Using Improvement Science To Build Know-How And Self-Confidence

by Drew Schrader

Originally published in a three part series in conjunction with What School Could Be. Learn more about their organization here

In our previous post, we explored some of the reasons we might consider beginning to question our grading practices, and how to get ourselves into a learning mindset for the work. Here, we will focus on  the nuts and bolts of anchoring your grading reform efforts in particular aspects of the student experience you want to improve and framing your efforts around learning how to get those improvements. 

Improvement Science Basics: PDSA

Improvement scientists often reference PDSA cycles as a way to organize an improvement effort. This elegant framework breaks the learning process down into four stages: Plan, Do, Study, and Act. At a simple level you PLAN your change, DO your plan, STUDY the results, and then plan to ACT in a revised way based on what happened. We highly recommend this simple method and you can find many forms and templates on the web that you can use to organize this thinking.

Invest in the Plan

In our experience, breaking down the planning phase can set teachers up for a much easier time as they get further into their work. Our aim here is to set you up with the framing for how to approach this work so that you can dive in with confidence and start building your know-how.

  • Start with some (but not too much) research: While developing a change that works for you, in your context, with your students, is the goal, many have gone before you in this work and it is worth taking a little time to explore what others have done. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with the volume of resources out there; be judicious. Aim for sufficient practical research to locate an approach you like, and enough theoretical research to be able to articulate why you think that approach is pedagogically sound.

For example: We decide to try returning work to students only with written feedback and no grade. Research around feedback suggests this is a promising approach and it might be that this fits very well with our particular instructional approach. 

  • Articulate your full theory: Once you arrive at a change it is vital that you pause and articulate your full theory about what you predict will happen if you try it. Your full theory is likely a set of predictions that go beyond simple “if… then” scenarios where one change in equals one change out. 

In the feedback-only example above, your theory might start out as: “If I delay showing my students their grades and just show them feedback first, then they will be more motivated to do revisions.” While this is a strong start, it likely leaves out other positive things you hope might happen as well as not accounting for concerns you have about what might happen. Given the complexities of teaching and learning, not to mention students and peers, it is likely that you have a number of predictions about what might happen. Naming them helps clarify your understanding of how the change works and sets you up to learn how to make it work the way you want it to.  

Where possible, push yourself to quantify your prediction. Whether your prediction turns out to be right or wrong is not nearly as important as comparing your prediction to your actual outcomes. Quantified predictions look like, “If I withhold the grade and just provide feedback, then 70% of students will opt to submit a revised version based on that feedback and 50% of the revisions will be relatively superficial and still aimed at bumping up their yet unknown grade rather than being the kind of deeper rethinking I might be after.”

  • Let your theory inform your measurement: Our measurement does not need to be exhaustive (read exhausting) or perfectly precise to be helpful. We’re not being evaluated on the results, and the results are not a referendum on the value of the practice.  We are using the results to help us understand whether our change works the way we think it should and what we might do to close the gap between what happens and what we want to have happen. Because this is a learning process, we can ease off the pressure to prove or disprove whether something works. Our goal is to learn what it takes to make it work the way we want it to.

An easy way to do this is to simply let your predictions be your measurements. For example:

70% of students will revise and resubmit their drafts based on the feedbackCount of papers resubmitted.
Of the papers resubmitted, 50% will be mostly superficial rather than substantive revisions. Sort resubmission into level of revision and count. Be sure to note for yourself the clarity you got around what you really felt was “superficial vs substantive” and how you might more clearly communicate that with students. 

Do, Study, and Act! 

Armed with promising practice, clear predictions, and a simple plan to measure, you are all set for your improvement journey. Making time and preserving mental energy for these last steps is key. Once you’ve tried it out, consider what happened in comparison to what you thought would happen. Adapting from there is the real work of improvement. In this reflection and adjustment space you have the chance to learn about how these ideas really work in practice. It is through this reflection and adaptation that you can fine tune your plans to make the changes work for you. 

Now for a few final tips as you examine your results:

  1. Ask students for their feedback! One of our mantras at Challenge Success is “let your students be your co-pilots” and there is no better time to tap into their expertise and ideas than when you are stuck with what to try next. Students will appreciate the effort you are putting in to improving their experience and they have great ideas about what you might try next. Actually trying their ideas and talking with them about it also helps build culture and ownership in your class. As a bonus, often sharing your improvement intentions can serve as an intervention in and of itself as it is another way to be clear with students about your learning intentions and class design.
  2. Capture any differences between your plan and what you actually did! Often some of the best early learning comes in noting the adaptations you make between your plan and how you actually did it. Pay particular attention to how the plan played out in classes you teach multiple sections of – rarely does the 4th period version look the same as 1st period and those differences are part of the learning!
  3. Seek out colleagues when you are stuck. When you have a result that isn’t what you hoped it would be, or you find yourself out of ideas for how to continue, colleagues can be a great resource for new ideas, energy, and inspiration.  Sometimes, just the process of talking through the dilemma out loud with a colleague can help clarify your thinking and help you arrive at a conclusion. As a bonus, this sharing can also help you spread an idea that is promising, but still in need of refinement.

Looking for some ideas to start? In part three of our series we will provide you with five easy ways to get started grading less. 

Don’t miss the other posts in the series:
– Part 1: Changing Grading Is About Learning, Not Implementation
– Part 3: Five Simple Ways To Start Grading Less

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