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October 6, 2022
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Reaching Your Destination with Midcourse Corrections

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If learning is headed in the wrong direction, educators must be willing to pivot and adjust the plan—even in the middle of a unit.

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Instructional StrategiesCurriculum
Reaching Your Destination with Mid-Course Corrections
Credit: eamesBot / Shutterstock
As teachers, we all have moments when we realize that the planned lesson is not going as we hoped. Students might have misconceptions, or our formative assessment reveals that students haven’t gotten the basic level of understanding needed to move on to higher concepts. In these cases, teachers must make a midcourse correction.
The term midcourse correction was coined in the late 1950s to describe the navigational corrections made by a ship or a spacecraft during a journey to ensure it makes it to its destination. For these midcourse corrections to be effective, the crew needs to have a plan for getting to where it is going and know that corrections might be necessary. Likewise, in education, a teacher must also have ways to check that the students are still headed in the right direction and plan for possible obstacles that might arise. If the learning heads off course, then the teacher must be willing to adjust the plan, even in the middle of a lesson.
Novice teachers may assume that it takes years to build up the knowledge and experience to implement a midcourse correction, but it is possible for teachers of all levels to employ this essential component of student learning. All teachers have experienced moments when student responses are poor or too simple, when student engagement is low, or when student discussions are off-topic.
By following these four steps, a teacher can identify when learning is drifting off course and begin to effectively steer it back.

Step 1: Identify your destination with clear learning targets and appropriate assessments.

Success in any lesson is dependent upon the answer to the question, “What is your goal?” Lack of a goal or lack of clarity around that goal is often the reason a lesson doesn’t work. As Rick Stiggins so aptly points out, “Students can hit any target that they know about and that holds still for them” (2007, p.1).
But just knowing or articulating a goal is not enough. A teacher should also know what it will look like when students achieve that goal. One way to do this is to use the backward design method introduced by Wiggins and McTighe (1998) when creating a unit. This kind of planning template forces teachers to clearly state their desired outcomes before planning any logistics of the actual lesson.
For example, I once asked a teacher about the learning goals she hoped her students would achieve by making planet models out of Styrofoam balls in science class. Her response was “We are learning about the planets,” and, “The kids just love it.” I recommended she first consider, What is it the students are expected to learn and understand about the planets by the end of the unit?
Using state standards, teachers can create a list of the major concepts in each unit. Then they can break those down into a list of learning targets that can be translated into essential questions for students. Depending on the standards in your state, an example of enduring concepts students learn about planets in a 4th grade science classroom could be:
  1. All of the planets have characteristics that classify them as planets, and they also contain a variety of differing characteristics.
  2. The Earth belongs to a complex system containing other celestial objects.
Now that we know the destination, we need to determine how students will show that they understand and have learned these essential concepts. This begins by determining how we will assess students. An effective assessment plan should have variety, such as performance assessments, written responses, reflection, and selected response.
Styrofoam balls tell the teacher very little about what students do or don’t understand about the characteristics of the planets or their classification. A better performance assessment might be to have students write fictional stories or a comic strip about space travel, where the main character visits different planets and encounters different obstacles based on the planets' characteristics.
Next, decide what proficiency will look like. Students need to see and understand expectations of proficiency ahead of time so they can also gauge their misconceptions and learning needs. In The New Art and Science of Teaching (2017), Marzano suggests providing scales and rubrics to students before a lesson, to communicate clear learning goals. In my classroom, I would complete the assignment myself and/or create models. Although this takes time, it helps me visualize my expectations for proficiency and foresee struggles the students might encounter while doing the project. 

Step 2: Plan your route by creating a learning progression.

Just as there are multiple paths to learning, there are also multiple paths to teaching. The next step in planning is to outline the learning progression, which involves deciding what learning experiences will help students show mastery on the assessments you have created. It also means carefully constructing a sequence of engaging and purposeful learning experiences.
One way to start planning the learning progression is to break your unit down into learning targets that build upon one another to help students master bigger concepts. For example, when planning the learning progression for a 4th grade unit on planetary science, a teacher should list the essential skills students need to know, such as memorizing the planets in order from the sun. This is necessary to later understand the classification of each planet.

Just as there are multiple paths to learning, there are also multiple paths to teaching.

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When making an assessment plan, we also need to be cognizant of how much time is worth spending on a given learning target. Starting the unit with a song, rhyme, or pneumonic device to learn the order of the planets—versus building a model—will suffice for memorizing the planets' order. These activities are engaging and will get students excited about learning more.
Next students might learn about planetary systems and other celestial objects, starting with the bigger celestial objects and then focusing on specific planets toward the end. This learning target is more complex and will require more time and authentic learning experiences that will support students as they dig deeper into learning the target. The learning progression is an essential part of planning because it creates a blueprint that ensures learning experiences are appropriately sequenced.

Step 3: Check your course with formative assessments.

After making the learning progression, it’s time to plan for midcourse corrections. To do this, look for places where school-based or district-created assessments already exist and identify the learning targets that correspond to them. One alternative but helpful way to identify where the class is in relation to the learning target is through questioning, which can occur in a whole group or individually and orally or on paper. As a teacher, I would create a set of essential questions (and their responses) that would determine students’ understanding, as well as follow-up questions to steer them toward more complete answers. Other quick formative strategies during instruction include thumbs-up, white board responses, or graphic organizers.

Step 4: Correct the course by anticipating pitfalls.

Now that the teaching plan is in place, it is time to prepare for making midcourse corrections. Many expert teachers do this without much intentional planning, but purposeful planning ensures that the correction will be the best path for students when they get stuck.
There are many strategies to use, and you must determine which one will work for students and/or the material being taught. Determining which strategy to use depends upon what instructional method or strategy you used to teach the concept the first time, as well as the results of the formative assessment. For example, one learning target for the 4th grade class might be for students to classify the planets as terrestrial, gas giants, ice giants, or dwarf planets. After a planned center activity, the teacher gives a six-question selected response formative assessment on the big ideas related to the planet characteristics.
The teacher can also, if appropriate, code the answer choices to indicate specific misconceptions. For example, if most students missed Question 1 and the most chosen wrong answer is “B,” that would indicate to the teacher that the students do not understand the difference between terrestrial planets and gas planets. The teacher could then choose one of the following strategies to correct the misconception and steer students back on course:
  • Change the instructional mode: A lecture with visuals can aid understanding and allow students to ask questions in real time. If something didn’t work in whole-group instruction, try small groups or pairs so students can work together.
  • Provide additional models: When teachers model a skill or demonstrate how to think through a piece of text, especially new content, students can see what is expected of them. If students are confused during the formative assessment, you should not automatically try another instructional strategy because it is possible the students just need more modeling. For some students, the first round of modeling and demonstration might not make sense until they have had a chance to try it themselves. In this case, a second chance to see the model is helpful.
  • Chunk the learning into smaller pieces: Sometimes there is just too much information to take in at once or too many steps in a process. Try breaking the lesson or activity into smaller sections or steps that are done one at a time.
  • Provide scaffolds: Another good way to prepare for a midcourse correction is to prepare scaffolds for the parts of a lesson you anticipate students will struggle with. A few ways to scaffold a lesson quickly are to activate prior knowledge, spotlight and have students repeat difficult vocabulary in a text, or give discussion time with strategies like Think-Pair-Share and Turn and Talks. Other types of scaffolds include providing frames for writing, adding visual aids, and providing extended practice time.
  • Make time for student reflection: Student reflection should be present in every classroom. Once students can reflect well on their learning, they can give feedback and correct their own misunderstandings. Students need to know at exactly what point they stopped understanding. If a teacher realizes students are not understanding the lesson but can’t pinpoint why, stopping to allow for reflection is a valuable correction strategy.

Reaching the Destination

Midcourse corrections require front-end planning, but they ensure that all students can apply enduring understanding to core content. The following checklist (download the PDF) helps educators prepare for those crucial pivot points. The sooner we correct the course, the less we will have to do later to make it to our destination.
Meredith Toth 1022 Table
References

Marzano, Robert J. (2017). New art and science of teaching: More than fifty new instructional strategies for academic success. Solution Tree. 

Stiggins, R. J. (2007). Introduction to student-involved assessment FOR learning (5th ed.). Pearson Prentice Hall.

Wiggins, Grant P., & McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by Design. ASCD.

Meredith Wendel is the literacy coach at William Henry Middle School in Dover, Delaware and was previously a public school teacher and instructional coach in Boston and Nashville, Tennessee. She earned an Ed.D. in Assessment, Learning and School Improvement from Middle Tennessee State University.

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