Sometimes, in our efforts to teach students a great deal of information in a short period of time, we overlook the importance of teaching them about the learning process itself.
In doing so, we miss out on an opportunity to enhance learning: while exams help us determine how well a student has mastered a topic, they don’t offer much insight into how the student reached that particular level of comprehension, which is essential knowledge if we want our students to become better learners.
That’s where visible learning comes in. Making the learning process more visible means uncovering the steps—or missteps—a student took to reach a certain level of knowledge. It also places learning into the hands of students themselves, so they can witness their own process and cultivate self-improvement strategies that support lifelong learning.
The good news is, we don’t have to create an extra set of lessons to teach students about the learning process—we can simply hand them the tools to take a look for themselves.
Here are a few techniques to create a visible learning environment in your classroom:
01. Create a learner identity with a personal page
Do your students see themselves as more than students—as learners with an identity of their own, with a sense of direction and ownership over their education? Encouraging students to form a “learner identity” will help them fuse the notion of lifelong learning with their current studies, and to see themselves as active participants in a process that extends beyond a single unit, class, or school year.
The best way to create a learner identity is, of course, to visualize it. Try drawing inspiration from blog-style personal pages and personal brand design. Students can display the following information:
- What topics they know about already
- Which topics they want to learn more about
- What learning goals they have
Get started with a Personal Learner template like this one, which students can customize to reflect their own learning background and goals.
02. Display background knowledge with an infographic
Having students present their existing knowledge of a topic before you help them build upon it will serve learning in the long run.
Sometimes students know more about a topic than they think, and it’s important for them to dust off that foundation before moving forward so they know which questions they want answered. It’s also important for you to assess what level students are at so you can build your course accordingly.
Draw inspiration from an infographic like this Chicago City Guide, where students can present the facts they already know about a topic.
03. Celebrate learning goals with a poster
Why should celebrations always come at the end? One way to make the learning process more enjoyable is to make goal-setting fun and festive, which will then motivate students to see those goals through.
Have students create posters at the start of the term or unit which celebrate the learning to come.
Involve yourself in the celebration, too: you can create a teacher’s poster showing what you hope your students will learn, and students can brainstorm and display their own list of topics they’re excited about.
04. Organize learning with a personal schedule
Make learning goals that much more visible with a schedule or planner that students design themselves. Oftentimes it’s a challenge to find a planner in a bookstore that accurately follows the school year or leaves enough room for writing down assignments, notes, and the like.
As students begin to learn new material, have them record it in a fun, creative way—for instance, by using a flash card or graphic organizer tool. They could even take notes this way if it makes the process more exciting for them than using pencil and paper.
It’s a good idea to record basic concepts this way first, to get a general overview, before diving into more detail. Doing so will help students mentally organize the information, which facilitates learning and memory in the brain.
Have students try out an Illustrated Informational Graphic Organizer like the one below, which allows them to create a visual record of their learning.
06. Engage in deeper learning with worksheets and reports
After students have a handle on the basics, you’ll want to assign projects and tasks that encourage them to examine topics more in depth. You’ll go into greater detail in lectures, and students will do assigned readings and projects to supplement your instruction.
Since deeper learning often requires a lot of reading, it’s a good idea to provide students with mental relief in the form of creative tasks. Have students create their own worksheets, quizzes, and reports so that they are forced to learn the material more thoroughly but are also exercising their creativity in the process.
Students can create and complete a worksheet like this Orange and Gray Patterned Writing Prompt Worksheet, which lets them engage in deeper learning while having fun with design.
07. Create photo collages of learning in action
Today’s students are very visual, posting daily photos of themselves and their activities on social media. It’s only sensible to meet them halfway and encourage this kind of visual record-keeping in the classroom as well.
Have students create photo collages that capture “learning in action.” Students can take photos of themselves or each other, but the idea is to make the learning process more visual. This will get them thinking about what learning “looks like,” from raising hands and working in groups to gathering data for a project outside the classroom or studying at home.
08. Boost retention with memory aids
Educational psychologists have known for a long time that if you learn something in multiple ways—verbally, kinesthetically, visually, etc—you’ll remember it better.
There are also several studies that suggest we are all visual learners to some extent. This means we should be encouraging students to use visual graphics to supplement learning as often as possible.
Students will remember concepts better if they have a visual association or cue for them, so use visual forms of instruction and urge them to create visual forms of learning on a regular basis.
Get started with a template in the style of this Yellow and Black Global Warming Animal Agriculture Awareness Poster, which helps students remember facts they’ve read or heard since they have a visual memory aid to draw on too.
09. Motivate and collaborate with encouragement cards
Studying for exams can be stressful, but sometimes all students need is a reminder that they’re not in it alone. One way to help students stay motivated and to build collaboration among classmates is to have students design and send each other encouragement cards as Exam Day draws nearer.
There’s nothing like a little boost from your peer to say, “I’m in the same boat, and we’ve got this!”
10. Let students design their own quizzes
Weekly quizzes are great for boosting retention, but students tend to dread tests of any kind. What if we let them design their own?
Choose a week and have students use Canva to design their own quizzes. The next week, shuffle up the quizzes and return them to different students. Not only will this be a great exercise in creativity, but it will also help students anticipate what kinds of questions you might ask on the real exam.
You can use a template like the Violet Header Math Games Worksheet for inspiration.
11. Summarize learning with a newsletter
This one could be a lot of fun. Instead of holding traditional review sessions where you summarize concepts and answer questions, have students create weekly “Learning Newsletters” to help them review what they’ve learned.
Research shows that regular recall of new information (i.e. weekly) supports long term memory better than one-off review sessions before exams. If different students are learning about different topics in a unit or approaching their learning in different ways, have them sign up for each other’s newsletters and give feedback on format and content.
Try a template like this Simple Black and White Typewriter Photo Newsletter, which illustrates how a Learning Newsletter might look. Just replace “Creative Picks” with “Learning Picks” and you’re on your way.
12. Demonstrate mastery with an upgraded infographic or presentation
Once students have had a chance to process the new material, ask them to demonstrate it. Be sure to emphasize that this part of the learning process is not a test; it’s actually a way to help them retain what they’ve learned, as “learning by doing” strengthens memory for new concepts.
It will also help them compare what they know about the topic now with what they knew before instruction began. Save copies of the original and updated infographics to document improvements in learning.
Use a graphic like this Protecting Wildlife Presentation, which lets students sum up their learning in a fun, visual way.
13. Assess the learning process with a flow chart
The next step—and a very important one—is for students to assess how well their learning strategy worked.
If students managed to achieve large learning gains, which parts of the process contributed most to these? If they didn’t improve much overall, could this be attributed to weak points in the process? Ask students to visualize the following in a flow chart:
- How they learned the topic (reading, listening, presenting, using Canva, etc.)
- How long they spent learning the topic in class
- How often they studied the topic on their own
- How well they learned the topic (scores on exam and projects)
Help students create a graphic that illustrates their process, like the Design Process graphic below, so they can see where to make adjustments in their next learning endeavor.
14. Recognize mastery with a learning certificate
Learning certificates aren’t just “gold stars” to make students feel special; they’re tangible records of a student’s educational achievements over time.
At the end of a unit, you might even let students create their own certificates, which is another chance for them to highlight and summarize main concepts and articulate the scope of their knowledge. And it doesn’t hurt to feel a little special from time to time.
Learning certificates can include the following information:
- Which topic was mastered and when
- Brief summary of concepts covered
- Learning methods used
Try out a graphic like this Academic Excellence Certificate, which you can use to recognize achievement as well as let students highlight what they’ve learned.
15. Record knowledge in a learning portfolio
With so much information covered each year, it’s crucial for students to keep reminders of what they’ve learned. Otherwise, it starts slipping through the cracks of memory. That’s where learning portfolios come in handy.
All of the graphics in this post can be added to a digital (or printed) learning portfolio that students can keep at hand throughout their school years. When they look back at them later, they’ll see:
- Which topics they learned, and when
- How well they learned the topics
- How they’ve improved at learning over time
Learning portfolios are also great to have when it comes time to apply to university, so have students start adding to them sooner rather than later.
Try a chapbook-style portfolio like the Pastel Pink Typography Portfolio General Table of Contents, which uses a table of contents for easy organization, or the Learning Scrapbook format for a more relaxed presentation.
Making the learning process more visible helps students become better learners by making them more aware of their own habits.
When they can see the overall narrative of their learning journey, they can take measures to improve on or maintain their study tactics, exam taking techniques, and knowledge curation.
Doing so encourages them to identify as purposeful learners, not just students with academic requirements to fulfil, and empowers them to take learning into their own hands.