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Implementing student-centered learning

Tips for rolling out personalized learning program.

10 min read


Implementing student-centered learning


This post is sponsored by NWEA.

The sage-on-the-stage format of classroom learning is giving way to a personalized approach that puts students in the driver’s seat. But how do we implement the model to ensure it’s effective? In this Q&A, NWEA CEO Matt Chapman outlines what schools need to do to put this in place, how to use assessment data in the process, and how to make sure that every student benefits from this approach.

Student-centered learning is a hot topic in education. But what does it really mean? What’s at the heart of this approach and how does it define the roles of the student and teacher?

There is no agreed upon definition. We use differing terms to refer to student-centered learning, such as personalized learning, differentiated instruction, center-based classrooms, flipped classrooms, and inquiry-based learning. No matter the name, they all focus on shifting the roles of the student and the teacher, recognizing the different needs of individual students and groups of students as they progress on their academic journeys.

Student-centered learning requires a combination of understanding those differences and empowering students to play a greater, sometimes primary, role in decisions along the way. It could be argued that understanding and addressing differences among students is enough to make learning student-centered. But I believe students must also have a voice when deciding how to address those differences to accelerate their own progress. When you combine these two factors, instruction will be more focused on each student’s zone of proximal development and there is a greater opportunity for every student to be more engaged in their own learning.

NWEA has always supported student-centered learning by providing data teachers trust for every child, whether they are working at grade level, ahead of their peers, or struggling to catch up. That’s one of the reasons we encourage teachers to involve and empower students in goal setting, informed by the normative data about growth we provide, but becoming truly the goal of the student.

What do schools need to do to implement this properly?

This is a great question because it moves from the theoretical to the practical.  Developing theories on student-centered learning is fine, and necessary, but we need to talk more about how schools successfully implement it.

First, we need to give teachers the tools they need to succeed because student-centered learning starts with the teacher. An early step is providing professional learning for teachers to understand the concepts and the options for implementation. Next, we need to provide teachers with dependable information about each student, both at the start of the year and throughout. What are they ready to learn? What foundational skills are missing that make it hard for them to learn? Are they learning at a pace that will help them reach their goals? What are their goals? Teachers need accurate information about their students.

Like all professionals, teachers need up-to-date training to continually meet the evolving challenges of their job—like training on how to involve and empower the students to be active participants in how that information is used. I believe the key to student-centered learning is the magical combination of accurate and useful information about each student with the willingness and expertise to let the student be a full participant in decisions made on how that information drives instruction. This is why NWEA has made that combination a central tenet of the professional learning we provide to hundreds of thousands of teachers through our professional learning programs.

Let’s talk about the assessment component. Beyond measuring student progress, what else does the assessment data need to provide for this model to function right?

It’s heart breaking to see schools invest in assessments that aren’t reliable.

Reliable and valid data are a must for every child. You need data that tells you at what level a student is ready to learn and what foundational skills are needed to keep the student on pace. You need national growth norms so you have a context for setting goals for each child, ideally as a joint exercise with the child. You need to know if she or he is on path to do well on end of course and other summative proficiency assessments. You need to know if the student is learning at the pace they need in order to graduate and be ready for career or college, and what supplemental resources are best if he or she is not.

At NWEA we are always looking for ways to make the data from our assessments more valuable and trustworthy. That’s why we analyze the level of student engagement on the assessment to be able to alert teachers if the student is not trying—which will affect the validity of the result. This gives teachers a chance to provide encouragement and emphasize the relevancy of the assessment for the student.

And that’s why we provide resources such as the College Explorer Tool that helps students and parents find colleges that they could consider based on a student’s RIT score—or the scores they need to be on track for their college of choice—which includes information on costs. Too often, many students don’t realize they have far more options than they might think.

That’s also why we partner with numerous providers to link NWEA assessment results to the right instructional resources. We don’t believe teachers or students should be confined to just one curriculum choice, which happens if the assessment is simply a subset of the curriculum. The variety that can drive effective student-centered learning is lost when that happens. Students need choices that reflect where the student is academically and what works best for each student.

NWEA has done some research into assessment and its stakeholders. What do students have to say about assessment? What do they find valuable in them?

Last year NWEA partnered with Gallup to conduct our third investigation into public perceptions of K-12 assessments. The resulting report, Make Assessment Work for All Students, showed us that roughly 75% of students in grades 5-12 think they spend “the right amount of time” or “too little time” taking assessments. That runs counter to some myths about assessment perceptions and obviously raises important questions. When you dig a bit deeper, you learn that students value assessments that are timely and that show them what they have learned and what they still need to learn. In other words, they want assessments that help them achieve their academic goals. They want to understand the purpose of the test they are taking and how the results will be used. When that happens, students are very favorable to assessments. And parents have very similar views, with a majority also concluding that students are not over-tested, and with the same focus on timeliness and utility of the assessment for helping their child be more successful.

It’s encouraging to see how well students and parents understand assessments and the value they get from them. But teachers can help even more by ensuring that students understand the purpose of an assessment and how they can use the results to better inform their own learning.

This is where student-centered learning provides a strong opportunity. When students set their own learning goals and can measure their progress in meeting them, they are more invested in their education, more motivated to learn, and more successful.

The research showed that teachers and parents have different perspectives on the value of assessments. Since assessment is core to the student-centered approach, how can we get these two stakeholder groups on the same page?

Teachers value assessments that support learning. But there are several factors that are often getting in the way.

The first issue is the level of assessment literacy within education and beyond. Only 38% of teachers feel “very prepared” to have conversations with parents about assessment results. And it appears this is part of an overall issue of insufficient assessment literacy among teachers and other educators. Teachers need adequate training to understand how to use assessments and to communicate effectively about them. To help everyone involved, and as a not-for-profit dedicated to helping all kids learn, NWEA sponsors an informational website as an objective resource, To help improve levels of both pre-service and in-service levels of assessment literacy, NWEA also sponsors the National Task Force on Assessment Education. The Task Force is comprised of teachers, principals, superintendents, college professors, national education organizations, and leaders in assessment education. They’ve done great work that is helping to shape the national dialogue and approaches among both colleges of education and in-service organizations.

A second key issue is that teachers see some assessment types as not being helpful in guiding instruction, especially state accountability tests. That is why, as NWEA enters the market for comprehensive assessment systems under the new ESSA law, we are advocating and proposing very timely assessments that include instructional information for each student and professional learning on how to use it in the classroom. We believe this approach can have a positive impact on both the utility of and the attitude toward state- and federally-mandated assessments.

Equity is at the forefront of every school’s agenda. How do we make sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t fall through the cracks? What kinds of resources can help nurture their success?

Equity starts with knowing where each student is academically and what each student needs. This includes actionable data for students when they are performing either above or below grade level. Student-centered learning mandates that we don’t confine our information to merely grade-level performance, making the dated assumption that just because students are the same age they are at the same academic level. Students performing above grade level need greater challenges, and that requires knowing more than just the fact that they are above grade level. Students performing below grade level need supplemental resources that reflect where they are, not assuming every student below grade level is at the same point. This has always been the great strength of our MAP® assessment, which measures each student irrespective of grade level, and which recommends areas of student focus and additional resources that reflect the student’s actual zone of proximal development.

But equity goes far beyond just trusted assessments. It requires a broad range of resources and a commitment to support each child. It requires a recognition that education is a right that is inherent in the U.S. commitment to equal opportunity for all. At NWEA, our mission is Partnering to help all kids learn, and inherent in that is our belief that all kids CAN learn. We only provide a part of the puzzle, and we are deeply honored to partner with so many educators, especially teachers, in pursuing our mission and beliefs. Teachers are the critical centerpiece that connect schools, parents, and kids, and they possess an enormous amount of power to make a difference in the lives of kids. We are honored to support and partner with teachers to help achieve equity and provide opportunity for all.

As CEO of NWEA Matt Chapman leads our mission of partnering to help all kids learn®.  Since Matt joined NWEA in December 2006, NWEA has grown the number of students served from fewer than 2 million to well over 9 million, introduced new products and services, and become a national thought leader and advocate for assessments that help students’ academic growth.  NWEA now partners with over 8,500 educational institutions, including school districts, charter organizations, and private and parochial schools of all types, and including overseas schools in 140 countries.  Our products and services include assessments, research, and professional development for tens of thousands of teachers every year.