Communicating student learning: Learning maps (Part 1 of 2)

On January 10, 2016, I received an email from a colleague with a picture of a book cover (the featured image on this post), telling me that she had just read the book and that she thought I should read it. I forgot about it until we exchanged another email a couple of weeks later, and it came up again.

I decided to try to track down the book. It ended up being harder than I thought to get my hands on a hard copy, but I was eventually able to download it through the publisher’s website – Portage and Main Press. The book is called Rethinking Letter Grades, and is written by Caren Cameron and Kathleen Gregory. I knew Kathleen Gregory, having participated in a series of workshops she had presented in my school district a few years previous about assessment for learning, and so I was curious as to what she was working on now. The cover promises “A Five-Step Approach for Aligning Letter Grades to Learning Standards”, and it is deceptively small, at 72 pages, and is a quick read at about an hour. Despite its small size, this book changed everything as far as my assessment process is concerned.

I had been looking for a more cohesive approach to assessment that answered two questions for students more effectively: the “why” and the “how”. Why are we doing this? Why is this skill important? Why are we reading this story? How did I get this grade? How do I improve? And so on. I wanted to do this without getting lost in the weeds of small aspects of individual assignments, and be able to focus on the more global aspects of language learning, as well as shifting the conversation from being about marks to being about learning. Traditional conversations about marks (in my experience) tend to focus on deficits (what the student DIDN’T do) versus assets (what the student CAN do, and how do we build from there).

The synopsis of the book provides a good summary of its contents and philosophy –

“Teachers in most schools are required to provide letter grades—even if they are philosophically opposed to the practice. In Rethinking Letter Grades, the authors offer a practical five-step process for arriving at letter grades that moves away from collecting a string of marks and calculating a grade. They examine a wide variety of assessment tools (rating scales, scoring keys, rubrics, test scores, observation records, discussion notes, symbols, portfolio collections, and more) and match the student evidence with a description of achievement. This description presents a valid picture of student achievement—one that recognizes all aspects of student performance.

The approach acknowledges the complexity of assessment and focuses on arriving at letter grades in a way that

  • Makes clear links to learning standards
  • Promotes the use of a wide variety of evidence (both quantitative and qualitative)
  • Shows students the learning that underlies the letter grade
  • Provides a bridge between assessment for learning and assessment of learning”

http://www.portageandmainpress.com/product/rethinking-letter-grades-second-edition/

The five steps outlined in the book include the following:

  1. Identify three to five big ideas for one subject area.
  2. Write three levels of performance for each big idea.
  3. Identify evidence that shows student performance.
  4. Highlight descriptions of learning on the learning map.
  5. Determine a letter grade (and a percentage if necessary)

Sounds easy, right? I shared the book with another colleague of mine, who ended up sharing my enthusiasm for jumping in and trying it. As luck would have it, BC was in the process of changing the provincial curriculum and implementing a whole new approach to learning. Province-wide, every subject area was moving from an approach that had been more focused on content, to a KNOW (the content portion of a given subject area), UNDERSTAND (the big ideas that students are expected to understand) and DO (the skills associated with a given subject area) model that promoted skills and active learning as a rationale for why students needed the content.

Know Do Understand curriculum model

My colleague and I had already collaborated on a few projects previously, and we decided to add learning maps to our list. Combining some sample learning maps with the tools in the appendices to the book, we jumped in and began to create our own learning maps.

The Process

We decided to start at the senior level and work down from there, because we felt that knowing where students would end up was a good guide to help us work downwards to where they would begin. Because this was a time of transition for the province and the new curriculum document was still in draft form, we built our learning map using both the old and new documents. Thinking about how we wanted to use the end product, we wanted to create a document that would communicate learning to students, parents, counsellors, administrators, and other teachers. We wanted everyone to speak the same language when it came to communicating student learning.

We used the process outlined in Rethinking Letter Grades as a guideline, but we changed two elements of our learning maps because of the way we wanted to use them:

  • We used five big ideas. We felt that three just wasn’t enough, and our big ideas were different from the big ideas that were identified in the curriculum draft, which had six. Our big ideas were condensed down from what we saw as the main ideas of both the old and new curriculum documents.
  • We included five levels of performance statements for each big idea. We wanted our learning maps to be able to correspond to the same grades we have to use in our reporting, and to communicate a clear description of what each level looks like.

A key consideration in developing the learning map was that it had to use clear descriptions that focused on ability. All descriptions at all levels focus on what students CAN do. Even if ability is limited, they can still do something, which allows for a conversation about how to build from that point.

Our learning maps did not include descriptions of student performance below 50%, because it is too hard to describe that using asset based language. There can be many reasons why a student is not passing a given course, and although that can be part of a conversation to support that student’s learning, the main idea we try to communicate is that they are not on the map yet. In order to get on the map, we focus at beginning at the low end and building from there. Every student is capable of doing something close to the beginning levels of the map, even if he or she requires support. Once they begin to show evidence of that level of learning, feedback and further attempts can move them forward.

What is Evidence of Learning?

We wanted to base evidence of learning on a portfolio model of assessment that was designed to show growth over time, and to incorporate a variety of types of evidence of learning. The evidence used to show learning is triangulated to come from a variety of sources:

  • Products – Any evidence of speaking, listening, reading, writing that you would put in a student portfolio
  • Observations – Individual or group presentations, peer and teacher observations
  • Formative Assessment – Drafts, self/ peer assessments, work in progress, first attempts

Taking a wider view of evidence of learning was intended to make a stronger, clearer connection between learning and grading.

Evidence of learning also has to come from all four language competencies: speaking, listening/viewing, reading and writing. It happens frequently that a student will be stronger in one of those areas than another, and so with any given student you may see that they are at one level in speaking, another level in listening, and so on. In that event, all of the evidence of learning would be considered, and a grade would be assigned that was an average of the total evidence of learning given by that student.

In this section of the learning map, we also take into account any modifications or adaptations that are made to accommodate specific needs of a given student. This assumes that a particular student is still able to meet the outcomes of the course, and so the big idea and performance standards don’t change – the only thing that changes is how the evidence is provided, or what evidence needs to be given for that student.

How is it working in practice?

When I first started teaching, I was shown how to develop a course outline that set out standards and expectations for assessment, as well as other policy-type information. We went over it in class on the first day, and then it was filed in student binders (or in the garbage can/recycling bin) and likely not looked at again.

A learning map looks like a rubric, but it isn’t intended to be used the same way. Learning maps have to work in conjunction with rubrics or other assessments to accurately communicate student learning. It is a document that is introduced at the beginning of the course and then referred to almost daily after that. It is used in a variety of ways:

  • to understand expectations and learning standards
  • to assess the quality of a given resource, including a textbook
  • to assess student work
  • to guide class discussions
  • to guide and provide language for self and peer assessment
  • to describe what a student would need to do in order to improve their work
  • to provide language for teacher feedback
  • to give interim reports
  • to guide parent-teacher interviews or student-led conferences
  • to give final reports
  • to ensure continuity of grading between teachers if learning maps are shared
  • to provide a complete view of a student’s abilities or performance for a student, parent, counsellor, administrator, or other teacher
What does it look like?

Here is what our first learning map looks like:

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The PDF version can be downloaded here: French 11 – revised

We started with French 11 because that is the highest level that most students take in French. We do offer French 12, but the enrollment is not as high in that course because it’s not required. Once we built the first map, we worked our way down to complete French 8-10, as well as French 12.

Collaboration was absolutely key to developing these maps. This is a big task to take on as an individual teacher, and having a colleague to share ideas with and give or receive feedback was essential. Having used these learning maps for a year and having more information now about the revised curriculum and core competencies, we are in the process of revising our maps. I will share more about that process in Part 2.

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