[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text][dropcap]E[/dropcap]ducators concerned with the quality of learning and instruction have called for a greater focus on students’ thinking to inform instruction and have offered a variety of pathways for achieving that aim (Brookfield, 2017; Robertson, Scherr, & Hammer, 2015; Simkins & Maier, 2010; Weimer, 2013). These approaches acknowledge the need for teachers to understand students’ concepts and misconceptions as they are being formed
so that learning experiences can be tailored to support students’ continued concept and skill development. This kind of targeted teaching requires intentional instructional planning and design that grows out of the actual needs of students.
, the approach I describe here, provides access to students’ thinking before the class meets so that the instruction can be designed around their ideas and understandings. The close attention to students’ thinking shifts the focus of instruction from what we think
students know or find confusing to what they actually
do or don’t understand. It allows us to target our time in class to those identified, real-time needs so that our teaching is learner centered rather than teacher or curriculum centered.
What is responsive planning?
Responsive planning refers to the process of capturing students’ thinking about course content in advance of a class session and then using that feedback to guide what happens in class.
Responsive planning has the following characteristics:
- The careful design of instruction with learners’ thinking in mind, as in Weimer’s (2013) description of learner-centered teaching.
- The frequent gathering of data from students about their learning, as in Brookfield’s (2017) concept of critically responsive teaching.
- Flexible planning based on careful attention to students’ thinking, as in the literature on responsive teaching (Hammer, Goldberg, & Fargason, 2012; Robertson, Scherr, & Hammer, 2015).
- Elicitation of students’ ideas before class and use of those specific ideas to plan what will take place in the next class meeting, as in just-in-time teaching (Simkins & Maier, 2010).
My approach to responsive planning was inspired by Larson, Young, and Leipham (2011b) in a conference presentation on improving the quality of students’ reading and discussion of course texts. Over a period of several years, I adapted their work, developing a process to increase the likelihood that students would not only do their reading before class, but would think
about it, thus raising the quality of discussion in class. An unanticipated outcome of this process has been that I am able to engage in responsive planning and teach in a more learner-centered way. The process has two stages: eliciting students’ thinking before class and then using that information to guide the design of learning experiences. Because the assignment pertains to getting students to read the text, I solicit their thinking in written form. Student understanding of content could also be provided by answers to online quiz questions. The process could be adapted for use in online settings as well.
Eliciting students’ thinking before class
The course I teach is part of a graduate program leading to initial teacher certification, with the class meeting one evening a week. In the assignment, adapted from Larson, Young, and Leipham (2011a), students read assigned texts and make notes using organizing templates purposefully designed to elicit a variety of ideas and more complex thinking. They submit their notes 24 hours in advance of class; I read them and then use what I learn from the notes to guide my preparation for class. Discussion begins in small groups, where students use their notes as scaffolds, and then we move to whole-class discussion and other learning experiences. I have described the procedures and provided exemplar templates elsewhere (West, 2018).
Consistent with the findings of Larson et al. (2011a), this process has yielded all the intended outcomes: More students come to class prepared, students are reading more carefully, and the quality of discussions has improved notably. The result I had not predicted is that it has changed my teaching. Having access to students’ thinking about course content before class allows me to plan experiences that directly build on and challenge students’ ideas.
Responsive planning based on students’ thinking
Learning to plan in response to students’ thinking has helped me shift my focus from explaining what they got wrong on a test or other assessment to helping them refine concepts as they are being formed. Seeing students’ early thinking about an assigned text allows me to plan responsively in at least three ways: seeding the discussion with thought-provoking ideas, tailoring lectures, and designing other kinds of experiences that will promote deeper understanding.
- Seeding the discussion. As I read students’ notes, I am on the lookout for those gems of insight, perceptive questions, points of puzzlement, or even outright misunderstandings that will spark engaging and thought-provoking discussion and move us all toward deeper understanding. When I find one of these nuggets, I insert a brief comment to let the student know that I might mention it when we discuss the reading. I make a note for myself so that, if needed, I can prompt the student to bring up the idea. Additionally, I often take a question or idea posed in a student’s reading notes and prepare to display it for all the groups to discuss.
Making responsive planning work
- Tailoring lectures. What I learn from students’ reading notes allows me to use mini-lectures to clear up a muddy point, correct a misconception, fill a gap, or even to create a little cognitive dissonance and nudge students to question some assumption. Sometimes, however, a challenging idea or point of confusion arises in the notes of enough students that I know the small groups will talk about it without prompting. When this happens, I capitalize on the opportunity for students to learn from each other and instead tailor the lecture to get at other important ideas that the students may not have picked up on as they read.
- Designing in-class experiences. The thinking that is evident in students’ notes often suggests particular kinds of experiences or activities that would be beneficial. For example, in most class meetings, we view a five-minute video clip of some instructional strategy or dilemma playing out in a real elementary-grade classroom. Based on students’ reading notes, I have two or three video clips ready to view, and then, depending on how group discussions go, the students and I select the video that will best meet the needs of the class.
These three elements of responsive planning are all steps I can take in just a few extra minutes after I have read students’ notes and don’t require extra work. I would be designing activities for class anyway; responsive planning simply allows me to target that design to my students’ actual needs. My experience has taught me where students’ misconceptions occur most commonly, and I have built a bank of resources and activities that I continually refine and can quickly pull from as needed.
The same responsive planning process can be adapted to a variety of preparatory assignments. What matters is not the particular pre-class assignment, but rather how the instructor uses the information about students’ thinking. For large classes, the assignment might be an online quiz on the concepts to be taught. Drinkwater et al. (2014) used this strategy in undergraduate physics classes of 200 to 300 students. The students read assigned texts and took a brief online quiz 12 hours before class. A computer analysis provided common themes in student responses, and instructors used those themes to tailor lectures and plan active learning activities.
Several of the classroom assessment techniques developed by Angelo and Cross (1993) could be adapted for use in responsive planning. Using the technique called “muddiest point,” for instance, one might simply ask students to identify their greatest areas of confusion and submit it several hours before class. The professor could then use those areas of confusion in the final stages of planning for class, seeding discussion, tailoring lectures, and designing other learning experiences.
According to Weimer (2013), learner-centered teaching is less scripted than more traditional teaching, and this uncertainty sometimes makes us faculty members nervous. Planning responsively from students’ pre-class submissions helps to address some of that uncertainty. An instructor with some insight into what students are thinking has the opportunity to reflect on their ideas, assumptions, questions, and misconceptions and to plan for class in ways that best support and challenge those students. Attempting to place students’ thinking at the center of our teaching is not new. Responsive planning offers a way to design instruction that is driven not only by the instructor’s professional knowledge and experience, but also by real-time data about how particular students are making meaning about course content.
Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers
(2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher
(2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Drinkwater, M. J. Gannaway, D., Sheppard, K., Davis, M. J., Wegener, M. J., Bowen, W. P., & Corney, J. F. (2014). Managing Active learning processes in large first year physics classes: The advantages of an integrated approach. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 2
Hammer, D., Goldberg, F., & Fargason, S. (2012). Responsive teaching and the beginnings of energy in a third-grade classroom. Review of Science, Mathematics, and ICT Education, 6,
Larson, J., Young, A. I., & Leipham, M. B. (2011a). Reading to learn: Engaging university students in meaningful reading and discussion.” Teaching Journalism and Mass Communication, 1
Larson, J., Young, A. & Leipham, M.B. (2011b, October). Reading to learn: If students won't read, how can they learn? Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL), Milwaukee, WI.
Robertson, A.D., Scherr, R., & Hammer, D. (Eds.) (2015). Responsive teaching in science and mathematics
. New York: Routledge.
Simkins, S., & Maier, M. (Eds.). (2010). Just-in-time teaching: Across the disciplines, across the academy
. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice
(2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
West, J. (2018). Raising the quality of discussion by scaffolding students’ reading. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30
Jane West, PhD, is an associate professor of education at the Tift College of Education, Mercer University (Atlanta).
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