Studying “Studying”—What Works?

VMS Community Blog
Posted September 14, 2017
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

As an educator, it is vitally important to stay current on the science of teaching and learning. It is our job to know not only what works, but also why, and to put these strategies into practice each day in the classroom. This is why VMS invests so heavily in professional development and why our teachers dedicate significant amounts of their own time in summer and during school breaks to hone their craft and expand their knowledge base.

During the lower school years, when children move through many pronounced developmental stages and learning often occurs in distinct sequences, it is critical that we utilize best practices based on research related to the brain and pedagogy. It should come as no surprise that scholars spend a significant amount of time studying the subject of “studying” and there is certainly no shortage of information in this area.

LS teachers focus on specific areas to guide their teaching decisions, and research related to “achievement” has proved to be among the most valuable and insightful for us. It is important to note that we define achievement as academic growth and, more specifically, how easily and quickly a student is able to make progress toward the mastery of the concept they are learning. This is much more than just numbers on a test.

John Hattie, author of Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (or what I like to call The Educator’s Bible) clearly presents evidence-based research of what actually works in schools to improve learning. The chart below, which is taken from Hattie’s book, shows the effect size of various teaching strategies. Below 0 reverses achievement. 0 to 0.4 has a low to minimal effect. 0.4 to 1.2 has a high effect and is the zone of desired results. Naturally, these are the strategies that we employ the most in our classrooms.

Each of the eight strategies that fall above the .4 mark plays a role in our Lower School pedagogy, but as we begin the new year, I’d like to dig into a few in particular and provide some context to the work that your children will be doing in and out of the classroom.

Formative assessments - formal and informal assessments conducted by the teacher throughout the learning process to inform instruction. The opposite would be summative assessments, which may help gauge achievement, but typically occur at the conclusion of a lesson and therefore cannot help guide teaching strategy. Our lower school teachers collect a lot of data to inform instruction and make sure students are getting exactly what they need, when they need it. Formative assessments are at the heart of Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) which we form in partnership with Student Support Services to ensure that students are supported in their learning whether it is at the same or a different rate than that of their peers.

Metacognitive strategies - “thinking about thinking” or applying a strategy to a problem, and monitoring that strategy. A great example is our use of Depth and Complexity Icons, which prompt students to look at subject matter through eleven specific lenses considered the essential elements needed to master a subject as an “expert” would. Some of the Depth and Complexity Icons include different perspectives; ethics; big ideas; details; and patterns. They are called icons because each has a visual representation that appears on posters and worksheets as prompts that help build the “expert” approach to inquiry in students. In a fifth grade unit that integrated language arts and history, this took the form of writing diary entries from the perspective of American Soldiers, British Soldiers, and slaves during the American Revolution. In doing so, students were able to see a more comprehensive picture of the forces at work and why history ultimately followed the path that it did. When students are taught to “think about how they think” using these tools, they learn to approach subjects from the point of view of an expert, and in doing so, they understand concepts in a deeper and more complex way.

Practice - Student practice is critical to learning, but it must be the RIGHT kind of practice. Student practice needs to be engaging, include lots of feedback, extend to different experiences, and be motivating. This is a far cry from the outdated drill and practice approach that was at the heart of education for so many years. Our teachers develop lessons that provide hands-on, and when appropriate, multi-sensory practice. This makes me think of so many units of study in the lower school, but one in particular is the kindergarten lesson on “qu.” Not only are the students introduced to the letters using letter and sound cards, air writing, chalkboard writing and erasing, sand trays, etc., but they also participate in the marriage ceremony of q and u that truly brings the concept to life. In every kindergarten class, each and every year, you will find students dressed up in costume, chairs set up with an aisle in between, an officiant, and of course students playing the role of q and u who are married in front of the whole class to solidify their union for the rest of eternity. Now that’s meaning exposure at its best.

To bring this full circle, I hope that I’ve been able to provide a bit of context for some of the things that you may hear about from your children and their teachers this year. As importantly, I hope you have an understanding and appreciation for the research-informed context that generates these approaches to fostering achievement and enriching the classroom experience.