The Power of Looking at Student Work

The field of education is awash in data. Teachers, administrators and policy makers spend countless hours poring over color coded spread sheets and using the metadata contained in these data reports to classify and reclassify students. Some of this data work is necessary and meaningful. But this kind of analysis has limits and like anything else, reaches a point of diminishing returns. As Albert Einstein quipped, everything that counts, cannot be counted.

Enter the complimentary practice of looking at student work. Not grading student work. Looking at student work. Giving the effort and art of students what it deserves - close and objective observation.

In my experience, fewer educators regularly engage in this practice because its seems to be more difficult, requires protected time for collaborative work, and is not prioritized or incentivized. 

Unlike the operational and commercial apparatus that has grown up around predictive, interim, benchmark, and summative standardized assessments that produce neat, quantified data in teacher-proof spreadsheets, the education community has not built the infrastructure for looking at student work. In many cases, the structures such as high quality curriculum and instructional models that require application are not in place for producing authentic student work in the first place. As a community of practice, educators haven't normalized the use of high-quality curriculum-embedded assessments (or high quality curriculum for that matter), we haven't normalized or supported the practice of ongoing, authentic assessment of and for learning.

When teachers look at student work using clear and common criteria a few powerful things happen that move educators’ practice and student outcomes.

  1. Teachers develop a common sense of what proficiency looks like, resulting in more equitable expectations. Looking at student work is a team sport. Part of the power of the exercise comes from engaging in collegial discourse about the degree to which the student work exemplifies the criteria at hand. As educators being looking at student work, it becomes evident quite clearly that although students are attending the same school, they are being held to vastly different performance expectations. And since students are most likely to do only what their teachers require them to do, it is important that every student is expected to work toward the same academic outcomes. Looking at student work protects against low expectations for all students, including “the good students” who can often get away with doing less that learning standards require because teachers grade their work using a bell curve mentality, instead of against the expectations for their grade level. 
  2. Teachers learn to describe what students demonstrate and do not demonstrate, developing their capacity to give students high quality feedback. Numeric grades do nothing to move learning forward. Grades are useful for ranking performance. This is why an Olympic ice skating coach uses descriptive language as a tool during training and Olympic ice skating judges use numeric scores during contests. The most effective teachers understand that they are coaches, and although they understand how to use a rating system, it is not their most powerful tool. There is a difference between telling a child that her paper was scored a ‘2’, and telling a chid she should work on enhancing the range of transitional phrases she uses within paragraphs to improve her writing. 
  3. Teachers can see very clearly what their students have learned and what their students have not learned.  When teachers are examining curriculum embedded, authentic student work all of the protective arguments that are used to qualify standardized test results fall away. Students are applying skillsets and knowledge that they have been immersed in, often in a low-stakes classroom environment. Even if teachers think they taught something, if it is consistently absent across student work, the teacher is mistaken. And even if the concept or skill is absent in a fe students’ samples, the teacher may have taught it, but the students haven't learned it.
  4. Small shifts that will make a big difference become apparent. By its very nature, looking at student work is a problem seeking exercise. Educators that engage in this practice will always find evidence of learning, but they will also always find evidence that desired learning has not occurred and that there is more work to do. The silver lining to the process is that, often two things that are completely within the sphere of control for teachers present themselves as paths to progress - a. Change the feedback. b. Change the assignment and/or the instruction. These are small doable actions that make a big difference. 
  5. Educators see their students differently. Numbers are poor descriptions for what people are capable of. The exercise of describing what students are already doing as well as what they have yet to master, shifts the conversation from a deficit only model. Educators will also find they are enchanted by the voice and perspective of students that are made evident in ways that a multiple choice test would never reveal.


So you're going to start looking at student work? Awesome. Some things to keep in mind:

  • #Squadgoals - Looking at student work in pairs or groups is better than going at it alone. 
  • Use a protocol designed for looking at student work and a dedicated facilitator. Looking at student work is an exercise in learning. Because learning is painful, participants will attempt to deflect and avoid. The protocol and facilitator will protect the process.
  • During each session look at a small but diverse set of samples - high performing, mid performing, low performing, special population(s) - Special Education, ELL, etc.
  • Use a common criteria for performance. In most cases, specific learning standards should serve as this criteria. Do not use comprehensive rubrics as they encourage evaluation or grading and not description in relationship to criteria. 
  • Focus on accurate description of what is evident and not evident in the student work. Resist the temptation to give student work, “the benefit of the doubt”. Honest reflection is your friend and the friend of your students.
  • Engage various stakeholders. Looking at student work is not just for teachers. Administrators, support staff, students, instructional coaches, and even school board members will benefit from looking at student work. One does not need to be a subject matter expert to participate. As it does in most learning spaces, heterogeneous grouping will produce phenomenal results.
Meesha Brown