Excavating the Artifacts of Student Learning - ASCD
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February 1, 2018

Excavating the Artifacts of Student Learning

In examining the effectiveness of a lesson, educators and coaches need to go beyond the "Eye Test."


One of the mistakes often made in assessing teacher effectiveness is to rely on the "eye test" (observable practices by the teacher) and the "energy" level felt within the classroom. While there is merit to this approach, at the heart of authentic teaching is deep student learning as a by-product. Student learning is the most meaningful measure of all instructional practices and must remain the litmus test, or gateway, to determining future teacher practice. The intention, or objective, of the lesson is one of the most important things students can learn, and providing students a clear target for their learning is crucial to success.1

In the same way that archaeologists might sift through a digging site to discover evidence that will help them piece together knowledge of a place or a people, educators are always seeking artifacts that might paint a more detailed picture of their students' learning. What students do, say, and produce are important artifacts in determining the impact of instruction. This does not minimize what a teacher does in the classroom, or deem it insignificant. However, we can only determine if a teacher's actions have impact by measuring what matters most—the level at which students have gained increased understanding, and how they appropriately exercise their newfound knowledge or skill.

To this end, I developed a learning-measurement tool (fig. 1) to assist teachers, coaches, and administrators in evaluating students' learning and to inform future practice by collecting two essential artifacts: Student voice and student work. These two artifacts are vital to ensuring internalized knowledge of content by all students. Each communicates the impact of instruction as well as the degree to which students are mastering target skills. Without these two pieces, learning that takes place in a classroom cannot be effectively determined.

Figure 1. In-Class Learning-Measurement Tool

This learning-measurement tool is best used by educators wishing to take a deep dive, through classroom observation, into how instructional practice influences student understanding. 2 It connects students to learning outcomes and empowers teacher reflection, which leads to well-informed practice. The framework provided by the tool can be used in a variety of professional development structures, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on two of them: individual one-on-one teacher coaching and learning labs (small-group teacher studies).

Let's take a closer look at how each of these meaningful measures can be collected, and the benefits of doing so.

Let Students Do the Talking

The use of the tool can be broken down into several phases. The first is considered the pre-brief conversation and takes place prior to the observation. The goal of the conversation is for the coach or study team to establish with the teacher how he or she will connect students to the learning target and determine what the desired responses from the students would be to two crucial questions (see Figure 1).

The second phase happens during classroom instruction, where the coach or study team and teacher talk to students as they are working independently and ask them the two questions in Figure 1: "What are you learning?" and "How do you know you are doing a good job?" They also collect samples of student work.

The final phase is a post-discussion where teacher and coach or study team analyze the artifacts they've collected to assess the students' levels of learning and to plan for the teacher's next steps in instruction. During this discussion, the observer(s) and the teacher examine how the instruction impacted the students collectively as well as individually by taking an in-depth look at what students can articulate about what they are learning and how this compares to the work they've produced.

The Learning-Measurement Tool at Work

In my work with the principals in Omaha Public Schools, we've been examining student learning by asking students those two foundational questions:

"What are you learning?"

"How do you know you are doing a good job?"

These questions may seem rudimentary, but they provide authentic evidence of student learning and can lead to honest conversation and deep reflection about teacher practice and the impact it had on student learning of the lesson. They have also proven to have an immediate return on investment.

Here is an example of student evidence collected during a lesson and the type of conversation that can ensue among colleagues. The learning target was for 3rd graders and asked them to identify prefixes and utilize them to change the meaning of root words.

Student 1:

"What are you learning?"

"We are looking at root words and how they change."

"How do you know you are doing a good job?"

"When I have identified the new meaning of the root words and share my answers with a peer.

"Student 2:

"What are you learning?"

"I am circling prefixes that I find in sentences."

"How do you know you are doing a good job?"

"If I am doing my best work and complete my assignment."

Student 3:

"What are you learning?"

"I don't know." (Shrugged shoulders.)

"How do you know you are doing a good job?"

"When my teacher tells me I am doing a good job."

Student 4:

"What are you learning?"

"I am learning what a prefix is and how words change."

"How do you know you are doing a good job?"

"If I have read each sentence to find prefixes and can show my teacher how I use them in a sentence."

Student 5:

"What are you learning?"

"We are learning to find prefixes and to know how they give new meaning to words and to use them in sentences to help us be better writers."

"How do you know you are doing a good job?"

"When I have found the prefixes in the sentence and know the new meaning of each word. If I can use a prefix in a sentence and can share the meaning of my word with a friend."

If you look at these statements carefully, you can see that two of the students (student 1 and 4) have a basic knowledge of the purpose for learning, one has low-level knowledge (student 2), one has internal knowledge (student 5), and one student has no understanding (student 3). Each student further established this assessment of their knowledge level in the articulation of how they will know they are doing a good job.

The next step is to look at the students' work to see how their level of understanding of the learning target affected what they were able to produce. For this particular lesson, students were supposed to select a prefix they learned, combine it with one root word, and use the new word correctly in a sentence. Let's look at three student samples to illustrate the importance of looking at student work.

Student 1:

The thunder recaused my dog to bark.

Student 2:

I do not understand math because it is hard.

Student 5:

I was unhappy with my brother when he disappeared with the last cookie.

Each performance of understanding provides evidence of student learning. Student 5's artifact includes two words with prefixes that are used correctly in a sentence with appropriate context. This student has clearly internalized the target and is able to articulate and utilize the skill at a deep level. Student 2's artifact, however, shows a low-level of understanding. This student recognizes that "un" is a prefix but fails to see that "un" does not serve as a prefix in the word "understand." This student can recognize a prefix but is struggling with root words, the meaning of prefixes, and usage. Student 1's artifact shows a basic level of understanding. This student comprehends that "re" is a prefix meaning "again," but he could use additional support in determining appropriate root words to convey meaning.

After the teacher and coach or study team talk with students and examine their work, it is time to examine the post-discussion questions (Phase 3) in the observation tool to drive deeper levels of conversation around student learning. When the steps outlined in the tool are used effectively, the teacher will have a solid understanding of the level of student learning and the impact of his or her instructional practice on students. The questions should help guide conversation, and they can be adjusted to fit the needs of the teacher and coach.

During the post-discussion, teachers and coaches take a closer look at the student artifacts (their question responses and their actual work) and begin to identify gaps in learning. They then discuss next steps for individual or group instruction. In this particular example on prefixes, since two of the students had a basic to low level of understanding, the teacher may decide to provide additional small group support in recognizing root words and determining appropriate root words to convey meaning. The teacher may also conclude that she should utilize more checks for understanding during whole group instruction to allow for instructional adjustments during the modeled and guided portion of the lesson.

Listen to Learn

The response of students, not the actions of teachers, are the true meaningful measures that indicate learning. With a tool that helps record and reflect on student responses, reactions, and abilities, teachers can better understand the impact their instructional practice has on what students are able to say, do, and produce. This is vital when trying to meet the individual learning needs of all students. The challenge is for coaches and teachers to make time for these reflective conversations, which can help them move beyond mere "eye tests" to identify effective teacher practice and focus on the intent of instruction—student learning—and become better educators and listeners for their students.

End Notes

1 Moss, C. M., & Brookhart, S. M. (2012). Learning targets: Helping students aim for understanding in today's lesson. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

2 While the results of this tool are not necessarily intended to be communicated back to students, it can be helpful to share parts of the evidence with some students if it might help them move forward in their learning.

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