Becoming a learning sleuth: processing information on learning

Reflecting on information about learning is a key part of metacognition. Getting any information (written or oral comments, or grades of any kind) is not in itself that useful – learners have to do something with it.

Our students at HPSS reflect, a lot. And the problem with doing anything, a lot, is that it can be seen as something repetitive or burdensome if it is always done in the same way. Our students have just finished a term’s learning. In their modules. Teachers and students have constructed feedback through ongoing narratives documents which show where the are going, how going, and where to next in their learning. For each of their learning modules. And they have 6. As learning coaches, part of our job is to bring the learning together with our students, to have a holistic view of them as learners. When we were at this same point last term, we got the students to compare their commentary with their teachers in each module and then reflect on it. This did not bode well for a holistic overview but instead gave disjointed snapshots.

I wanted to get away from comparing their voice and their teachers to one thing that is a bit more robust, and to definitely move away from the groans when the students were asked to write yet another reflection. So I needed to rebrand the approach, and for the rebranding to be effective as this approach was going to be offered to all learning coaches to use with their learning hub students.

Watching CSI was my inspiration. Instead of reflecting, what if thy were detecting? Searching for clues that would lead them somewhere. From that random thought came the activity below. If I had more time to develop it, I would have pushed the “detective” angle further – instead of questions there could be clues, suspects and evidence.

Learning detective instructionsInstructions

The students pulled this information into a tool based on the Hermann’s Brain whole brain model – as we are looking toward developing our learner profiles using the whole brain model.

Hermann's Brain self-assessment


All students (or at least all I could see when walking around) completed this activity on Friday morning at HPSS. In the 90 minute learning hub time, students were engaged for the whole time. There we no groans and they took the activity really seriously. Students in my learning community (Taheretikitiki) asked if they could keep working on it in our next extended hub time. Many coaches, from all of the learning communities, commented on how gripping a task it was for students. Our next move is for the students to meet with their  learning coaches to use this self-assessment and ‘detective’ reflection to readjust or re-evaluate their goals and strategies to meet them.

I would be keen to find out more about why this approach of reflecting (looking back on learning to look forward) was received by both students and staff so much more positively than written reflections in the past.


What strategies are needed for effective AfL?

There are numerous resources online to support AfL in the classroom. Some of these are engaging and easy to implement strategies to support students in their learning – from peer and self-assessment strategies to ways to give ownership of learning to students. I find inspiration from Pinterest – check out my AfL board here –  as well as other professional connections, such as the VLN and Twitter – #A4Learn and #Assessment are worth following as many interesting ideas come up there.  These are some strategies have I been using at Hobsonville Point Secondary to give the students a ‘check up’ on their learning as they are learning.

1. Co-constructed success criteria – this is key for me and I love that I can ask the students “how will we know if we are successful?” in reference to the learning objective of the lesson / unit. We then co-construct it on the whiteboard, a little old skool I know, and use this as a reference throughout the lesson / sequence of lessons. This is really empowering as this is what we assess or measure progress against. Not a grade, not a level (I think that there is a place for these but not early on in learning). What is really important about this is that the students and I set what is expected. Obviously as a teacher I bring my pedagogical content knowledge but the act of co-construction empowers the students to own their learning.

2. Finding the gaps and checking for understanding.

Checking for understanding or ponderings as the learning is occurring is key – how else do you know if they are getting it? Andrea and I tried using a Google form to check for understanding of rights and responsibilities of citizenship with reference to political rights and responsibilities and socio-scientific issues in our recent “Stand up for your rights” module (covering the English, Science and Social Science learning areas). We also wanted to allow the students to direct what they wanted the learning to cover over the module – making sure that we were not delivering information but instead building on their prior learning and allowing their interests to come through in co-constructing the lessons. Completing a Google form mid-lesson gave us an idea of how the students were going in their learning and whether the key concepts of the lesson were making sense. By checking mid-lesson, we were able to adjust our lesson plan to find ways to close the gaps in understanding, differentiate based on needs or move on.

Checking for understanding

Use of a Google form mid-lesson to check for understanding


There are so many ways to provide information to students about gaps in their learning and I really like the idea of immediate feedback on misconceptions that can be provided electronically. I was introduced to a game called Kahoot by a fellow Classical Studies teacher, Lauren. This is an interactive quiz where students answer set questions (set by the teacher / another person) using their mobile devices / laptops.


Kahoot quiz questions


The students love this format as it lets them know immediately if they are correct or incorrect. I find that it is a great way for me to check for understanding on facts or concepts. As the students are completing the game, they get points if they are correct. There is immediate feedback if they are not. As a teacher, I get data about each question that the students are answering – and am able to see gaps. These gaps could be all from one question, or from a few students. This information comes conveniently in the form of a table and I can deal with the data at any point as it is easily downloaded from the Kahoot dashboard. I would love a tool which could be as interactive as this one is and also provide each student with immediate feedback on why their answer was correct or incorrect.

Kahoot data

Kahoot data


Tracking data is always useful. I like to keep an overview of what the students are completing and check for trends and patterns. This is an example from one of my drama modules earlier in the year where there was a focus on reflecting on their learning as they were learning. These reflections happened in a Moodle forum and each student had to respond to at least one other student each week, and I was able to provide feedback on their understanding based on their own reflection and the feedback they gave others. Keeping track of the quantity and quality is really important. This information provides a clear snapshot of who needs additional support in this part of their learning.

Tracking learning 1

Tracking student reflections

3. Putting students in the driver’s seat: A strategy that I used in the module I was teaching with Kylee, “Keep your ideas to yourself” – an Art  /English module-  was traffic lights. We had a class who were reluctant to speak and share their thinking – asking for help was a struggle for some of the students so the traffic lights were a great idea! I made my own cards, using the language I had used over the course of the term: “All good” for green,, “I think I’m okay but may need some help” for orange”, and “I’m stuck” for red. I didn’t have a photo of my cards but found this one on Pinterest from Teacherspayteachers website. While I had heard of this strategy before, using the traffic lights came from a conversation I was having with one of my students in my learning hub to find a way to get him to ask for help, rather than be passive in his learning. As he was taking the learning module that Kylee and I were trying, it made sense to trial them there. What was brilliant was how these cards worked for all learners. Daniel, another student in the module, has his light on green for the duration of the lesson – he was focused and didn’t want to be interrupted. Amy, another student, fluctuated between using all three cards in the lesson. It was a great way for her to self-regulate and know when to seek feedback. I loved to see students reminding each other to adjust their lights as needed.  They went down well and I’m going to keep using them in my classes in the future.

Traffic lights

Traffic light cards

4. Peer and self-assessment

I love how many ways there are to do this… here are some examples I’ve used at Hobsonville Point Secondary School. My fave is always the “Two stars and a wish” method. Students peer and self-assess using a simple structure which links to the co-constructed success criteria. The stars represent two positives which the students can see in the work and the wish represents an area for improvement. What is really effective about this basic structure is it moves away from “this was good” and “well done” – which is not effective or useful feedback – and instead focuses the students on being descriptive and specific in their feedback. The limitation of one wish means that the feedback does not become a litany of negatives but is instead is the most important piece of information needed to improve the quality of the work.

Another format that Andrea and I used (which was inspired by Peter Radonich, the SCT at my previous school, Northcote College) was the stop, start, keep structure to peer feedback. This was something that we used as a means to capture student voice about our teaching at Northcote College but the simplicity of these three scaffolding questions means that it can be used in multiple ways. It seemed a logical fit to use this scaffold with students as it meant, again, that the chances of feedback being meaningless for students are reduced.

Stop, start, keep

I have been so impressed by how seriously the students at Hobsonville Point Secondary have been taking giving and receiving peer feedback. I think that careful scaffolds are needed and, like anything, we as teachers need to model how to give effective feedback.

The power of peer and self-assessment is what the students do with the information. The image below shows the feedback provided to students on each other’s oral presentations in class. Each student provided feedback to each other and some suggested next steps to improve (based on our co-constructed success criteria). The students gave their feedback to each other and then had to process the feedback provided to write their final reflection on their learning.

Peer feedback 1

The picture below on the right is a snapshot of the feedback narratives that all students used at HPSS this term to co-construct their learning journeys with their teachers.

Learning journey

There is real power in getting the students to reflect on their learning as they are learning. Dialogic feedback, as the learning journey document shows, gives equal weighting to the voice of the student and the teacher. The student reflects and self-assesses their learning and sets clear “next steps” to act as mini goals in the learning. The teacher can support the students by suggesting appropriate strategies to meet these mini-goals, correct misunderstandings and assumptions made, and provide ongoing feedback about self-regulating strategies. The power here is that students are in the driving seat of their learning. They have a voice, they can evaluate strategies which are successful or unsuccessful, they can direct where their learning needs to go. The teacher’s voice is still important but their job is to provide ongoing responsive feedback which supports students to close the gaps between their current and desired levels of performance.