Practitioner Highlight Series: Learner Choice Incorporated

Educator: Danielle Chaussee
District: Oconomowoc Area School District
School: Oconomowoc High School

To learn more about the elements highlighted in this post, click the links below:
Focus Element:
Learner Choice Incorporated  
Additional Elements:
Learner Voice Infused, Assessment of/for/as Learning, Flexible Learning Spaces  

How are you incorporating the selected element in your classroom?
When I talk about personalized learning, I like to preface my words with “I’m no expert!” This has been a journey and I’m still learning as I go. That said, here’s a little about what I’ve been working on over the last few years at Oconomowoc High School (OHS).

In World Languages at OHS, we’ve evolved from giving pencil and paper exams to having students complete real-world performance assessments. Despite the fact that the performance assessments allow for creativity, they are still limiting because students all perform the exact same assessment at the exact same time.

After a couple of years of studying personalized learning and the Institute for Personalized Learning’s Honeycomb Model, I decided to incorporate learner choice into assessments. This means that students in my Spanish courses now select and design their own written and oral presentational performance assessments. For example, in a unit on food and nutrition, the assessment that all students used to complete was a cooking demonstration. While students had the ability to select which authentic dish they would demonstrate to the class, they had no ability to change anything about the assessment (all students orally presented the preparation process in front of the class using commands and incorporating facts about nutrition).

Now, the process looks much different. To begin with, throughout the unit, the students and I are constantly referring back to the unit’s essential question. Therefore, when it comes to the assessment, the students know exactly what the purpose of the assessment will be. Although I have a list of requirements ready for the assessment, I hold a brainstorming session with students. During the activity they tell me what should be included in the unit assessment and, without exception, the students go above and beyond what I list in my requirements.

Once the requirements have been established, the students not only choose whether they will complete a written or oral assessment (they have to complete a certain number of each throughout the class, depending on the number of units we study), but they also design their own assessments. I always provide students with an example of each (written and oral), but students rarely choose to use my examples. Now instead of watching 30 cooking demonstrations, I receive a wide array of assessments that might include Skype conversations, blogs, e-mails, brochures, and much more.

When I introduced this change to students at the beginning of that first year I received some excited reactions, along with a few raised eyebrows. However, as the year went on I noticed that students looked forward to planning their assessments. This was the first sign that I was on the right path. The second indicator of being on the right track was the community of learning that developed. This type of assessment necessitates ongoing conferencing between me and the students and the students are constantly engaged in conversations with each other. The final confirmation occurred on the last day of school of that first year of personalized assessments. “Juan”, a student in my Spanish 3 class, came in at the end of the day to thank me. He told me that he had always struggled in his Spanish classes. However, he felt that, because he was able to choose and design his assessments in this class, he actually had control over his learning, allowing him to better use and retain the information.

How has implementing this element improved your practice?
It’s scary to try something new, let alone to give up control over assessments, but I quickly found that great things can and will happen when students take the reins. This has improved my practice because this model creates a more student-centered classroom where students are co-architects of their learning and, because each student is working on a unique assessment, I am constantly conferencing with them individually to gauge progress, listen to ideas, and assess and help with problems. And because students are so engaged in their own assessments, I’ve found that they’re much more willing and eager to push themselves as well. This process also forced me to focus on developing essential questions that encourage deeper learning, while at the same time allowing the freedom for students to explore their areas of interest within a unit.

Implementing choice in assessments has also improved my practice by causing me to become more aware of and intentional about how I use assessment of, for, and as learning. First, I am more intentional about having the students engage in self-reflection and peer editing (assessment as learning). Secondly, this process caused me to realize that the students weren’t receiving enough formative feedback on their work pre-summative assessment (assessment for learning). I was becoming increasingly frustrated by the process of giving students rich feedback on their summative assessment rubrics, only to have the rubrics filed away and never referred to again.

Because the end goal is getting my students to the point where they are able to use Spanish to communicate with others, and not just handing out a grade on a rubric before moving on to the next unit, I began to reason that I needed to change the feedback process. As a result, I’ve turned these traditionally summative unit assessments into formative assessments. Students then choose one of the unit assessments to rework, using my feedback and additional conferencing to include additional concepts that have appeared throughout the course of the class, to turn in for a summative grade (assessment of learning).

How has implementing this element helped your learners?
Over the past three years, I’ve seen my classroom evolve from one in which there’s a teacher and 30 students to one that’s a community of learners. Implementing choice in assessments has helped my students to become more independent and engaged in the assessment process.

One unanticipated outcome of implementing choice into assessments has been that students are much more willing and eager to push themselves beyond the requirements of an assessment and naturally recycle information and skills from past units. The fact that the students see a usefulness and a way to naturally incorporate past skills into current assessments is what it’s all about for me. That’s true communication!

In conjunction with choice I’ve also implemented flexible learning spaces. In the past my classroom looked very much like a traditional classroom. I had my “teacher space,” which included my large desk and chair, file cabinets, and shelving for my teaching materials. Although a visitor to my classroom would have been more likely to see a student working at my desk than to see me sitting there, I was reluctant to give up “my space.” However, I eventually realized that those items didn’t need to be taking up valuable student space.

Additionally, the desks were replaced by free-standing individual tables and chairs, which students can now easily move into a variety of different groupings. Tall surfaces are available where students can stand and work, and many of the work surfaces in the room are dry-erase that allow for impromptu brainstorming sessions. An adjoining office now houses a break-out work space for students who need a quiet place to work. Having flexible learning spaces has been key to creating a learner-centered environment. Students who have the flexibility to choose how they’re going to demonstrate their knowledge and skills need to have the flexibility of a learning environment that will help them meet their goals.

Want to know more about the Honeycomb Model of personalized learning? Explore our Interactive Honeycomb!

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