By Paul Emerich France, National Board Certified Teacher and education consultant

The reality educators currently face is clear: learners are coming into classrooms at all different levels. While this has been true for decades, it is all the more visible as we continue to recover from the rippling effects of the pandemic.

Now more than ever, teachers should partner with students to build personalized learning environments — not only so learners have their unique needs met in the classroom but also so they feel empowered to make decisions that contribute to their needs being met.

As teachers, we need rich and diversified sources of data to meet students’ needs. The same is true for students: if we are asking them to partner with us and be decision-makers in the classroom, then they must be able to use evidence of their learning to reflect and make decisions that set learning in motion — even when the teacher isn’t nearby. 

Not sure where to start when personalizing your instruction and diversifying learning? Try these tips.

Embrace Qualitative Measures

Providing students with data doesn’t simply mean showing them standardized test scores and asking them to set SMART goals. While this might resonate with some learners, many (including our most vulnerable) often feel disempowered by these numbers, as standardized tests are inherently deficit framing. 

That said, if you commit to diversifying your data sources, you can find learner-friendly sources of evidence that are empowering and motivating, as opposed to quantitative and disincentivizing. Consider leaning into qualitative measures that describe learning, such as learner-friendly, standards-based rubrics that clarify success criteria, open-ended tasks that allow learners to articulate their process in addition to the “answer,” and journals and/or portfolios that can serve as containers for learning artifacts.

Create Learner-Friendly Rubrics

Standards can support quality instruction if we use them correctly. Put simply, standards are statements that clarify what we hope learners will know and be able to do when they leave our classrooms. Translating these standards into learner-friendly rubrics serves multiple purposes:

  1. It clarifies learning objectives, so it’s clear on what, precisely, you are collecting data.
  2. It makes success criteria clear to learners so they can be partners in monitoring their progress.

Learner-friendly rubrics serve as a concrete tool for scaffolding self-reflection. We know self-reflection is integral to sustained learning, and it makes sense why: when students can summarize and consolidate their learning by verbalizing it, it becomes more likely they retain it in their long-term memories. Self-reflection doesn’t always have to be grounded in a rubric. Creating a self-reflection ritual makes it sustainable. Once learners master the ritual, they can use it when the teacher isn’t around. Try asking these questions to begin building the ritual:

  • What went well on this assessment?
  • What challenged you on this assessment?
  • What will you do differently next time?

Leverage Open-Ended Tasks

What we put in front of students matters, as it affects the kind of data we can collect from them. If your practice is defined with closed-ended tasks, worksheet-driven teaching, and multiple-choice questions, you can unknowingly place limits on the richness of your data. Open-ended tasks provide a pathway to richer data for more insight into learners’ processes. When using data to drive instruction, teachers and students don’t only focus on the “answer,” but instead give equal weight to the process and product of learning, painting a richer and more complete picture.

Curate Journals and Portfolios

Whether traditional letter grades or numbers on a proficiency scale, grades often make self-reflection more challenging. Learners are more likely than not to see letters and numbers as labels as opposed to supportive markers for reflection. In the worst cases, they gloss over the qualitative feedback, which we know will help them grow in the long run. 

Transitioning to qualitative rubrics is a great place to start, but we need containers for learning artifacts that help students see and describe their growth over time. Journals and portfolios provide a sustainable solution for this. Journals can be used as containers for open-ended tasks, allowing learners to show their unique learning processes, articulate their ideas in writing, and reflect on each task using the three-question framework from above.

Portfolios offer another “container” for learning artifacts, telling the story of a student’s learning over the entire school year. Not only can learners reflect on how they’ve changed by comparing learning artifacts longitudinally, but teachers can also support this reflection by inviting them to reflect quarterly to capture qualitative growth — and perhaps even lead their conferences. You might consider using the following template as a guide for learners.

Make it Personal

Learners will grow if we build experiences in partnership with them that are meaningful and relevant to who they are. Quantitative data from standardized assessments rarely helps students feel seen as human beings. Therefore, we must find alternative ways to generate evidence of student learning so teachers and learners alike can use the information to make decisions about the next steps in the classroom. This data, however, has to speak to them. It has to be humanizing. Above all, it has to feel personal.

Interested in learning more about how Edulastic can help you personalize learning in your classroom? Be sure to check out our homepage filled with more information for teachers, admins, and more!

About the Author

Paul Emerich France

Paul Emerich France (@paul_emerich) is a National Board Certified Teacher, instructional coach, keynote speaker, and adjunct professor with over a decade of experience in the classroom, teaching grades transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. He is the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning: A Pedagogy for Restoring Equity and Humanity in Our Classrooms. His work is featured in Edutopia, EdSurge, ASCD’s Educational Leadership, and Learning Forward’s The Learning Professional. Recently, Paul has partnered with SXSW EDU, Jefferson County Public Schools, ASCD, National Board, and Northwestern University to support teachers in making their classrooms more personal places to learn.