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Education

Learning at your own pace

MPCHS students see improved grades in self-paced learning environments
May 01, 2018
Photo by: Grace King Students in Lutovsky’s Chemistry classroom got right to work when the bell rang, heading to lab tables to finish experiments or working on homework at their desks.

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News

 

Mt. Pleasant Community High School chemistry teacher Robin Lutovsky started her second-period class just like any other period, reminding students that MAP testing will commence later this week and asking if anyone had questions about the upcoming Chemistry exam.

As soon as she finished speaking, however, students dispersed to lab tables or sat focused at their desks. In Lutovsky’s chemistry class, students learn at their own pace and are responsible for making sure they understand the material before taking the next assessment test and moving on to the next chapter.

Lutovsky calls this competency-based learning, where students have to demonstrate understanding before moving on. While Lutovsky is always present in the classroom, she hardly stands at the front of the room and teaches all of her students at once. Instead, she roams, watching to see when students need help or are ready to move on to the next lesson.

“When (students are) ready for a discussion, they come to me and say I need you to teach me about this. Then we talk about it,” Lutovsky said. “It’s really a conversation with a student, maybe three students, but it’s a really effective discussion because it goes both ways.”

At this time, Lutovsky can feel out whether a student understood the material and ensure they are ready to move on to the next lesson instead of pushing them to all learn at the same pace whether they understand the concept or not. In a chemistry class where all the concepts build on each other, this competency-based learning is especially effective because it makes sure no student is left behind.

Students in Lutovsky’s classroom, while they appreciate the self-paced learning environment, say it’s easy to fall behind.

Sydney Doak said that in the self-paced classroom, she has to be more disciplined and stay on top of the work. “ (Lutovsky) puts a lot of trust in us to do our part,” Doak said.

Jacob Simmons said the self-paced environment works well for him in chemistry, but would be difficult for him if it were an English or history class.

Zach Venghaus agrees, saying that the class is perfectly structured for learning chemistry.

While this is Lutovsky’s third year of structuring her classroom this way, math teachers Brent Broecker and Curtis Bjork are finishing up their first year of self-paced learning in their Algebra II classrooms.

Broecker and Bjork began the school year in September with all Algebra II students starting in the self-paced learning environment. After learning two sections of Algebra II material this way, students were given a choice to stick with self-paced learning or return to the traditional classroom setting for the remainder of the year.

While Bjork admits they’re still in the trial and error stages in the self-paged Algebra II classroom, he has seen the majority of his students respond positively to the flip. Students are able to watch lecture videos the teachers post online and then bring questions back to the classroom, which teachers can answer as students work on their practice questions.

Instead of ending each unit with an exam, the three teachers set “soft deadlines” for their students, giving them a span of a week during which they can take an exam. If they still feel unprepared for the exam at the time, they will receive a “missing” grade; however, Bjork said this is just to communicate to students that they are a little behind. Once they take the exam, there is no penalty for it being late.

“It’s more of ‘Hey, you’re not where pace is,’” Bjork said. “It’s a double-edged sword because we want to give them time to understand, but we need to keep going too.”

That’s why students can spend up to two years in Algebra II. If students fall behind in a traditional classroom setting, they could fail the class. But in the self-paced classroom setting, students can either choose summer school to finish the class or enroll in the same class for a second year and start where they left off.

“I was really hesitant, but after looking back on years of teaching math here, the kids that struggle … would fail the class and it might have been just because of one unit,” Broecker said. “What made me go for this is that it allowed those kids to slow down instead of just failing that one chapter and retaking the whole semester, understand that one session they didn’t do well on, and instead of getting an ‘F,’ they got the credit they deserved.”

Not only does this self-paced learning help students better understand the material, all three teachers say they are able to meet students where they are instead of rushing the class to finish a lesson.

As Samantha Crawford sat in her Algebra II class with her laptop open to Bjork’s lecture video she said she loves the self-paced class structure. Crawford said she is able to get ahead in Algebra II and sometimes uses the class as a study hall. Without good work ethic, however, she said it would be easy to get behind.

“(Bjork) does have goals and deadlines,” Crawford added, saying that keeps her on track.

Tyler Fitzpatrick agrees that the class gives him more freedom to work at his own pace and is beneficial because he is able to work on getting a better grade instead of rushing through each lesson. In fact, Fitzpatrick said his test grades in math have improved this year.

Johnna Eads’ test grades have improved too. Instead of getting “B’s,” Eads ended first semester with an “A” in Algebra II.

Lutovsky said that in a traditional classroom of 25 students, there are two or three students who are doing all the talking every day while the other students sit there passively. Now in her competency-based classroom, she gets to have a one-on-one conversation with each student every day. While she said they don’t chitchat about “non-chemistry stuff” for long amounts of time, the 30 seconds of personal dialogue is “so important” for Lutovsky to connect with her students.

“The student-teacher relationship is so much better now than before,” Lutovsky said. “As a teacher, if you know a few of the things a student is involved in (outside of the classroom), you can really get them to open up.”

Bjork has felt this too. In a trial run of the self-paced classroom last year, while talking individually with students he found out one of them was suicidal.

“I never would have known that if I was teaching traditionally,” Bjork said. “Even in the self-paced class the teacher-student relationship is the biggest factor. That has not changed.”

This more personal relationship with students is also a factor in students’ improving grades. Lutovsky said that they have a desire to perform well and don’t want to disappoint.

The self-paced and competency-based classroom setting still is working out the kinks, however. One of Lutovsky’s biggest frustrations right now is that with students having the option of carrying over the chemistry class into another semester, it’s been difficult to get more of them to finish in just one year.

“I don’t know how to do it,” Lutovsky admitted. “I think more kids will get the message, ‘OK, I have to do some work. I’m not getting credit until I do the work.’”

Lutovsky said students will have to come to grips with the fact that chemistry isn’t necessarily easy and the lessons will take time. “You do have to do work every night to stay on pace. They have to wrestle with the material.”

While chemistry and Algebra II are the only classes at Mt. Pleasant Community High School to embrace the self-paced learning so far, Lutovsky said that she believes the practice is becoming more prevalent, with more schools on the east coast embracing individualized learning.

Principal Todd Leichty also hopes other classrooms adopt this model of learning, saying that he has gotten feedback from former students who said that it helped them prepare for college because they had to “focus on the learning rather than playing the school game” of working toward the highest grade they can achieve.

“It takes it from a chase for a grade to ‘Now I have to learn this and if I demonstrate that I can learn it, I can get a pretty good grade,’” Leichty said.

While the principal has received feedback from parents in the community concerned that the self-paced classroom is an excuse for teachers not to teach, Leichty sees teachers in these classrooms working harder than ever to help students learn.

With each student potentially on a different lesson each day, teachers have to be ready to answer questions regarding whatever students are learning. “Those guys have to be up and down their content,” Leichty said.

“It’s a heck of a lot more work on my end,” Lutovsky confirmed. “But I don’t think I could ever go back (to a traditional classroom) because of the benefits. What you see on a daily basis is amazing.”

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