5 Simple Ways to Improve Learning in Every Class

How do you know if your students are really learning? Do you wait until the test? What if I told you there was a way to check their understanding and to improve it–at the same time?  And if it’s done right, it typically takes fewer than five minutes of class time!  

The virtues of formative assessment are pretty well known, but with a couple of adjustments to your process, you can get a lot more bang for your buck.  Instead of spending time creating a new Kahoot!, just ask your students to write about your lesson or unit.  Allowing time for students to write about their learning in informal, short pieces will help them process their understanding and it shows them (and you) what they do and don’t know.  

Many teachers feel that incorporating writing into their classroom will take away from teaching their content. These activities are not going to distract from your content, rather, if done right, they are your content. In Disciplinary Literacy, ReLeah Cossett Lent responds to this fear of many content area teachers by saying, “writing to learn, writing to integrate ideas or figure out why, or writing to reinforce a new concept–that is content.” 

Another concern of many teachers is the increased grading demand that comes with writing. What if you knew you didn’t have to grade the writing?

Writing to Learn activities should be short, informal, and ungraded.  This relieves pressure on both the student and the teacher–and increases the benefits. This type of writing is not intended to demonstrate learning; instead it facilitates learning–it’s the process of learning, not the product of learning.  By allowing students to relax and write without fear about what they get and what they don’t get, teachers will have a better understanding of where they need to go with their next lesson.  

If you feel you absolutely must grade these assignments, just use a simple check-plus, check, and check-minus system or an all-or-nothing completion grade, allotting a small number of points to the assignment that can be combined with other like assignments for a larger grade.

I hope this list of five easy-to-incorporate strategies will help you to help your students write about their learning.

First Thoughts. Often we throw out a question at the end of a text, video, or lecture and then get frustrated when the same kids volunteer to answer every time.  A lot of those kids who aren’t raising their hands may or may not have anything to contribute, but we’ll never know. Providing them with the opportunity to write down their first thoughts after a reading, video, or lecture is a great way to prime the pump for discussion. They may know more than they thought they did. You can provide a question or just ask them to jot down their own questions and understandings. Take it a step further and allow students to discuss their understanding with a partner before opening up the whole-class discussion.

Remember the KWL?  I always felt like I didn’t do it right because I never had the kids come back and fill in the L column. Still, giving them the chance to do the K and the W was a great start–especially as a method of activating prior knowledge at the start of a lesson. “What’s one thing you know about the Italian Renaissance? What’s one question you have?” You don’t have to give them a graphic organizer for this–a piece of scrap paper works fine! At the end of the lesson, simply post another question: “What’s one thing you learned about the Italian Renaissance?”  Ta-da! KWL complete! 🙂

SpaceSentence Completions.  As Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey state in Checking for Understanding, “Writing clarifies thinking. For that matter, writing is thinking. Analyzing student writing is a great way for teachers to determine what their students know.” The next time you have a few minutes at the end of class, post a sentence starter on the board–or put this free SPACE handout on your projector–and let your students share their understanding.  Not only will the process of writing about their understanding help students to better learn the content, their responses will help you to better teach the content in a way that makes sense to the students.

Writing from Vocabulary. I’ve used this as both a warm-up activity and as a check for understanding; it works well in both situations. Using five or six keywords from a lesson (use the lists in your textbook), give students a word bank and ask them to use as many of them as possible to write a summary of their learning about the content.  For example, students can incorporate words like equilibrium, reaction, pressure and temperature to summarize Le Chatelier’s principle in chemistry.

basketExit Slips. The key to the effective use of Exit Slips is just to use them! I started using them as reading checks for independent reading time, but then I realized they were handy to have at the end of class if we finished a few minutes before the bell. I created a basket full of exit slips and started using them as Exit Slips are intended to be used–to find out whether or not my students really understood what was rotten in the state of Denmark. It was after I became a literacy coach and started sharing my little basket of treasured Exit Slips with the rest of my faculty that I realized how meaningful they were across the curriculum.  The Exit Slips I created are easy to photocopy and house in dollar-store baskets. I separate the different thinking skills with index cards turned on their sides and labeled. You can easily make your own version based on any of the numerous sources of formative assessment strategies on the Internet, or you can check out my (fully-editable) set of 20 different Exit Slips on TeachersPayTeachers.

One last caution about these activities: Although grading is not required, nor expected, for writing-to-learn activities, it is important that we read the responses our students give us. Using the information they provide us will give us great insight into the effectiveness of our instruction. Also, failing to read their responses sends the message that we do not value their input, and then they will put less effort into writing, which means they will not get the benefits of writing to reinforce their learning, either. Don’t worry, it still won’t take too long–think about the time you spent creating that Kahoot!  You can flip through your students’ written responses in the hall between classes in less than a quarter of that time!

Writing to Learn

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