Six Steps To Deeper Learning Outcomes

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear idea of your destination. It means to know where you are going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”

Steven Covey. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. 1989 98



Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe moved Covey’s “end in mind” concept to the list of best practices in educational planning.  Whenever we plan to immerse our students into deeper learning, we call on backwards planning design. It’s the end that counts.


Here are the six steps we call on when we engage in backward planning for deeper learning outcomes.                   


  1. Target a Deeper Learning Competency as a Course Outcome


In most ELA and math standards, a critical thinking skill such as analyze or distinguish initiates what students must learn to do. For instance, a Massachusetts standard reads “Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of a text relate to each other and the whole.” (Massachusetts, College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard.)


By spotlighting the key verb in a standard, we target this skill as a valued competency to develop and as a deeper learning outcome to achieve. By changing a thinking verb such as analyze into an outcome, we signal what is most important for us to teach and for students to learn. This make the critical thinking skill one of the largest contributors to the student’s semester grade. That grade may also include other critical thinking and creative thinking applied within key texts read during the semester.


  1. Introduce the Competency with Benchmarks 


Benchmarks on a rubric guide students’ as they are learning how to perform that skill. For instance, benchmarks to follow as students are learning to analyze Martin L. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” might include:


  • Identify the audience for this speech.
  • Identify the main reason for this speech.
  • Identify the most important idea for this speech.
  • Identify five points Dr. King made.
  • Identify Dr. King’s feeling tone.


These marks help our students know what to look for, or the parts to identify in a text analysis. After several experiences with different texts, not only should our students be able to pick out the parts (e.g. audience, reason, idea, etc.) they are identifying, but also, they should be ready to transfer this know-how to future text analyses without our reminder. Note that we place the emphasis on the competency analysis and not on the specific text by King. The same emphasis applies when our students are learning to analyze a life cycle in science, a physical location in geography or an artist’s style.


  1. Set Up a Master Rubric for the Competency


With this step, we outline the steps which will guide students as they develop the competency.  For instance, we may create a rubric to show them how to analyze that critical thinking skill and how they can become more skillful of confident applying the skill no matter what material they are asked to analyze.


As with #2 above, we identify the benchmarks that will lead to assessing our targeted critical thinking skill as a desired outcome. Our goal is to provide multiple chances in a semester for students to develop proficiency with the skill. Proficiency grows confidence and competence in the skills transfer across our curriculum and into others as well.


Benchmarks for a deeper learning competency such as analysis will guide progress from introduction of the rubric through several formative assessments to the final assessment. For instance with analysis, the assessment will indicate “to what degree” the student can


  • Identify what are the parts of the analysis to consider when analyzing the text?
  • Draw a conclusion about the author’s meaning based on evidence provided in each part?.
  • Explain how each part contributes to the author’s feeling tone?
  • Explain why both meaning and feeling tone are important in a text analysis?
  • Construct a definition of “analysis” based on what it is important for a reader to consider.
  • Can provide examples of how to analyze a text?


  1. Schedule the times when students will assess the skill


This step is an easy entry on our semester pacing schedule. There are three-five stops on the path.


  • At the semester’s start, we allot 15-20 minutes to walk through our guiding rubric. Students read the rubric in pairs and form questions. We discuss the questions and check for understanding. Students are invited to store the rubric in their portfolios for quick access when close reading text.
  • Formative Assessments. We schedule assessment stops through the semester. We guide students to assess their critical thinking rubric with an emphasis on deciding what they need to do to improve.
  • Summative Assessment comes at the end of the year. After review of the rubric, we provide one or two texts that they will analyses.


  1. Open multiple feedback windows to promote self-assessment


 So that students are challenged to focus on the deeper learning competency we want them to develop, or which they may select in a personalized learning agreement, it is important that we break any bond they may have to “being graded” by the teacher. As a motivator of achievement, evidence tells us that grades are near the bottom of the effectiveness list. Feedback (Hattie) near the top.


From the first day of a semester, we want to students to high expectations. Included is our expectation they must learn to evaluate their own work. When we introduce them to the selected competency outcome with our rubric, we show them how they will use the rubric to weigh each of the benchmarks with our feedback and perhaps their peers’. Early in a semester we start assessment with our feedback and peer feedback. Later, we delay our feedback, so they can do their own self-assessment and then see what we have to say. Grades are kept out of any discussion so that students can focus on hearing their own voices.


  1. Enrich the new competency through reflection


By initiating a look back on what and how well they succeeded in developing the competency, you deepen their understanding of the skill and encourage its transfer by devoting one class period at the end of the semester to structure reflection.  This final reflection will help your students help your students tell the difference between means and ends, t value of self-assessment and become more meta-cognitive so they can transfer what they have learned about the target skill into in and out of school situations.


Competency and Confidence


When students walk out the door at a semester’s end, our aim is for each to be competent with the deeper learning skill we have targeted. As students develop the competence and confidence with these skills, we see the evidence in their performance. Their competence shows in their ability to transfer a skill such as analysis into increasingly difficult material. Their confidence shows in their willingness to self-select ever more rigorous situations in which to apply the skill.


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