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Using data in the classroom to personalize learning

By Robyn Howton
March 13, 2018
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Just over five years ago, I set out to use the most current best practices to reinvent my classroom. I was part of a cohort of teachers from four school districts in Delaware involved in the education technology initiative called BRINC.

One of the most powerful outcomes of this initiative was learning how to use blended lessons to personalize learning for my students and quickly adjust lesson plans based on assessments.

Let’s look closely at a lesson plan and see how the data allowed me to respond to individual students more quickly than I could have before using blended learning.

My 11th grade class had been working on close reading and analysis skills. We were focusing on the Common Core standards that cover identifying a theme, citing evidence from the text and defining words in context.  

Using the website Commonlit, I chose a short story on grade level for the students to read and analyze before answering a series of multiple-choice and short-answer questions.

The site allowed me to differentiate for a variety of student needs. For example, some students used the text-to-speech feature so they could listen to the story. Other students used the guided reading feature, which revealed each portion of the text only after they answered a guiding question correctly. These guiding questions were not graded but ensured that students understood the literal meaning of the text. Once students finished and submitted their answers, I quickly graded the short-answer questions and used the results to plan for the next class.  

Personalizing the lesson

What came next illustrates the real value of personalizing learning with data. I put students in small groups based on which questions they missed. Some students needed to work on finding evidence that supported their theme analysis. Another group focused on identifying words in context. Instead of all students reviewing a skill, only the students whose assessment showed they hadn’t fully grasped the skill reviewed it. Students who showed proficiency on all skills went on to work with a more challenging text using the same analysis skills.

Because English language arts is a spiraling curriculum, we revisit each standard several times throughout the year, so after a reteaching/stretching activity, we move on in the curriculum. Using this type of assessment, I can always go back and see how a student or a class is progressing on each standard.  

Tools like Commonlit don’t replace traditional assessments, but instead provide an additional checkpoint that allows me to quickly identify individual student performance levels and react to them. Therefore, I use the data from Commonlit in combination with more traditional pencil/paper tests, essays and oral discussions that also allow students to show me they can analyze for theme, cite specific evidence and understand unfamiliar words in context in.

Using these two types of assessments in tandem has allowed all of my students to experience more growth over the course of the year.

Many tools available to check for understanding

Commonlit is just one tool you can use to quickly assess student understanding and progress. But there are many others that help you gather individual student data and take the pulse of the entire class.

When I introduce a skill, I start with a formative assessment. I might create a 2-3 question quiz on Schoology (our learning management system), have students respond to a question by making a post on Padlet or even respond with a video answer on Flipgrid. What they all have in common is giving me actionable information that I can use to adjust lesson plans. 

It’s important to point out that none of these tools turns over control of the content or pace to an algorithm. These are all tools that I, as a professional, use to make decisions about the needs of my students in achieving the learning goals of our curriculum. I make choices about the content of these tools the same as I would choose graphic organizers, collaborative assignments, and other formative and summative assessments.

Turning the classroom into a personalized learning environment using blended lessons and assessing in real time gives students more opportunities to achieve academic success. And using data to drive instruction and support students in achieving their learning goals addresses the Analyst standard within the ISTE Standards for Educators.

Robyn Howton is English Department chair and the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) coordinator at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Delaware. She is a member of the Rodel Teacher Council, which created the Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware, and a member of the original cohort of the BRINC consortium.