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February 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 5

Learning from Student Work

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It's Thursday afternoon, and the 5th grade team has asked you, the literacy coach, to attend its grade-level meeting. As you enter the meeting, you can tell from teachers' sighs and grimaces that they are dismayed about something. "The problem is," one teacher begins as she pulls out her grade book, "the students are struggling with writing. We thought helping them broaden their vocabulary to develop word choice would be one step in helping them write better. But it hasn't made a difference." Frustrated, another teacher turns to you and asks, "Doesn't the district have a new approach for improving writing? There's got to be something out there that will work." But in your heart, you know that a new technique will not be the panacea they are seeking.
As teachers discuss various writing methods, it occurs to you that an essential clue for solving the problem is missing from this conversation—the student work. Only one teacher has any work with her. "Why don't we take a look at some of this student writing together and see what's going on," you begin. "But before we begin, let's just set up some ground rules for looking at work together." You take a deep breath. Formative coaching has begun.
As literacy coaches at National Teachers Academy, a large neighborhood school on the South Side of Chicago, we have often struggled to provide high-quality professional development to our staff that would lead to direct changes in classroom instruction. According to Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the field of adult learning, adults learn best when they are engaged in activities that directly affect their work. However, the process of adult learning sometimes feels as hit or miss as a game of bingo. Districts or schools choose an instructional method to promote, and if it matches with a strategy already in the teachers' repertoires, they insert it into instruction. Small-group instruction. Graphic organizers. Metacognition. Bingo! If the teaching method does not fit on the instructional bingo card, it is quickly discarded and the game continues. But most schools do not have time for meaningless games.

Formative Coaching

To avoid the bingo game, we developed formative coaching, a collaborative process of examining student work and other formative data to bridge the gap between professional development and actual classroom practice. Throughout the day, students produce work (journals, responses to questions, graphic organizers, and verbal responses) that is an indicator of their understanding. These formative assessments provide a much more accurate measure of how students are progressing than standardized tests alone can do. However, making sense of formative assessments is like solving a mystery. Although each piece of work is filled with clues about individual learners, knowing what to do with the information takes skill and practice.
A formative coach guides teachers in using student work to determine the course of instruction, curriculum, and their own professional development. The coach might be an administrator, a mentor teacher, or even a peer; but regardless of who is doing the coaching, student work is always part of the equation. Learning strategies such as team teaching, modeling, or co-planning are born out of an authentic need that is evident in the students' work, increasing the likelihood of retention and transference into a teacher's daily practice.

The Coaching Process

We begin the process of formative coaching by regularly meeting with individual teachers to examine student work. The process of deeply analyzing formative data is often challenging—sometimes there is so much information embedded in even a single piece of work that teachers do not know where to begin. In an effort to make sense of the information, we developed a variety of protocols to help teachers sort through the data and make it usable. (See, for example, our Quick Sort Protocol.) As our community became more proficient at analyzing student work, a natural process of identifying instructional methods to support student learning emerged. To further support this process, we developed a formative coaching cycle (fig. 1) that guides our work.
During the coaching cycle, we meet with teachers to identify a formative assessment we will use to discuss student progress, develop future strategies for instruction, and evaluate student learning. We base conversations about teaching methods on the formative data, not on an individual's personal opinions about an instructional approach. The following coaching conversation is an example of the type of dialogue that might happen as an individual teacher begins to deeply analyze student work and reflect on instruction.
Coach: After looking at the students' work, you've narrowed down what you feel are problems in their essay writing. You mentioned that many of your students are not using appropriate word choices—they are either using words incorrectly or using very basic words such as happy or sad to illustrate a point. Let's look at these papers briefly and separate them into two piles: pile A for students who consistently use challenging vocabulary and pile B for those who do not. After making two piles, the teacher and coach decide to examine pile B in more depth. They make notes on what they observe.
Teacher: There appears to be a group of students who attempt to use new vocabulary but often use it incorrectly. I think they know the definition because these kids always ace their vocabulary quizzes, but those are multiple-choice assessments. When it comes to writing, they're just not sure how to use the word in a sentence.
Coach: Can you show me an example? Teacher points to several papers where students have used words incorrectly.
Coach: So, what opportunity do they have to practice using these words correctly?
Teacher: Well, when I introduce a word, I give them examples of how to use it in a sentence. And I always choose words from their reading, so they get to see it in a sentence there as well. But from what I'm seeing here, it seems like that may not be enough reinforcement.
Coach: So what other ways can you support your students as they learn how to use these new words?
Teacher: Maybe if they could practice thinking of sentences and saying them out loud to each other, without having to write them, it might help students get it in their ear.
Coach: That's a great idea. Also, maybe just posting a few examples around the room of how to use the word in a sentence might serve as visual reminders for the students.
Teacher: I could try that, too.
Coach: Are there formative assessments you currently use that would provide more opportunities for students to practice with word choice and obtain feedback about their progress?
Teacher: They write letters to me in their journals about the books they are reading. I think encouraging them to take chances with vocabulary in their letters would give them more practice using new words. I could focus specifically on word choice with them for the letter writing.
Coach: Great. So let's make a time to get together in the next few weeks and look at the student work and note any changes or progress.
A few weeks later the coach and teacher reconvene.
Coach: You've been looking at your students' journal entries. What do you notice as you look at these papers?
Teacher: Well, more students are using challenging vocabulary words and using them correctly. I think having a chance to practice using these new words by speaking to one another has made a big difference. But there is still this group of students who rely on simple words in their writing and don't even try any of the challenging vocabulary.
Coach: OK. Why don't we start by looking at that group? Teacher and coach read through several papers.
Teacher: I feel that some students think it's not worth trying out a word because they might get it wrong. Or maybe they don't understand why writers use interesting vocabulary. I guess I haven't really made that clear to them. I am also wondering if a rubric might help; maybe they aren't sure what I'm looking for.
Coach: I'm wondering what type of data we can use to support your hypothesis. For example, have you met with students individually to talk about their word choice?
Teacher: I have conferences with some students, but I'm just not sure what we should be talking about. I could encourage them to use some of the vocabulary or find out what is stopping them.
Coach: I think conferences are also a way to provide feedback for students on their use of vocabulary and provide them with examples of how writers engage readers through words. Your conference notes can help you figure out why some of the students continue to struggle. I have some information that can help guide you during conferences and organize any data that you gather.
Formative coaching helps teachers naturally become more reflective about their practice as they look for progress in student work. Teachers take the stance of researchers as they ask, How did students respond to a specific method of instruction? For which group of learners was this method successful? As we meet with teachers and look at the student work, they become more aware of the importance of feedback to students and the explicit instruction necessary to support student learning.

Beyond Individual Coaching

The process of analyzing formative data has also transformed how we plan professional development sessions for larger groups of teachers. Instead of choosing topics that we think the teachers might be interested in, we now base our professional development on needs determined by the student work. The days of creating professional development in a vacuum are gone.
In planning professional development we make sure our adult learners have numerous opportunities to collaborate and establish common goals with clear outcomes. No longer are they asked to come to a workshop to "sit and get"; they are now at the center of professional development, responsible for the learning of their students and their own growth as educators.
As coaches, we have also worked to create a safe environment that is conducive to adult learning and professional discourse. Initially, teachers were reluctant to share their ideas or their students' work with their colleagues in professional learning communities, but they began to build trust as they looked at student work over a sustained period of time and realized the importance of sharing results and progress with the larger school community. They understood how the teaching and learning in the classroom next door was vitally important to the success of the students who currently sat in front of them.
As our collaboration and trust strengthened, teachers transferred their skills about formative analysis to areas other than literacy. When the teachers received results from the statewide math assessment, the formative coaching cycle prompted teachers to look at trends, pinpoint next steps as a team, and seek out instructional strategies from one another.
Closing the door to your classroom is no longer an option; collaboration is necessity if our students are to succeed. A new way of thinking about teaching has been born.
End Notes

1 Knowles, M. S. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston, TX: Gulf.

Gabrielle Nidus is a literacy coach and author of The Literacy Coach's Game Plan.

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