agency · collaboration

Student-Created Learning Progressions: A How to

I used to rely on rubrics for everything. I spent hours, days, weeks attempting to perfect a 4-point scale. This would be helpful not only to me as the teacher, but also (I thought) to my students who would know exactly what it was they needed to do to move closer or beyond benchmark–except. . . it wasn’t. 

After years of tweaking rubrics and  wordsmithing with my colleagues, students weren’t any closer to understanding what they were doing well and what they needed to do to improve as writers. Rubrics made it easy and efficient to grade student work, but the rubrics didn’t engage students to reflect and set meaningful goals with specific steps to help them get there. It wasn’t until I had students co-create learning progressions that students found clarity in exactly what they needed to do to stretch themselves as writers. 

Learning progressions are descriptions of steps a writer must do in order to move towards their goal. They can be created individually, with a team of teachers, or most powerfully, with students. In Mastering the Art of Thin-slicing, I shared how to begin the year or unit looking at preassessment writing pieces focused on the following indicators:

  • Stamina
  • Organization
  • Word choice
  • Conventions
  • Fluency

Once an indicator has been selected, the fun begins! Progressions can be broken into any amount of levels; however, more than three or four can be cognitively challenging. Begin with what you expect of your writers and then break down the expectation into building blocks that will move your writers towards benchmark, one block at a time. You can use stars, numbers, whatever you like to separate out each building block. 

To have students co-create learning progressions, I often will lay the class papers out and have them engage in a protocol, such as the one below.

Protocol for Creating Learning Progressions with Students 

Learning Progression for ______________. Fill in the one indicator you are breaking down.

Throughout the process, remind students: We want to be specific, concise, and non judgmental. 

**All times listed are simply suggestions on what has worked well with beginning of the year grade 6 students. Each class is different and this progression is a guide that you may need to adapt for your learners.

Round One: 5 minutes

  • Provide time so each student has time to thoroughly read the piece of writing. The time will be more or less depending on your readers and length of text.

Round Two- Individually 2-3 minutes

  • Identify an indicator to focus students. For instance, organization.
  • Students use sticky notes to capture thinking
  • One thought per sticky note:
    • What do you notice in this piece of writing? You will need to model this for students who have not done this type of thinking before. I find after a few times of this, students need less prompting and become adept at noticing subtle details in writing.

Round Three- Small group 3 minutes

  • Students share their noticings with each other
  • Have students group the noticings into meaningful categories. Students are great at categorizing thinking. Common ones my 6th graders notice at the beginning of the year are: clear introduction, middle, and conclusion; beginning and conclusion are linked together; has an introduction but is not linked to the rest of writing; there’s no conclusion; etc.

Round Four: Individually 3 minutes

  • Students use sticky notes to capture thinking
  • One thought per sticky note: What could this writer do that would lift the level of their writing? At the beginning of the year, I introduce this language; however, I also will provide examples of what it means to lift the level of writing.

Round Five- Small group 3 minutes

  • Students share their thinking with each other
  • Have students group their thinking into meaningful categories. With this grouping, I also have them look at their initial noticings as I have found it helps them bring everything together.

Round Six: Whole class or small group 5 minutes

  • Bring the categories together that were created previously
  • Rank each noticing into 3 or 4 blocks, leveling them from least to most sophisticated

Our first learning progression for organization looks like this:

Honor Approximations and Highlight Next Steps

It is important that with student-created learning progressions, we honor approximations and meet writers where they are, while identifying what they’re ready to reach for. I noticed in the above progression that my writers didn’t notice transition use in writing, or how some of their peers played around with organization and time sequences. I log this information and note it as being something I will teach into in the future. Already, I have identified next-step mini lessons.  Through the creation of this progression, my writers are telling me exactly where they are and where they feel they need to go next.