The promise of learning progressions for assessment and instruction

Teacher helping students studying at desks in a classroom

Think of academic standards as a destination, the place we want students to eventually get to in their understanding of mathematics, science, history or other domains of knowledge. If standards are a destination then, staying with the metaphor, educators will want to have an idea of the cognitive routes that students are likely to travel on their journey. Those routes are called learning progressions and they are a hot topic in education these days.

Typically, you may use the sequence of concepts or skills in a textbook or a written curriculum to guide your instruction. Those sequences were likely developed by experienced educators and can give you a general idea of what you should be teaching. They are like a map of the entire U.S. that shows the states one would pass through on a drive from New York to Los Angeles. By contrast, a learning progression is like a GPS that not only shows you every turn along the way, it shows you the location of gas stations, restaurants and motels. Also just as a GPS is informed by data about a driver’s routes and travel times, a learning progression is based on well-established research from the learning and cognitive sciences and empirical evidence of how students’ thinking develops. What concepts do students have to master and in what order to eventually meet or exceed expectations for what they know and are able to do with that knowledge? What misconceptions, or detours, are common?

A variety of learning progressions have been created to help teachers figure out how to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college and career success. Researchers from the Research & Innovation Network have developed a learning progression on the geometric measurement of area which serves as the centerpiece of the Insight Learning System, an integrated system of curriculum, assessment, and professional learning all aligned to the learning progression. The learning progression describes how students typically progress in their understanding of area, from the early stages, to the middle stages, and finally to the target understandings.

As I described here, we designed professional learning in the Insight Learning System to help teachers use the learning progression to conduct formative assessment in their classroom. Understanding the stages that children typically move through as they are learning concepts (not only in area as shown here, but in any domain!) can help both teachers and parents plan and structure learning opportunities to support children’s deep learning that will help them reach rigorous standards.

Have you heard of learning progressions? Do you currently use them in your practice?


We think that Learning Progressions can be the backbone of balanced assessment. Learn more about learning progressions in the Future of Assessment.


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About the Author
Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer L. Kobrin‘s primary role is developing and undertaking a research agenda to explore the promise of learning progressions for improving assessment, instruction, and teacher development. Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Kobrin, currently senior research scientist at Pearson, was previously a research scientist at the College Board where she led research efforts to collect evidence of the validity of the SAT, and conducted research on factors related to college readiness and college success. She has co-authored several book chapters on educational assessment and validity, and her work has been published in Educational and Psychological Measurement, Educational Assessment, and Assessing Writing. Dr. Kobrin is an active member of the National Council on Measurement in Education, the American Educational Research Association, and the Northeastern Educational Research Association. She holds a doctorate in Educational Statistics and Measurement from Rutgers University, and a master’s degree in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from Boston College. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferKobrin