Lessons From Helping Teachers Analyze Student Work

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While the analysis of student work has been touted as one of the most powerful means of understanding students’ learning needs and refining our teaching practices, organizing ourselves to do this work can be daunting. Teachers and administrators are often puzzled by the following questions: What work should teachers analyze? Whose work should they look at? What should they look for? What information about our analysis should be captured? What follows are insights LCI has learned from its work with teachers and schools in hundreds of schools.

Before analyzing student work
Be purposeful. There are a variety of legitimate purposes for examining student work. Primary among these are diagnosing student knowledge or skills-related needs so that teachers can rethink the best ways of presenting a new unit or chapter. Teachers may also want to determine the gaps between students who struggle with specific content and others who seem to learn it effortlessly. They may also want to assess the impact of a particular strategy on students’ thinking or work or determine if different teachers who teach the same grade level have similar expectations for student work. Clarifying and sharing our purposes with others will maximize the time spent reviewing work and the insights derived from this process.

Be strategic. Time for analysis and reflection are in short supply in most schools. In addition to having a clearly defined purpose for the analysis of student work, it pays to consider issues related to organization and timing through the following questions: Whose work would most benefit from our analysis? What can the analysis of student work reveal that no other data source can provide? What are the most important decisions we need to make that can be supported by the analysis of student work? What would be the best timing for the analysis of the work in terms of what we may be able to do with the information we glean from the analysis?

Work is data. Student work provides compelling information about what students know, are able to do and value. In many cases, and especially in situations when we are seeking to understand students’ thinking or complex processes such as decision-making, problem solving and creativity, such data is far richer and compelling than the data resulting from standardized and state tests. The true essence of using multiple sources of data lies in triangulating data resulting from student work with other measures such as quizzes and tests. The work we analyze today may contribute to our understanding of students’ change over time.

Less is more. Analyzing student work takes time. A carefully selected and scrutinized sample of student work comprised of students who capture the diversity in a classroom can yield valid inferences about the impact of selected interventions on student learning. We often recommend that teachers consider all the factors that contribute to the diversity in the classes, such as race, gender, language, motivation, interests, etc., as they select 2-3 pieces from low, medium and high achieving students.

Relationships matter. Behind every piece of student work are one or more teachers. In analyzing any piece of work it is important to understand that the work students generate says as much about the teacher as it does about the student. While it is true that students’ work is informed by many factors including their motivation, interests, abilities, perceived support, language proficiency, etc., it is also true that teachers assign the work students produce and define the learning conditions that support the completion of that work. Protocols such as Pat Carini’s Descriptive Review of a Child, the Essential Schools Tuning Protocol, Wows and Wonders, and Standards in Practice provide teachers with a safe environment for them to ponder significant  questions about the relationship between their practices and student learning.

During the analysis of student work
Focus on what is. Concentrating on what the work reveals about what the student knows, is able to do and values, enables teachers to be strength-based and to build on the existing repertoire of students’ assets. To do this well, we must be mindful of what we are in the habit of doing as teachers. When we look at student work, it is far easier for us to focus on what is missing than what is there. Naturally, we see every computation error, incomplete thought, flawed procedure, spelling error, or grammatical mistake . We need to override this tendency by asking ourselves, what does the work show that the student has learned and can do?

Look beneath the surface. Consider the ideas behind the work and remember that creation in any subject is a proxy for thinking and learning. We need to think about student work as representing unconscious or conscious decisions about what should be and ask ourselves what has informed those decisions. While the quality of students’ work may very well be the focus of the analysis, the work conveys significant information about how students think about science, what they understand about a social issue, or how they make sense of a character. 

Ask questions. Even though we approach the analysis of student work to address specific needs and purposes, the work can raise questions that yield valuable and often surprising insights about the relationship between teaching and learning. Questions such as the following ones can lead to a
deeper exploration of teaching which could impact the quality of students’ learning. What led this student to approach this mathematics problem this way? Why are the transitions so uneven? How did the student come up with a wrong answer while following a reasonable logical process? How come the student can extract data from charts but not from tables? How similar is the quality of the writing in social studies? What is the relationship between what the student produced and the question his teachers asked him to consider?

Beyond the analysis
Quality deserves to be captured. One of the most useful by-products of the analysis of student work is the discovery of exemplars (samples of student work that illustrate the standard we want students to attain) and anchors (samples of student work that illustrate different levels of performance. Teachers can extract these samples and use them to help students, teachers, and parents anchor rubrics and checklists and internalize their meaning. These can be copied and used with other groups of students, teachers, or parents as a reference in future years.

Analyzing student work can be a rewarding and enriching experience for everyone. It can result in the accurate and timely diagnosis of student needs. It can also yield valuable information about the relationship between teaching and learning, and it can broker and disseminate teachers’ wisdom of practice. Given the scarcity of time for adult talk in schools, doing it thoughtfully is certainly worth the effort.