The Student-Centered Learning Cycle

Learn about the student-centered learning cycle
Contributed By

Kellie Ady

Director of Instructional Strategy, Schoology

The Student-Centered Learning Cycle

Posted in Pro Tips | March 28, 2019

Many organizations are driven by the pursuit of continuous improvement. Whether in a business context, the healthcare industry, or in the educational arena, the drive to get better permeates most goals, strategies, and outcomes. To help frame the process and the resulting steps, organizations often rely on models or cycles to guide that work.

History of Plan, Do, Study, Act

One well-known cycle of continuous improvement is one that comes from the basic tenets of the Scientific Method. Reframed in the mid-20th century for the manufacturing industry, it emerged in the 1950’s as “Plan-Do-Study-Act” or PDSA. Also referred to as the Deming Cycle, it identifies a process that moves through various steps in planning how to tackle a problem, doing or putting that plan into action, studying the effects of that plan, and acting on the results. Organizations in other industries outside of manufacturing saw the value in this approach, including the healthcare industry where it has been used by the Institute for Health for decades.

When thinking about how this relates to the instructional process, though, it isn’t difficult to see how this applies to our own educational processes of planning for quality instruction. But like any other framework or model, it’s helpful to customize the approach and the language for our own purposes.

Schoology's Student-Centered Learning Model (PEMA)

The PDSA model of “Plan, Do, Study, Act” is a great start for helping us think about how we might approach continuous improvement in the area of learning. However, because we want to put students at the center of the process, we need to think a tad differently about how we understand the different stages.

But this is not simply a change in the terms. While the Student-Centered Learning Model does update each stage in the cycle to “Plan, Engage, Monitor, Adjust,” it’s important to recognize that this is a fundamental shift in how the cycle translates to teaching and learning. Below are key questions that help us rethink the model as a student-centered process.

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Districts using the PLC model will recognize 3 of the core questions pictured above as questions around which PLCs structure their work: what do we want students to know? How do we know if they’ve learned it? What do we do if they haven’t (or have)? But another critical question needs to be part of the conversation: how do we ensure the best learning possible for all through pedagogy, content, and technology?

Based on these questions, we can start to build out the stages in the Student-Centered Learning Cycle. Each stage includes the key questions and guidance on answering them. 

Plan

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In the first part of the cycle, the Plan phase, teachers and students explore what the instructional goals are—and what standards will be addressed. Also in this phase would be consideration about how success or achievement will be measured and defined. With a learning management system that facilitates easy collaboration, this is also the phase where a grade level team or PLC would work together to plan courses, units, or lessons that students would access in the next phase of the cycle.

Engage

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Identified as the “Do” phase in the PDSA model, this phase is not only “do” what was planned earlier, but this stage really is about what the teaching and learning looks like when it’s put into practice after planning. This stage is about the learner or student going through the units or lessons in the best way possible, but it’s also about the teacher engaging in the ongoing work of providing the best learning environment and learning opportunities possible.

What tools will students be using to get the most out of the activity? What types of feedback opportunities will be provided? How will students be learning? Collaborative groups? Independent learning? Stations? Self-paced and blended? And as the learner moves through the different content, activities, and engaging tools that support the learning goals, the teacher is already facilitating the next part of the cycle.

Monitor

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In the PDSA cycle, this phase was called “study,” but for educational purposes, it may be more apt to look at this as “monitor.” The term “study” means a host of different things, but the important concept for this phase is having the best evidence to make inferences about student learning. Also, the teacher isn’t the only one reviewing student progress, so this involves multiple people who all have a targeted concern and will “monitor” what is happening.

In addition to the teacher or the PLC, the parent should have access to an understanding of student progress, as should any other adult who may be there to fully support the student in pursuit of learning goals. That might include someone who is an interventionist, perhaps a mentor or counselor, or even a coach. But the person who must be able to monitor in this stage is the student him or herself. In a student-centered learning model, the student’s involvement in these phases is critical.

The monitoring stage of the cycle likely overlaps with teaching and learning as the activities that students engage with will provide much of the data that is used to progress-monitor.

Adjust

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The heart of the Student-Centered Cycle is really this part of the cycle. This is where students and teachers make instructional decisions based on the evidence gathered in the previous phase. In the PLC model, this is where educators answer the question of “what do we do if they haven’t learned? What do we do if they have?” It is where learning materials, approaches and pacing are adjusted.

But another vital part of this equation is the student. The student, in having a clear picture of their own progress, should also be thinking about what is next. In collaboration with the teacher, this might look like engaging again with activities to either cement learning or to address something that may have been missed.

Perhaps by using another set of resources or assessments, this is where teachers try to ensure that students have reached whatever levels of achievement were identified in the Plan stage. And if they have reached the goals already set, this is when educators address what comes next in the learning. The cycle, then, begins again for new concepts or units.

Where to Start with Schoology's PEMA Model

Ultimately, this type of cycle can be extended to other contexts in learning—whether that’s designing professional learning opportunities, designing quality assessments, creating and curating curricular materials, and working to engage our larger community.

For those who are thinking about curricular planning, for example, this model can be immediately put into place to address the various phases that are designed to support continuous improvement for teaching and learning. PLCs, grade level teams, and central office staff can start now by putting something into a defined practice that is intentional and focused on student-centered learning.

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