Accelerate Learning by Building on Student Assets

Explore 12 ways to design learning that empower students by building on their assets.

Grades K-12 15 min Resource by:

The benefits of focusing on assets rather than deficits are profound. When students equate themselves with their deficits and failures, they can easily feel defeated. This can lead to disengagement from school, a disinterest in learning, and a loss of self-esteem. On the other hand, when students recognize their talents and are encouraged to use them successfully, they thrive and develop feelings of pride and self-confidence as well as a desire to learn more. This increased passion and motivation for learning is a key component in accelerating learning. By helping students find success in their areas of talent and giftedness, you can empower them to thrive both now and in the future.

Therefore, as you work with your students following a year of disrupted learning, it’s important to not let your lessons become all about filling gaps and deficits. While students will need to master key prerequisite skills in order to be successful in new learning, students shouldn’t be limited to rote worksheets or repetitive skill-building learning modules. These activities have their place, but they must be used judiciously. If students never get past basic skill building, they will never get a chance to flourish at high levels in the areas where they have the most talent. Limiting students in this way is an injustice and a waste of valuable student assets. All students have strengths and deserve opportunities to thrive.

12 Ways to Build on Student Assets

Even when every student must work on the same standard or learning target, consider opportunities to offer voice and choice within the context of the required learning. Can students choose their own topic? Can they choose how they will practice or apply a new concept of learning? Can they choose how they will demonstrate their learning? By offering opportunities for choice, students can tap into their areas of personal interest and talent, and this offers them a chance to excel within the parameters of other core learning.

Whenever possible, allow students to draw upon their personal and lived experiences and to apply those experiences to their learning. This means providing them with enough voice and choice so that they have opportunities to make personal connections. For example, you could allow students to select a novel or short story of their choice, which gives them opportunities to connect more personally to the protagonist, the conflict, or the situation. You could provide a structure that allows each student to tell their story in the context of the new learning. You could design learning where students can connect projects or demonstrations of learning with their personal stories, backgrounds, and contexts. However you approach it, the more that students are empowered to bring in their personal and cultural experiences, the more that they will be able to connect meaningfully with the learning.

Differentiated pathways can be offered at various points in the learning journey. Since not all students learn the same way, you should offer different learning options throughout a lesson or unit. Perhaps you can offer both a text-based and a video version of the information. Maybe students can choose to practice alone, with a partner, or in a group. Can you offer different options for demonstrating the learning that’s taken place? If a student suffers from test anxiety, maybe they can explain what they know in a conversation. If a student doesn’t write well, perhaps they can record an audio response. The more flexibility that you can provide along the way, the more likely that students will be able to play to their strengths and be successful.

Project-based learning (PBL) is, in many ways, the pinnacle of voice and choice. It also makes learning authentic and relevant for the learners and allows them to leverage their personal strengths during the process of achieving their project goal. Because of the open-ended nature of the project, students have great flexibility to make it their own, connect to personal interests, and show off their talents. For instance, a musically gifted student might be able to share what they’ve learned through song, or someone who is verbally gifted might be able to listen to the ideas of the group and put their collective ideas into a concise and meaningful narrative. While group members focus on the prescribed standards, they are able to integrate their talents, interests, and experiences into the process.

Much like project-based learning, inquiry learning allows students voice and choice in their learning experience. Through opportunities to generate and find answers to their own questions and wonderings, students can connect personally and meaningfully to both the content and the process. Because there is no single set way to get to the answer, students can play to their strengths in designing a plan for success. This can be both empowering and enriching.

When multiple content areas are woven together into one project, the odds are increased that students will find an area of strength embedded into the learning experience. This approach also tends to increase the authenticity and meaningfulness of the learning. The interdisciplinary nature of the learning experience offers context and connection among the various academic areas, providing insights into how all learning is connected. For instance, when students study literature in combination with history, they are better able to understand contexts and connections between what is written and how it connects to the world at that time. These connections are not possible while studying literature in isolation. Similarly, when social studies topics are embedded into reading practice in early grades, students practice reading for meaning and with an academic purpose. This gives the act of reading a new degree of intent and purpose. Interdisciplinary units or lessons can also be combined with other approaches, like project-based or inquiry learning.

Not every standard is equally essential to future learning, and you won’t have time to reteach lessons from last year, address all the new grade-level standards, and also offer enrichment opportunities. Therefore, focus on the priority, prerequisite standards first. Then, when students have mastered these core foundational concepts, challenge them to go further. In order to provide just-in-time enrichment at the moment of need, develop a list of enrichment activities and challenges that you can pull out at a moment’s notice. Since time is limited, you probably won’t have time to develop these resources in the middle of a lesson. However, if you have them prepared and ready ahead of time, you’ll be able to quickly pull them out when you need them. As you develop these enrichments, make sure that they are flexible enough to allow students to integrate their talents and strengths into the new learning.

If you use station rotation in your classroom, make one stop in each rotation an enrichment station. Since this station is required for everyone, it will guarantee that students have a chance to experience enrichment, and this is important. Every student deserves this opportunity. Too often, struggling students never get to experience the thrill of an extension or enrichment. Depriving them of this opportunity can lead to disengagement from learning.

Playlists are checklists and progressions of learning tasks. Ideally, they are customized to your learners and offer voice and choice. If you use playlists in your classroom, include enrichment opportunities in every learning sequence. At least once in each playlist, include an activity or challenge that pushes every student beyond the basics of the skill or concept you are studying. Like with the station-rotation option, this will guarantee that every student has an enrichment opportunity.

Genius Hour is an opportunity to pursue personal interests and passions. In fact, it’s sometimes called a passion project instead of Genius Hour. The idea is to set aside time dedicated to the personal pursuit of a passion. Students set their own goals for this time, and then develop a pathway toward achieving those goals. You may need to provide scaffolds and structures to help students be successful, but ultimately, they should have considerable freedom within the scope of the project to follow their passions.

A makerspace is just like it sounds: a space where students can make things. It’s a playground of making with very few rules or parameters. Oftentimes, makerspaces can be found in common areas of the school, like a library media center, and students can walk up and explore when they have some open time. Similarly, you can create this type of space within your own classroom. It could be housed in an extra cabinet that you have in the back of the room, or it might even be a collection of digital resources that you organize within your class learning management system. However this space is designed, it usually contains the tools necessary to create something. You might also include a few scaffolds, like a set of basic and/or advanced directions. Since an authentic audience is both motivating and gratifying, consider how students can demonstrate their creations and share them with others.

Creation involves complex, higher-order thinking and is a very authentic means to enrichment. It also allows students to draw upon their talents and interests to create something that is personally meaningful. While a makerspace might be one answer to facilitating student creation, it may not be enough by itself. If students never get an opportunity to visit the makerspace, it will not provide them with an opportunity for enrichment. However, if you can embed creation into core class learning, all students will get the chance to create. This provides a more equitable approach to student creation and enrichment. Consider whether students can be allowed to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. If they can, this is often the perfect opportunity for every student to create.

Flip the Script

Ultimately, you will want your students to define themselves by their strengths and successes, not their weaknesses and failures. If they focus on their assets, they will say, “I am proficient at two languages,” rather than “English is my second language.” They will say, “I’m excellent at verbally communicating my ideas,” rather than “I’m a terrible writer.” Instead of “I can’t do it alone,” they will say, “I’m a great team member.” They will flip “I didn’t learn much last year” into “I’m making so much progress this year.”

Every student brings unique talents and experiences to your classroom. To accelerate learning, allow them to build on their assets and maximize their strengths. An asset-based mindset and focus will increase opportunities for confidence building, growth, and success. Finally, always make time to celebrate those successes!

An AVID Connection

Expectations, Equity, and Excellence: This resource highlights Dr. Pedro Noguera’s research, which focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions, as well as demographic trends in local, regional, and global contexts. Using his own research and that of the University of Chicago, which identified five proven components of school-improvement efforts, Dr. Noguera developed 10 practices to promote achievement for all students.

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