Tag Archives: reading skills

Articulating Effective Learning Goals

“When instructors do not clearly articulate their goals, it is difficult for students to know what (or how) to practice.” Susan Ambrose in How Learning Works

As teachers and students enter final exam or benchmark season it’s important to remember a key concept in assessment creation: articulating effective learning goals. These goals, also called objectives, help inform students about what they are supposed to do when they encounter a task. In the book How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors explain the importance of using learning objectives to help students have success in class. Objectives can appear in curriculum documents, with project instructions when handed out to students, or in a rubric that is given to students before they begin work on an assessment. “Learning objectives,” explain the authors, “articulate the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire by the end of the course or after completing a particular assignment.” There are numerous advantages to using clearly articulated learning objectives with students:

  1. Communicate intent to students
  2. Provide a framework for organizing course content
  3. Help guide decisions about appropriate teaching and learning activities

Numerous studies have shown that the use of objectives can positively impact student learning. One study from the 1970s found that students who were given specific goals when they were learning from a text paid more attention to passages that were relevant to their goals and hence learned those passages better as they read. Another study conducted a few years ago found that creating a rubric and sharing it with students before they work on an assignment led to better outcomes in terms of the quality of work produced and in the students’ knowledge of the qualities associated with good work (Ambrose et al. 128-130).

An old friend named Benjamin Bloom can help educators create learning objectives through the action verbs contained in his taxonomy. For example, a sample end-of-course learning objective for a dance class shared in How Learning Works could ask students to “execute different choreographic styles” or in an engineering class it could ask students to “analyze simple circuits that include resistors and capacitors.” Bloom’s taxonomy was created in the 1950s and represents six levels of intellectual behavior organized from low-level to high. Action verbs developed by Bloom can help educators create learning objectives that focus on concrete actions and behaviors. “Furthermore,” the authors in How Learning Works explain, “using action verbs reduces ambiguity in what it means to ‘understand.'”

Here is a chart of sample verbs from How Learning Works using Bloom’s Taxonomy:

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Another proponent of using clearly articulated learning goals with students was Grant Wiggins, who passed away a few days ago from a heart condition. In fact, identifying goals is the first step in Wiggins’s theory of curriculum development. I was shocked when I saw a tweet from his daughter sharing the sad news. Wiggins had such a profound impact on my life as an educator with the theory of backward planning he set forth in his book Understanding by Design. However, it was through his blog “Granted, and…” that I felt like I really got to know Wiggins and his philosophy. His blog was a must read for me. In fact, over the past couple of years, I considered his blog the most important resource for educators on the web. His clear prose and ability to publish thought-provoking blog posts every week was inspirational. He was an intellectual leader and champion for good teaching. He will obviously be missed. So, in honor of Wiggins, take a look at a recent assignment given to students. Were you clear in what you expected students to do? In other words, did your instructions to students contain clearly-articulated learning goals (and yes, a rubric really is just a collection of these) that explained what you wanted them to learn?

Primary Sources & Post-It Notes

This post is by Michael Lonie, a history teacher at Randolph High School


Recently, I have been exploring new ways of integrating primary source analysis and discussion in the social studies classroom. In my Advanced Placement European History course, we constantly read, annotate, and analyze primary source documents to help the students better understand the major trends and paradigm shifts in European thought. I noticed that things began to get a bit stale in our normal classroom discussions, and I wanted to attempt a lesson that would both reinvigorate the conversation, while continuing to assess all students on their comprehension of the material. My solution came in the form of a wonderful professional development offered by the instructional coaches at Randolph High School. At a recent workshop, the coaches introduced ways to use Post-It notes of all shapes and sizes in a variety of different classroom activities. This “Post-It Pandemonium” is entirely student-centered, and provides easy ways for teachers to assess progress and comprehension while keeping students engaged in the lesson.

In order to apply these Post-It activities in my AP European History course, I designed a discussion-based lesson centered on the European philosophers Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. For the lesson, students were attempting to evaluate the differing opinions ofScreen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.42.54 PM the two philosophers regarding individuality and community in nineteenth-century Europe. In preparation for this lesson, students needed to read and annotate a primary source packet with documents from both philosophers, as well as a variety of different critiques to their positions. Upon arriving to the class, students were divided into groups of three, and given a large Post-It note. Half of the groups were assigned to be experts on Marx, and the other half of the students focused on Mill’s theories of Utilitarianism. Students then had time to summarize their philosopher’s position regarding individuality on the Post-It note, incorporating evidence from the text. After placing these large Post-It notes on the board, a representative from each group chose a Post-It from the opposing philosopher, and, on a separate, smaller Post-It, had to write how their philosopher would respond to the ideas written on the original note. During this time, I circulated the room, and was extremely impressed with the high level of discussion occurring within each group. The students worked diligently to assume the role of their philosopher, and to justify their beliefs with textual evidence.

After placing their philosopher’s rebuttal on the board, I decided to add one last twist to the lesson. After briefly discussing the initial analysis with all students, I gave each group a Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.41.21 PMcritique of their original philosopher from a nineteenth-century intellectual (i.e. Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Pope Leo XIII). Students then had to read the primary source from their critic, and, on an even smaller Post-It note, write how this critic would respond to the writings of their original philosopher. When the students placed their final products on the board, they had a chain of Post-It notes analyzing their original philosopher’s beliefs, a response from either Marx or Mill, and a critique from nineteenth-century society. We ended class with a brief discussion, peppering in any material the students may have missed during their small-group discussion. Based on the exit tickets from the class, students were not only able to meet the lesson’s objectives, but they appeared to have a fun time along the way. As I circulated the room, I found myself engaged in the small-group discussions, and was able to interact with students individually. Overall, I found that incorporating Post-Its into my classroom discussion was a simple and engaging way of assessing student learning, and I would definitely plan these activities into future lessons in the social studies classroom.

On Cheating

In a recent interview by Serena Golden on Inside Higher Ed, James M. Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, answered questions via e-mail about academic integrity. Lang has a new book that was recently published from Harvard University Press, called Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty. “Lang reviews research on both academic dishonesty and human learning to build a case that the most effective instructional strategies to minimize cheating are the same ones that will best help students to understand and retain the course material,” summarizes Golden. Here are some excerpts from Lang’s interview responses I found particularly compelling:

Cheating is an inappropriate response to a learning environment that’s not working for the student.

The fascinating discovery I made in my own research was that the features of a course that do tend to induce cheating were also ones that tend to reduce learning.

Too often we think about courses as “covering” material. As plenty of people have pointed out, though, just because you are covering something doesn’t mean that the students are learning it!

But I think every day we are preparing to step into a classroom, we have to ask ourselves this question, and be ready to answer it: Why should students care about this material?

And when we link our material to real and fascinating problems or questions — the types of problems or questions we tackle in our own research — then it becomes easier to help our students learn to care about our courses.

Some students cheat because they have poor metacognition — that is, they have an inaccurate picture of their own understanding of the course material.

Without question, the best means of improving student metacognition is with frequent, low-stakes assessments.

Whatever you are going to ask students to do on their graded assessments, give them the opportunity to try smaller, low-stakes versions in class or on homework assignments before they have to ramp up and try for the grade.

As much as possible, when it comes to academic dishonesty, we should keep our eyes focused on the design of the course and the assessment system.

The research clearly suggests that faculty inconsistently report instance of cheating in their courses, and the most frequent explanation they give for that is that they find administrators siding with students over faculty, or they find the bureaucratic procedures required to pursue a case of academic dishonesty incredibly time-consuming.

Don’t take it personally. Students cheat on assignments or exams; they don’t cheat on you.

What has Lang done to his own teaching after researching and writing about academic dishonesty? “So beginning this year,” he wrote, “I have reframed my courses around big questions that I hope will capture the interest of my students, and I have redesigned my assessments systems in order to give students more choices in how they demonstrate their learning to me.” Developing lessons around essential questions, transfer goals, and authentic problems can help motivate students to learn. Scaffolding assessments and giving choice to students when they are asked to demonstrate understanding can help eliminate academic dishonesty (hopefully).

Using Subtext in English Class

By Bree Valvano

Image Credit: https://www.renaissance.com/products/subtext

As I continued to research and discover new ways to use technology, specifically the five new classroom iPads I have been given, I came across several articles that discussed an app called Subtext. This app allows you to download eBooks and create a collaborative reading area for students and teachers. The app allows users to define words, research concepts in a reading via the web, highlight lines, link to videos and other resources, mark notes, ask questions, and comment all in real time. If you know anything about me and my teaching philosophy, you know I had to learn more about this tool.

After downloading the app on my personal iPad and playing with it for a short time, I Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 7.58.26 PMquickly saw the potential this app has for promoting collaboration and close reading of a text. Subtext allows you to create a classroom environment where students can collaborate when discussing a text. The teacher can embed information and web links for students to use while they are reading a text. The teacher can also add questions for students to answer, and/or the teacher can see the comments the students are making and add his/her own comments and answer questions. The teacher can also create specific assignments for the class that are linked to Common Core Standards. Since the Common Core focuses on close reading and using textual evidence to support arguments, this tool has great potential to assist teachers as they help students practice these skills.

As with any app, there are a few things you need to know before you get started. Students and teachers need a Gmail account to log into the app. Since most people are using Gmail and it’s free to set up an account if they are not, this doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. Also, the app itself is free, but you may need to purchase the text documents, depending on what is available. There are some free books, but not all books are free. You also need to purchase licenses so students can access the tool. The cool thing about the licenses is the fact that they can be assigned to a student for the lesson and then reclaimed, after the lesson, so you can use them again in another class. I personally think the cost is totally worth it.

I recently tried the app with my English IIH classes. They worked in groups to complete a close reading activity on Poe’s poem The Raven. Before the activity, I added questions and imagescomments to help the students analyze the use of language and literary devices to convey theme. I explained the features in Subtext, and the students got to work. While students were asking questions, I was able to add my comments and they were able to answer each other’s questions. Students were also able to use the features to look up unfamiliar words and search the web to find helpful information. At the end of the lesson, I asked students what they thought of the tool and the response was unanimous. They thought the app was both fun and helpful. They enjoyed being able to construct meaning and collaborate when completing a close reading of the text. I will definitely be using this tool again.

Read Write Think


The National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have teamed up to create readwritethink.org, whose mission is to provide the highest quality practices in reading and language arts instruction by offering an awesome amount of free materials. On their website, they have tons of interactives including about two dozen that help to reinforce the basic skills of organizing and summarizing. Try this K-W-L interactive with your students to teach them how to prepare to read and write by organizing what they know (K), what they want to learn (W), and what new information they learned after reading (L). Try using an interactive organizer like this in conjunction with quality nonfiction like this New York Times article, Squabble Disrupts a Refuge for the Rich. In this article, Robin Pogrebin describes the controversy surrounding a proposal to build a visitors center at a famed Gilded Age Vanderbilt family mansion in Rhode Island. To incorporate some STEM in your classes you could use this article about two scientists trying to use a process called synthetic biology to grow plants that glow in the night.


Using an interactive organizer like a K-W-L chart can organize thoughts and reinforce understanding as students begin to read complex texts. The interactives on readwritethink.org are easy and fun to use. Try this one called Literary Graffiti that teaches students to visualize what they are reading and to create graphic symbols to help them develop as readers. And best of all, after using the interactives student work can be saved in .pdf form or printed.


Thanks to Mike Sorge for showing me these fantastic resources!

Jonathan Olsen