Pencil and ruler.

Milana Lazareva Romain Bertrand May 22, 2018

Fill In The Gaps: From a Classroom Challenge to a Personalized Learning Strategy

Milana Lazareva


Romain Bertrand

Director of Solution Design, BetterLesson

We hear the words “Student Centered Learning” often these days. Understandably so, it is crucial that well into the 21st Century, we finally make it a true priority to move the center of our classrooms further toward our students, empowering them to become knowledgeable innovators and leaders.

We should, as often if not more, hear the words “Teacher Centered Professional Development” uttered in the same sentence, as our teachers deserve a PD experience mirroring the one that they want for their students: Personalized, centered on real problems of practice, and empowering so they can be creative problem solvers.

As a BetterLesson Instructional Coach, one of my greatest joys is to have the chance to be a thought partner for my teachers, and to help them tackle challenges in ways they might not have imagined possible before. Through an iterative experimentation cycle, we get to test out new ideas, which might at first look like a spaghetti tossed on a wall, but will often turn into a teaching strategy helping their students reach new outcomes.

In this post, I interview Milana Lazareva, a middle school math teacher from the Moriah School in Englewood, NJ, with whom I collaborated to create a new strategy helping her reach the outcome: Empowering her students to own their formative assessment data, and the resources she makes available to them, to design their own learning pathways allowing them to learn from their mistakes and grow. She decided to call this strategy Fill in the Gaps and it went from being a “half-baked” idea to a strategy now available to, and widely utilized by, many teachers nationwide in our coaching app. Most importantly, it has become a strategy her students will regularly advocate for when they feel the need to pause and create a space for personalization and collaboration.

Romain: Milana, how would you describe Fill in the Gaps to another teacher who has never seen this strategy in action?

Milana: Fill in the Gaps gives students the chance to look back at concepts they learned in order to review, re-learn, and challenge themselves! Students get to self assess their strengths and areas of growth. Then, they choose what they need to work on and how they should be working on it to best align with their preferred mode of learning. They get to work at their own pace, help their peers, and learn collaboratively. After our Fill in the Gaps day (or days), they get a chance to assess their progress toward the concepts/standards they focused on.

Romain: What led you to want to do this?

Milana: After my students had taken a test or completed a unit/chapter, I felt like there were still gaps missing in their learning. Some students weren’t being challenged enough and others were still struggling with some of the concepts. I wanted to figure out a way to make sure these gaps were filled!

Romain: Does it align with a broader vision of learning in your classroom?

Milana: Yes it does! The bigger vision I have is to ultimately give every student what he or she needs to succeed. I want each student to take ownership of their learning, their pace, and collaboration with classmates. My goal is to have a blended classroom where students are able to get what they need, make decisions, and learn math in a way that feels right to them.

Romain: What impact has Fill in the Gaps had on your students?

Milana: My students really enjoy taking charge of their learning and making their own choices now. They feel like they have the chance to go back and revisit some concepts they had trouble with. Other students love the opportunity to challenge themselves and “tutor” their peers. They are able to complete projects and enrichment activities to extend their knowledge. My students always ask if we are doing Fill in the Gaps after every unit!

This has also had an indirect impact on the learning environment of my classroom. I see so much more collaboration, support, and confidence with my students.

Romain: What are some resources you have built to support this strategy that you could share with other teachers?

Milana: I created a template for the Fill in the Gaps activity. It usually consists of 2 parts. The first part is the students using their tests/assessments to self reflect on what they need to review and what they want to challenge themselves on.

Work Plan and Self Assessment

The second part is a resource guide where I provide them different options for activities. This includes videos, online practice, textbook or worksheets, projects, and tutoring peers.

Resource Guide

The room is organized for them to work together! I usually create different areas for various types of activities. The back of the room will be where the tutors are helping students for example, or there will be a group table ready for some students to work on a project or enrichment activity collaboratively with the necessary supplies. They use the chalkboard for them to write down their name and anything they need help with so that the tutors can approach them and help!

I am happy to share all these templates via this post, but also to encourage teachers to reach out to me with any questions related to the implementation of this strategy. It is always such an honor and pleasure to see other teachers implementing this strategy in High Schools or even Elementary Schools, and in other content areas.

Possible Template for High School Students

Romain: What is a final advice you would like to give to teachers who will read this post and want to do this tomorrow? What is something for example you learned the hard way, and that they could learn from your experience?

Milana: My advice is to start small at the beginning. Your students need the chance to get used to this new style of learning where they get to make their own decisions. Spend some time talking to them and explaining why you want to have an activity like this! The first time, do it with them! Walk through the sheet and pretend you are a student. Give them some guidance as to how to choose what they should do because for many of them this will be very different. Most importantly, trust your students! Let them choose their path and work at a pace that feels right for them. If you see students struggling to make good choices, you can step in to help them. There are some who need more help but don’t speak up, and others that are not being challenged.

The first time was a learning experience for me! It was definitely not perfect. I learned that we still need to set expectations for our students and hold them accountable for their work during Fill in the Gaps. Another suggestion is to have all the supplies ready for them so they can start working right away! You may want to arrange the room in 2 or 3 different sections in order to encourage collaboration!”

If this post inspired you to try something similar in your classroom, and you’d like to connect with Milana or with me, send me direct message on twitter, @htdcompletely, and we will get in touch with you promptly! It is always so much fun to help good ideas spread like wildfire.

Paying It Forward

Because of the strategy that Milana created, many teachers have been able to use it in their classrooms with great success. Below, Jocelyn Lathers, a fifth grade teacher in Groton, New York, shares how much Fill in the Gaps helped her and her students:

Fill in the Gaps is a strategy that was brand new to me. One of the areas that I wanted to focus on this year was using data to really drive my instruction. I also wanted to incorporate student choice in my classroom. When working with my Better Lessons coach, Julie Mason, she introduced me to “Fill in the Gaps” and I knew instantly it would be a great fit for my students. We had already built so much student choice into my room by using choice boards during Math and ELA rotations so the concept of Fill in the Gaps, in which students analyze their data and choose activities to complete based on their needs, seemed quite perfect! I used this strategy in both ELA and Math as a review after an assessment. Students would analyze their test scores by marking which questions they got wrong and examining which category/skill these errors fell under. They would then use a choice board to determine which activities they would complete. Students would complete a total of 3 activities that corresponded to the categories they struggled with. For students who didn’t have three areas in need of improvement, a separate choice board with enrichment activities was provided. Assessments can be a powerful tool in the classroom but we all know that as a teacher our time is limited and review of the assessment is not always feasible. Fill in the Gaps was the perfect answer to this obstacle. My students received the instruction they needed while also have choice and a sense of ownership in their learning. I would recommend this strategy to all educators as a powerful means of data-driven and choice-driven instruction.