DIRT: Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time with a Metacognition & Self-Regulation Focus!

Ron Berger’s excellent book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence‘, the author writes:

“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards? Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school. How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

One way of meeting this challenge is to use Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time to shift students from a passive role to an active and engaged one in relation to their assessments and feedback. Assessment and improvement (through target-setting) becomes less of a ‘top down’ activity and more of a dialogue: students are actively involved in identifying obstacles, setting targets, and synthesising strategies to meet those targets.

Aside from being a highly effective strategy for enhancing the value of assessment work DIRT is highly pertinent to our discussions about metacognition and self-regulated learning. When designing your own DIRT worksheets and activities, remembering the central principles of self-regulated learning is useful: a powerful DIRT session should include reflection, monitoring, evaluation, planning and regulation.

Reflection, monitoring & evaluation may refer to: levels of effort, degrees of preparedness, successful and unsuccessful strategies used in approaching the assessment, various measures of the works’ quality or the students’ progress in certain areas.

Regulation and planning generally refers to: establishing targets for improvement, clarifying what to do differently next time, and outlining steps that need to be taken in order to actually meet established targets.

The most effective approaches to DIRT don’t merely involve ‘reflecting on how to improve’ but actually making improvements to returned work: a great approach to this is to use a specific colour of pen for improvements. This ties in with theories around ‘Mastery Learning’ which, by definition, is a method of instruction where the focus is on the role of feedback and responding to feedback by making improvements until a given piece of work is of sufficient quality.

Tips, Challenges & Common Pitfalls for DIRT

A common criticism of DIRT is that it is sometimes (ironically) a top-down initiative thrust upon teachers as a ‘non-negotiable’ which may render it a slapdash, superficial “box-ticking” exercise in practice. It is important that your DIRT practices are carefully considered, appropriately timed and well-executed.

For example: DIRT is most effective when a piece of assessment is returned with detailed feedback, clear indications of what’s gone wrong, and indications for improvement. DIRT should never be used as a substitute for thorough marking, assessment and feedback. It is worth considering whether or not DIRT can really have any value at all without feedback from a teacher: even if a student were to reach exactly the same conclusions/targets as a teacher – it helps to have the teacher confirm them since most students place great value on the opinion of authority figures an do not yet feel confident acting under their own initiative alone.

If you are hoping that students will set their own targets during DIRT sessions, it can be very useful to have them select those targets from a predefined list of common targets. For example: if the DIRT refers to a lengthily exam question, listing common targets that lead to ideal answers has the side-benefit of providing students of a clear list of what exactly is expected of them. This is especially useful with low-ability students who might not know where to start in setting targets: where they might have written a vague and unhelpful “add more detail” as their target, they instead might select ‘Add arguments for and against the claim in the exam question’ – giving them a much clearer understanding of how to improve. It also makes target-setting a very quick and efficient process. Using lists of targets also allows multiple people to suggest targets: for example on one assessment feedback sheet used with KS5 students a teacher might allow for students to choose two targets from the list by writing the letter ‘S’ next to them, whilst the teacher uses ‘T’ to indicate theirs and even involve parents who are encouraged to read their students’ work and write ‘P’ next to a given target!

There is, arguably, some value in allowing more generalised DIRT time that isn’t responding to a specific piece of work: but the general consensus is that asking a student “how to improve in this subject” is far more valuable in the context of a returned piece of work – otherwise it can all be a bit vague and unfocused. In some instances ‘improvement’ may refer to things that are not formally assessed per se but, nonetheless, valuable to learning-process such as their attitude to the subject, how they feel about classwork and their motivations for engaging in it: incorporating these ideas into DIRT is worth experimenting with.

It can be useful, especially in younger years, for students to be set DIRT tasks that refer to general improvements to their class work: for example, evaluating the quality of the work in their exercise books and improving upon it. However, as a critic of (poorly executed) DIRT, Mark Enser (2019, Tes) writes: “Feedback should seek to improve the pupil, not the work. The feedback they receive, however they receive it, should influence the rest of the work they go on to do throughout the next lesson and beyond”

DIRT can be combined with peer-assessment practices whereby students work cooperatively to improve their work: comparing work can make it easier for students to understand how they can improve their own work; for example, it soon becomes clear if one student is making considerably more detailed classwork than another.

It should go without saying that resources to support DIRT need to be well-designed, clear, and focused. Modelling and scaffolding effective DIRT is advised: students should be shown completed worksheets and led to understand how valuable the process can be when done correctly. It’s worth taking a few minutes to peruse various freely available DIRT worksheets and preview-images of more professionally designed ones to get some inspiration for the kinds of activities you might wish to include. For the sake of the environment we might also consider using means other than worksheets to structure DIRT!

Finally, it is our view that DIRT should generally be a quiet/silent time unless explicitly involving peer or group work. Never just ‘give them a DIRT worksheet and let them get on with it’: if they’re chatting then they are almost certainly not reflecting deeply on the quality of their work and how to improve it.

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