We know that not all the learning students gain is the result of our instruction. Some students make connections beyond our lessons. Other students become interested in topics of study that stimulate learning beyond the scope of study we plan. Still other students will learn what we offer deeply and build knowledge and skills beyond what our assessments may capture.
Yet, these dimensions of learning are often ignored when grades are assigned. Rarely is learning not captured on assessments noted and honored as important to the learning profile of students. Still, the learning is real and worthy of notice and respect.
So, how might we capture learning that is outside and beyond our instruction? Further, how can we honor and reward this learning? We can start by recognizing its existence in our interactions with students. Discussing the insights student develop is a good place to start. However, there is more that we can do.
We can invite students to reflect on and share the additional learning they have gained. For example, following administration of a summative assessment we might give students the option of responding to one or more of three questions.
First, what did you learn during this unit that I did not teach you? Responses to this question can provide information about connections students made as they reflected on what they were asked to learn. We may hear about family discussions related to what students were learning that extended beyond the scope of our instruction. We may also find that projects and tasks we assigned students led to further insights and understandings beyond our intentions.
Second, what did you learn about this topic or skill that was not measured on the test? This question gives us access to what students believed was important as they prepared for the test. It also speaks to the breadth of knowledge and understanding the student possesses, even though the assessment grade may not reflect it.
Third, what do you know now that you did not know before studying this topic or skill? This question invites students to reflect on what they have learned, not just information for which they are accountable. By asking this question we invite students to engage in a process that helps them recognize and organize what they have learned. Importantly, this type of reflection has also been shown to increase understanding and extend recall, two important goals of our instruction.
At first, students are likely to find these questions to be curious, as their learning is typically assumed to have been demonstrated through their performance on the test. Yet, the information can be crucial to understanding the full scope of learning students have gained.
One way to incent students to take these questions seriously and invest time in formulating responses is to offer additional credit for responses that are substantiative and reflect important learning extensions. This step also allows us to recognize the full scope of the learning gained.
Some of us may question the wisdom of giving extra credit. We know that awarding extra credit for activities that are non-learning related is problematic because it contaminates the information grades are to articulate: learning progress. When bringing supplies to the classroom, covering textbooks, and other non-learning related activities are given weight, grades no longer represent what they are intended to communicate.
Yet, awarding additional credit that will be reflected in students’ grades in this context captures important learning. It may be incidental and unplanned. It may be beyond the scope of our instructional intentions. Yet, it reflects legitimate academic progress. It is worthy of respect and reflects value. It also represents the type of learning that our students will need in the future as they confront novel learning challenges, are asked to solve complex problems featuring unknown factors, and make connections where they have not been previously known.