7 Ways to Build a Learner-Centered Classroom

Teachers can create positive learning experiences for students that combine assessment with agency, opportunity, and community building.

Standards-based grading (SBG) can profoundly impact students in the form of better engagement, attention, and proficiency of standards. However, expecting SBG alone to yield positive results is like knocking over one domino—there isn’t much of an impact. In my experience, I’ve learned that it’s most effective when used along with several other actions.

Here are several ideas that have worked for me.

1. Begin with a clear standards-based mindset

Standards-based grading means building learning opportunities–neutral criteria for standards. The subsequent learning opportunities, then, should align with the criteria. In a standards-based space, learning opportunities are tracked against criteria rather than against criteria specific to each unique task (known as standards-referenced grading).

With standards-based grading, educators focus on what a student can do and avoid the grading trope of various categories and weights, plus behaviors and extraneous criteria that aren’t directly linked to standards. As Ken O’Connor explains in his book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, at the end of a learning cycle, educators then use “mode + most recent + professional judgment” to evaluate each standard, and a logical rule to determine grades will see that SBG yields an equitable, authentic grade for every student.

2. Make your assessment goals clear

On the first day of school, I pose two questions to my students: What do you expect from the school? and What does the school expect from you? In their answers, students often reveal frustration with traditional assessment systems and teachers who don’t take their additional responsibilities outside of school into account.

Teachers need to communicate expectations and give opportunities for students to reach their potential rather than penalize them for circumstances beyond their control.

Explain what SBG is to students and how it honors their growth over time. Communicate and implement SBG goals to bring students into the intention. I’ve seen that when learners feel undermined by a traditional system that demands they chase points, they are open to something that takes the focus off points and puts the focus on learning. It just needs to be explained thoroughly and persistently.

3. Develop a community, not a classroom, of learners

My favorite classroom community–building strategy is smiles and frowns. Each day, students are encouraged, but not forced, to share their positive and negative experiences, modest or grand. The only requirement is that everyone listens so the students see and hear each other. Sometimes I share, too: about the day I’m having, if it’s been a struggle, if I slept well if I’m overwhelmed, etc. By demonstrating vulnerability, I model courage and risk-taking and show that it’s important to confront, not avoid difficult conversations.

I also use other collaborative learning strategies like think-pair-share, small group literature circle discussions, and whole class circle discussions to help students learn the standards. Collaborative learning shouldn’t be reduced to group projects. The texts I use matter as well. Students need to see themselves in the texts they read to engage in discussions, so I include texts written by and with characters who are of various sexual orientations and from various cultural backgrounds, especially underrepresented ones.

These small actions generate a constructive environment in which to implement and discuss SBG and begin unlearning traditional grading methods.

4. Provide opportunities to all learners

In the thick of SBG, criteria are built with careful consideration for each standard. Before diving into a learning opportunity, teach all criteria at all levels so that learners see the path ahead of them as accessible, including the most distant levels, and give access to support to all learners.

I use proficiency sequences to teach standards. Each level builds onto the next, so it’s the ideal opportunity for learners to learn the sequence through ungraded practice. The highest levels should never be treated like an exclusive club, only for the few students already at a high level of proficiency. If learners are excluded from certain stages because they think they can’t succeed, they will believe they can’t succeed. Additionally, you can provide support for all students by decriminalizing those supports and illuminating them as a regular part of learning.

5. Infuse a growth mindset into your instruction

On the podcast Creatively Connected Classroom, Katie White asks, “How can I structure assessment, which is intended, quite simply, to tell me where I am right now in relation to where I’m trying to go? If there’s a way, we can do that really important skill of assessing, but do it in a way that lets kids think that if they didn’t have the right solution, or they didn’t make the right decision the first time, that that’s OK, that they can still recover, then I think that we’re using both to their maximum effect.”

Having numerous growth mindset posters in your classroom can’t replace practicing a growth mindset.

How will students believe they can do something or move forward when they simply haven’t mastered it… yet? Treat proficiency levels as separate, attainable goals with strength-based language so that students feel elevated, not degraded. Additionally, cycle through the same standards over and over until students reach their potential. Then, when a goal is reached, drop earlier, lower, now-unimportant assessments. This move honors the progress that students have shown. Finally, enlist student agency, and let them set their next goal.

6. Give students agency over their learning

Students thrive when they feel empowered in their learning. Allow your students to determine how much studying, review, and extra time is needed to advance or maintain their current level of achievement.

In my English 8 class, students see where they are on the writing proficiency sequence, their next step, and if they want to work toward the same goal or move to the next one. With support and practice in areas of difficulty, students see that leveling up is actionable, like playing a video game.

7. Make room for student voice and choice

If educators focus demonstration of learning in just one way, how will students ever see themselves as part of the curriculum? True student voice is about the teacher’s flexibility with standards. At the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, students showed an interest in learning more about the dispute, so I pushed aside our current unit and switched our content focus.

In my Drama 10 class, when a student with a learning disability struggled with an individual script-writing assignment, I swapped out the assignment (for all students) with a collaborative one. In my English First Peoples’ 10 class, when two students didn’t read the novel, both were given a short story to read so that they could develop their thematic essay–writing skills alongside their peers.

In each case, the revamped learning opportunities aligned with the standards being assessed; those did not change. What changed was how I chose to address each problem. Was it fair that writers had to collaborate on a script or that a student was exempt from the novel? In each case, it’s important to note that fairness isn’t always equal.