Eliminate Learning Lag

Learning lag: When you read those words you may recall a time when you struggled to learn. Learning lag can evoke a myriad of feelings; anxiety, frustration, sadness. But it can also evoke feelings of boredom and apathy. Learning lag effects all types of learners, advanced learners, struggling learners and everyone else in between. Anytime the complexity of a task or pace of learning doesn’t match our level of readiness the result is learning lag.

Learning lag happens when the pace of the classroom moves too fast or too slow. It happens when a teacher skips a concepts that needs review or covers a concept doesn’t need review. It happens when the depth of learning is complex and overwhelming or overly simple. It happens when a teacher fails to detect that a student has an incorrect understanding and now that student must unlearn what they have learned. These are common problems found in every classroom. The culprit is often a broken learning cycle. To eliminate learning lag we must improve the learning cycle.

Here is a simplified version of the learning cycle inspired by Andrea Corney. There are three steps.

  1. Do Something
  2. Analyze What Happened.
  3. Decide Next Steps.

In a math classroom it might look like this.

  1. Do something. The teacher gives students a math assignment. Students complete the assignment.
  2. Analyze what happened. Student work is graded. The teacher looks for common patterns and identifies individual student needs. For example, the teacher identifies a student who has fallen behind the rest of the class.
  3. Decide next steps. Lesson plan decisions are made based on an analysis of student data. Students get feedback on how they are performing and make adjustments to their own learning.

It is not very difficult to find evidence of a broken learning cycle. Take a look at the following picture.

“You might be thinking. Wow that’s a really nice drawing of a cat!”

You might be thinking: “wow, that is a nice drawing of a cat”. It is easy to find humor in this picture. Yet, it is important to recognize that this cat picture is evidence of learning lag. Learning lag often occurs because the learning cycle looks like this.

“student performance data is often plagued with long turnaround times”

My early years as a teacher I often skipped the analyze student work step of the learning cycle. I created a syllabus with a schedule and I marched along. My lesson plans were usually predetermined by my my syllabus. The primary purpose of grades was for report cards. I did not use grades to inform my lesson plans very often. When I did alter my lesson plans I often relied more on general student observation rather than concrete student data. It took me many years to adjust my teaching practices. However, overtime my perspectives and practices did change. Grades eventually became data that informed my instruction rather than data used to fill a grade book. My experiences are not uncommon. Teachers do not have very much time to collect and analyze student data in any meaningful way; especially not on a daily basis. Therefore, teachers are often left with no choice but to rely on general observation.

I should preface, observation is a good thing. But because learning lag is difficult to detect observational data is often not adequate when used in isolation. Observational data needs to be used in combination with student performance data. Unfortunately, the collection of student performance data is often plagued with long turnaround times. This creates an asymmetry between observation and performance outcomes. As a result lesson plans do not always reflect the reality in the classroom and student learning lag goes undetected. Teachers work hard to shorten the turnaround time as much as possible. But there isn’t enough time in the day.

“teachers spend more time grading papers than analyzing student performance”
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Report: http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/files/ps_fullreport.pdf

A national study by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation found that teachers only have about 36 minutes during their workday to grade. Now consider the following. The average classroom size for the state of Oregon, where I live, is 28 students. Most teachers teach 5 or 6 classes per day. That means a secondary teacher sees between 140 and 168 students everyday.

28 x 5 = 140

28 x 6 = 168

Suppose that same teacher were to spend just 20 seconds per student per day grading student work. It would take 56 minutes to grade 168 students.

168 x 20 / 60 = 56

56 minutes needed to grade is more than the 36 minutes teachers have during the work day. Now let’s be more realistic about this 20 seconds. 20 seconds isn’t enough time to grade an entire homework assignment or an entire test. The same report also found that teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes per day. The main reason teachers reported working long hours was to keep up with grading and reporting duties.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/files/ps_fullreport.pdf

Even with long working hours teachers struggle to keep up with grading. This is why teachers spend more time grading papers than analyzing student performance. They don’t have the time. The result is that instructional decisions don’t always match student need. And long turnaround times create the potential that students have reinforced an incorrect concept or skill.

In my personal experience as a teacher I set aside Thursday evenings to catch up on grading. I would work late and then bring student work home to finish. I rarely ever felt completely caught up. As a result my instructional decisions were often made using out-of-date student data and student feedback had a long turnaround time. Two or three days at best. A week or longer was more common.

Less grading can result in higher quality data. Grading student work that involves higher level thinking will likely always need the skilled eyes of a teacher. In such cases teachers should be very selective about when to give these assignments. Assign them only when time has been set aside to grade them to keep the turnaround time short. Assignments that focus on skill and concept development are much more common. A teacher should not grade these types of assignments. Instead, when appropriate, students should self grade, or a teacher aid should grade these assignments. Better yet, leverage a technology solution. Technology can automate, the practice curation, as well as the grading and data collection tasks.

“Technology frees up a teacher’s time so they can make daily lesson planning decisions”

After 17 years as a teacher I founded Ardor Education to create such a solution. One of my goals is to give teachers more time to lesson plan. With more time to lesson plan the instruction in the classroom improves. To accomplish this goal we need to automate the tasks of grading and curating daily math practice.

Here is our solution. Students practice math on their own device, or a school supplied device (iOS, android, chromebooks). Ardor Math then provides both teachers and students with quick actionable feedback. Student data comes in the kid friendly form of badges and progress bars. Students unlock a badge when they have mastered a concept. Student practices is improved because concept difficulty adjusts to each individual. And students know in real-time whether they are solving math problems correctly or not. Teacher lesson plan decisions also improve because teachers can now spend more time analyzing student work instead of grading. Teachers have a gradebook like dashboard populated with real-time student data. Teachers can view student data by problem type, learning target, standard or individual student. Teachers now have the data they need and the time they need to plan a more effective learning cycle. The result? Fewer students suffer from learn learning lag. And fewer teachers suffer from stress and anxiety.

In summary, to improve the learning cycle we need do the following.

  1. Improve the quality and quantity of student data.
  2. Reduce the turnaround time between collecting and returning student work. Grade and analyze student work daily if possible.
  3. Use current concrete student data to make lesson plans. Do not rely solely on general observation.

That cat drawing was a reminder to me to be more cognizant of the learning cycle. The learning cycle works best when teachers grade less and plan more. Technology can help. Eliminate Learning lag.

To learn more about what we do visit us at www.ardoreducation.com.