Friday, April 26, 2013

Focus on Research: A Discussion on Learning Progressions for Instruction and Assessent

By Dr. Deni Basaraba, RME Assessment Coordinator

The need for differentiated instruction to meet the needs of all learners is one source of evidence that students’ learning is not linear and that not all students follow the same learning pathway to mastering content. Learning progressions can be used to describe the successively more sophisticated ways student think about an idea as a student learns, providing a description in words and using examples of what it means to move over time toward a more “expert” understanding of a given topic or content area (Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007).

In addition to including descriptions of students’ understanding as they move from novice to expert understanding, learning progressions also often include descriptions of common misconceptions students may have about the content of interest that may hinder or impede their understanding; these misconceptions can then provide the focus for targeted instruction (Alonzo & Gearhart, 2006).

The complexity associated with learning new content, because it is not linear or the same for every student, is best represented graphically as a complex map or network of connections and interactions rather than a linear path; this complex map allows for the fact that there is no “best” pathway and that some students may take one path in their learning than others to attain proficiency with the same content. A map of a sample learning progression will show not only the development and sophistication of students’ thinking as they move in the learning progression (i.e., increasing in sophistication of their skills and understanding) but will also represents an interaction and integration of knowledge.

In addition to relatedness among constructs in the learning progression, there are also connections of the knowledge and skills between one skill and the next. For example, if the target strategy for a level of a learning progression is the ability to recall multiple
strategies for single-digit addition (e.g., making tens, doubles), the perquisite skill might be a count on strategy whereby students can count on from an initial term (e.g., 5) to make a larger number (e.g., 5, 6, 7, 8). Finally, the most foundational skill in this hypothesized learning progression might be the ability to count all, that is, start from counting at 1 all the way to the desired sum (e.g., When asked what 5 + 3 equals the student starts counting from one – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).

How can learning progressions inform instruction and assessment?
Learning progressions can be a critical cog in the machinery of instruction and assessment. If, for example, we know that learning progressions provide ordered descriptions’ of students’ understanding, we can then use that information to help identify the “landmarks” or essential knowledge and skills students will need to learn as part of the math content, which can be used to help with instructional planning (e.g., what content to teach and when to teach it).

In addition, because learning progressions often include descriptions of the target knowledge and skills as well as common misconceptions or errors in students’ thinking we hypothesize may be interfering with students’ acquisition of a particular skill or mastery with specific content, learning progressions can provide valuable insights to how students think about the content of the learning progression. Together, these pieces of information can be used to help determine an appropriate sequence for the content of instruction (e.g., focusing first on foundational, prerequisite skills that gradually increase in complexity) as well as to develop classroom-based assessment items that focus on knowledge and skills that have been taught during instruction.

Alonzo, A. C., & Gearhart, M. (2006). Considering learning progressions from a classroom assessment perspective. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Practice, 14(1-2), 99-104.

Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., & Shouse, A. W. (Eds.) (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K-8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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