definition, it seems on par with what this book is proposing, using formal and informal assessments during the learning process. So far, so good. Where it veers off is in the second half of the definition. Formative assessments are used primarily to modify teaching and learning, not to evaluate mastery. It is a tool used to see where a student is at and allows one to differentiate to meet the student at his or her level. This is an important strategy to use, and this book is proposing that formative assessments still occur. Learning is modified to fit the needs of the student, but what if there were an assessment during the process that evaluates students at the moment of understanding? Is that not more authentic than the artificial construct of sitting students down and making them regurgitate what they have already learned? How many times in our adult lives are we evaluated after we have learned something? More than likely, we are evaluated as the learning takes place. Why should we not be doing this same thing with our students?

Here is the definition of a summative assessment:

• Used to evaluate student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement at the conclusion of a defined instructional period—typically at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. 

What grading the process involves is a sort of a mashing of formative and summative. Taking the first portion of the summative definition “used to evaluate student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement,” and combining it with the first half of formative, “a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process,” the definition of grading the process looks like this: 

• Used to evaluate student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement using a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted during the learning process.

In a simpler form, it is grading the process. 

This grading of the process seems like a radical idea and definitely goes against the traditional formula shared before. But if you decide to take the leap of faith to do things differently than they have been done in the classroom for years, your students are going to reap the benefits. They will be more confident students, they will be less stressed, and they will be more meta learners. 

Meta-learning is very important for students to become learners rather than receivers. In many of the traditional ways of teaching, students are receiving information; they are not learning it. By grading the process, students will be more aware of when they are learning something which helps them to pinpoint how they did so. This awareness allows them to know how to repeat the act when they have to learn something else rather than waiting for the teacher to tell them how to do it. It harkens back to the Confucian saying,

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

By grading students during the process, you are giving them the opportunity to find out when the learning takes place for them, what their triggers are, why do certain strategies work, and, most importantly, how to repeat this in future learning.

Often we use formative assessments to tell us where to go and summative assessments to tell us where we have been, but we are neglecting the place in between where the most learning is taking place, which is during the process. This grading of the process will allow you to capture the moment when your students are learning rather than waiting after the fact on a summative assessment. This book will show teachers how they can assess the process, providing them with tools and strategies to do so. This is going to require teachers to maintain a growth mindset. This is literally outside of the box thinking. You must be willing to question the practices that we have held so dear as teachers for a long time. You must be willing to try something that might not seem comfortable to you, but isn’t that what we are always asking students to do; to break out of their comfort zone because by taking risks and feeling a little uncomfortable, this is where the greatest learning occurs?

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