Reflection capable learners: Making the shift from teacher dependency

Photo by Joel Fulgencio on Unsplash


Nora Abushakra is a highly regarded middle school educator and Social Studies teacher in South Carolina. She has been a leading exponent of the use of the Verso Check-in tool for the past 18 months and has been hugely influential in aligning the use of the tool with her district’s cycle of professional inquiry and her individual school’s continuously evolving pedagogical framework. As a highly reflective practitioner with a keen interest in student voice and agency, Nora has recently started to experiment with the use of single point rubrics as a tool to support the student  reflection process, and as a means to give students more ownership of their learning. In doing so she aims to support students in finding and applying their voice to the learning process with greater precision, ensuring that the feedback students provide is specific, accurate and actionable. In this article, Nora shares her exploratory work and her ongoing professional quest to translate educational research into effective classroom practice.

As educators, we all know that it is our duty to facilitate learning for all of our students. We do our best to plan activities that ensure that we are doing just that but, in the end, are we asking students to just “do” tasks or are we asking them to “learn”?  Professor, John Hattie, wrote that a student’s “role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains” (2012).   Hattie goes on to say that this is a challenging task for educators.  It requires the educator to introspect their own practice and empower students to do the same work on their own.   However, if students are unclear about the purpose of their learning, the activities that are planned to help them get there are all for naught.  That is why I appreciate Phil’s analogy of learning as a journey.  It truly is and I will soon point out how it  applies to Professor Hattie’s discussion above.  

For a moment, imagine you have been told you must travel to a new city and that you must reach it by the next day.  You have never traveled there and you do not know how far it is nor the directions you should take.  What obstacles will you face along the way?  Do you need a car or is public transportation available?  The stakes are high, though, so you have no other option but to attempt to make it there. Feels hopeless, right?  If you were just handed the keys to help you reach your destination,  would you instantly become more likely to arrive on time? Likewise, we cannot expect our students to be successful on their learning journey if we do not tell them where they are going and equip them with the tools and resources to help them get there.   

Returning to Professor Hattie’s quote, he reminded us that the goal is for students to be able to manage and understand their learning gains.  Rubrics and reflection are the means to that end.  Rubrics help students to navigate their own path, while reflection aids them in understanding where they are at any given point and what they need to move forward.   Together, they provide a roadmap to success. 

Recently, I was teaching a unit on urbanization.  The learning objective, or final destination, for the unit was to understand the impact of urbanization on a global level.  Planning backward, my content area team and I decided on the following success criteria, or rest stops, along the way. We wanted students to be able to:

  • Explain what urbanization looks like
  • Identify push and pull factors
  • List benefits and negative effects of urbanization
  • Discuss the significance of the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals
  • Relate the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals to urbanization
  • Compare sustainable cities and traditional cities. 
  • Design a sustainable city using the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals

I created the rubric below for the students to track, or manage, their progress toward owning their learning.  I gave each student this rubric at the beginning of class and went over it in detail.     

The left hand column presents students with a series of success criteria in order of increasing complexity. The right side of the rubric gives students a space to reflect.  Take note that it asks students to write what they need to be able to advance to the next level.  You may be thinking that you have been asking students to assess their own level of learning all along.  However, I invite you to think about the difference between the data you have collected as a result of your practice and the data you could potentially receive from these rubrics.  

Why is this better?  Most students, when asked to assess their learning, are going to only think about whether or not they have completed the task at hand, rather than where they are on their learning journey .  Their reflections are too frequently focused on completion and compliance. With this approach I provided students with a roadmap that would allow them to take control of their own learning.  As this is not a task list, students are focused on whether they have mastered the learning, making their reflection feedback more valuable. 

With this approach I am beginning to shift balance in my classroom. Students are now able to  describe their current level of knowledge, skills and understanding. They can use the rubric throughout the lesson to monitor their progress and self and peer-assess against clearly defined and understood learning goals. 

Having the data in one place and students being able to clearly and accurately articulate their learning has been a game-changer for me.  

The student feedback data allows me to see if the strategies I am employing are working. I can use student feedback to adapt next learning steps or make micro adjustments to my practice and plan interventions to meet the needs of every student more effectively. 

I leave you with a snapshot of additional reflection data taken using Verso check-ins.  The first is prior to my use of rubrics to inform reflection and learning, and the second was taken at the end of this unit.  As you can see, the impact has been phenomenal. Not only has the process managed to connect students more closely with their learning, it has also given students the means to employ a shared language to seek feedback and discuss their learning with their peers and myself .

Check-in data also has revealed that students are now  far more able to evidence their self-assessment using details of what they had learnt, and students who were confused could precisely pinpoint the stage of the learning journey where they needed support.

Fig 1. A class where I did not provide students with a rubric

Fig 2. A second class where students were supported by the rubric