Looking at Student Work
Looking at Student Work

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Primer for Looking at Student Work

Looking at student work is a big part of every teacher's job. Often that means ploughing through stacks of homework and classwork to mark or grade.

This web site describes alternative ways of looking at student work that instead emphasize:

  • focusing on small samples of student work

  • looking together at student work with colleagues

  • reflecting on important questions about teaching and learning

  • using agreed upon structures and guidelines ("protocols") for looking and talking about student work
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Protocols for Looking
Practices for looking at student work include structured conversations, sometimes called protocols, for collaborative inquiry and reflection.

In a protocol, teachers meet in a group, led by a facilitator, and follow a set of steps prescribed by the protocol.

The steps of a protocol might include presentation of a focusing question, close examination of student work; description of the work; questions; feedback to the presenting teacher; and reflection on the process.

Some of the protocols emphasize evaluation - analyzing effectiveness of curriculum, instruction or assessment practices; others emphasize description to heighten teachers' understanding of individual children and hence affect teacher practice.

  • A protocol consists of agreed upon guidelines for a conversation, and it is the existence of this structure-which everyone understands and has agreed to-that permits a certain kind of conversation to occur-often a kind of conversation which people are not in the habit of having.

  • Protocols are vehicles for building the skills-and culture-necessary for collaborative work. Thus, using protocols often allows groups to build trust by actually doing substantive work together.

Choosing and practicing the right protocol for looking at student work depends upon your purposes for looking.

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Challenging the Norms of Teaching
Looking at student work challenges accepted "norms" of the teaching profession.

Rather than looking at all students work (if only to assign grades or scores), teachers look at small samples - as small as one child's drawing - for significant periods of time.

Rather than working in isolation from each other, teachers engaged in looking at student work collaborate with colleagues.

Rather than practicing instruction and assessment in the virtual privacy of the classroom, teachers bring their work and their students' work to their colleagues for inquiry and reflection.

Rather than keeping the work of students inside schools, protocols for looking at student work offer opportunities to involve parents and community members in discussing student work, student learning, standards, etc.

This web site provides resources and ideas for teachers, administrators, staff developers and others who are committed, as we are, to challenging these norms to benefit learning for all students.


Proceed with Caution!
Looking at student work involves a major change from how schools and teachers now operate; for this reason we offer some important cautions. For example:
  • Looking at student work cannot simply be adopted as a technique by schools or teachers but must be learned over time in a thoughtful, supported way.

  • Time should be provided for a discussion of the purposes for using a particular process or approach; time should be reserved for reflecting on ("debriefing") the process just completed.

  • Looking at student work demands blocks of time for teachers to work together, from an hour and a half to a full day.

  • Looking at student work will be more effective when sustained over time, for example, yearlong monthly or twice monthly meetings.

How to Use This Web Site
As an introduction to the ideas that infuse the practices for looking at student work:
  • Read and discuss with colleagues the principles of looking at student work.
  • How do these principles relate to your own beliefs about teaching and learning?
As a resource for information about and "tools" for looking at student work:
  • Read and discuss the descriptions of protocols and processes for looking at student work.
  • Read and discuss the resources for looking at student work.
  • Pay careful attention to the cautions and tips for looking at student work.
  • What steps can you take to begin or deepen looking at student work in your school?
As a means to contact other people and organizations involved in looking at student work:
  • Contact contributors for more information about the individuals and organizations that have contributed to this site.
  • Is there someone in your area to contact for more information?
As a place for dialogue about looking at student work:
  • Follow a discussion of contributors to the Student Work web site.
  • Send a message with a question or comment to the site moderator, which may be added to the site.
  • What experience do you have with looking at student work?
  • What resources do you know of?
  • What would you like to know more about?
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