Note: This is the third post in a series based on the book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn Jackson.

Do we really plan homework, tests, etc. around our learning objectives?
This is a question I grappled with last year as I transformed my grading practices to a more standards-based system. A hiccup I ran into was using assessments I had created the year before. With a renewed laser-like focus on learning targets, I slowly realized that my assessments did not always clearly align with my intended outcomes. To be brutally honest, "time" was a factor that often hindered me from creating assessments that explicitly measured my learning targets. My intentions were great through an improved reporting and grading system, but the assessments need to be tweaked.

Robyn Jackson says...
"Master teachers spend more time unpacking standards and objectives than they do planning learning activities because they understand that clear learning goals will drive everything else they do." (p. 58)
Several pages later, she alludes to an idea found in a book, Understanding by Design, written by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. In my spring reading, I found this book to be very helpful in thinking about the order in which to design assessments and instruction. Jackson states it clearly...
"For each learning goal, decide how you will know when students have achieved that goal and how you will know when students are on the right track. Explain these indicators to students." (p. 63)
I think I have a pretty firm grasp on this concept of keeping the end in mind. I need to take a second look at the list of learning targets (objectives) for each course I teach and then ensure that I have formative assessment prompts ready to help students see when they are on the right track. Furthermore, explaining to students my philosophical difference between "grades" and "feedback" will be key. Initially, I anticipate students questioning my practice of not using traditional scores to mark up their formative assessments. My hope is that this will be a prime opportunity to show them the value of written and verbal feedback rather than a single score.
"To be effective, feedback needs to cause thinking. Grades don't do that. Scores don't do that. And comments like “Good job” don't do that either. What does cause thinking is a comment that addresses what the student needs to do to improve" - Nov. 2005 Ed. Leadership article.
A conversation might have look something like this last year before I implemented standards-based grading.
Me: You earned 10/16 points. Which ideas did you understand and which ones do you still need work on?
Student: Well, I missed one point on question #1 and five points on question #5. I think I need to better understand how to do #5. Can you tell me how to do it?
With standards-based grading in place, the conversations now look something more like this:

Me: How do you think you did on your quiz?
Student: I got 4/4 on learning targets 1-3, but 2/4 on learning targets 4 and 5. I really don't understand the ideas behind [insert learning target here]. Can you help me?
I need to take my "feedback" one step farther by not only giving students a score for each standard, but also a narrative outlining what the student needs to do to improve. I believe that this small tweak to my formative assessments will help students see not only how they've done (past tense), but also what they can do to improve (future tense) - the "thinking" Jackson mentions.

All of these ideas are all great, but my first order of business needs to be taking a solid look at my summative assessments. Jackson paraphrases the ideas of Wiggins and McTighe,
"It is not until you define your assessment instrument that you have clearly spelled out what your true objective is." (p. 66)"
Wouldn't it be nice if students no longer asked "what's going to be on the test?" What if the norm instead was students who knew exactly what to expect on the test and worked diligently to ensure that they understood those concepts and skills at a level in which they could articulate them not only on a "test," but also to their parents and peers? I think this is what the Iowa Core Curriculum is calling "Teaching for Understanding."

Personal action items from this principle are as follows:
  1. Take a detailed look at summative assessments for each course. If an assessment does not clearly match-up with its intended learning targets, modify to fit.
  2. Create a rubric or blank space on each formative assessment for detailed feedback. This will remind me and the students of the "feedback narrative" expecation mentioned above.
Through the implementation of these action items this summer, I hope to have a year similar to the master educator described on p. 76 of Jackson's book:
"Because I had invested the time up front to unpack my standards, define mastery and the steps toward mastery, and identify how I would determine whether my students had reached mastery, I had more time during the year to relax and teach."
Now is the time to plan with the "end" in mind and know where your students are going.