Using Student Evidence from a Distance

An excerpt from Student-Centered Coaching from a Distance (Sweeney and Harris, forthcoming)

Now that we’ve had some time to settle into distance learning, we are hopefully beyond the place of addressing immediate needs of safety and access. This allows us to look more deeply into how we can actually teach our students in the best way possible under the current circumstances. By now, we are seeing fewer teachers coming to coaches with questions about technology or how to work in the Learning Management System (LMS). More are wondering about how to structure teaching and learning to adapt to the current circumstances. Many coaches are hearing questions like, “What kinds of work should students be doing?” “How can my kids show their learning?” And, “How do we give feedback in our current school setting?” In some grade levels and content areas it feels like the students are producing mountains of work, while in others it seems hard to imagine what that could even look like right now.

As we aim to address these questions, a few things are clear. The first is that this moment is calling upon us to be innovators. The second is that while we need to think in new ways, we also mustn’t forget what we know about best instructional practice. The third is that coaches can play an important role in helping all of us rise to the occasion.

Coaching Move 1: Think in New Ways About Student Evidence
Let’s start with a reminder of what we’re talking about when we refer to “student evidence” within the context of Student-Centered Coaching. As we discussed in Student-Centered Coaching: The Moves (2017), schools today are awash in data – from district and state level tests, to interim assessments, to everything we use in data teams and share on data walls. In fact, in absence of being able to collect some of this information while teaching remotely, many schools are relying on test scores from last year to plan instruction and interventions for their students. In thinking about this kind of data we explain,

“Looking at quantitative data can be useful to identify school or district-wide trends and achievement gaps and to set big-picture goals. But when thinking about partnering with teachers through student-centered coaching, we need to use an entirely different type of data. We are looking for student evidence that we can collect today and that will inform us about what our students need tomorrow. So instead of looking at spreadsheets from big formal tests, we look at things like student writing samples, math problems, exit slips, and responses to reading. In this way, we can gain an understanding of where students are in relation to that day’s learning and plan for next steps in instruction moving forward.” (p. 106)

If student evidence is a driver for knowing where students are in relation to the desired learning, then teachers and coaches need to be thoughtful about what kinds of evidence they use. For example, there are a broad variety of digital tools available as well as more traditional forms of student evidence such as writing samples and exit slips. Since there are so many options, we thought it would be helpful to consider the qualities that make the evidence useful in propeling student learning forward. Regardless of setting, teachers and coaches will find student evidence most helpful when:

  • It doesn’t take long to create.
  • It isn’t necessarily something “extra”, but can be what students are already producing.
  • It is descriptive in nature and makes thinking visible.
  • It is aligned with desired learning outcomes, standards, and learning targets.
  • It can be produced and shared virtually.

Coaching Move 2: Look For and Build Upon Students’ Strengths
Coaches can support teachers in getting the most out of using student evidence by helping them take an asset-based approach to the process. This holds true whether learning is virtual, in person, or hybrid. One way of thinking about this is as a strengths-based perspective; or focusing on what students can do and building upon those strengths. But taking this approach goes beyond just acknowledging what students already know and can do. According to the California Department of Education (2020), an asset-based approach to teaching views “the diversity that students bring to the classroom, including culture, language, disability, socio-economic status, immigration status, and sexuality as characteristics that add value and strength to classrooms and communities.”

So what does this mean for coaches? We believe in modeling an asset-based approach through our own language. When looking at student evidence with a teacher or team, we can frame the conversation around first uncovering students’ schema and the skills they already have. This will lead into planning for how to celebrate and build upon those strengths. This is not to say that we ignore the gaps or misconceptions in understanding, but rather that we don’t make students’ deficits the sole focus of our work.

Taking an asset-based approach also applies to when we collect anecdotal evidence during lessons. Do we listen for what students are doing or what they aren’t? Do we keep our eyes trained on the learning target or do we look beyond the teaching of the day? It can be easy to slip into a deficit mindset in these situations as many of us have experienced. A fourth grade teacher and coach were co-teaching a lesson that focused on the learning target, “I can repeat a powerful line to add writer’s craft.” All around there was evidence of the students trying to meet the learning target and as a result they were doing some great writing. Yet during the planning conversation, the teacher kept coming back to their lack of paragraphs – something that wasn’t the learning target for this or any recent lesson. She was so busy noticing what wasn’t there, that she had a hard time seeing what was there. To respond, the coach brought her back to the student evidence and asked her to narrow her focus to the learning target itself. In doing so, the teacher was able to see that students were actually attempting what they had taught in the lesson.

We share this story because if we get stuck in the rut of only looking at what’s not there we risk missing the good stuff, and we risk our students disengaging and giving up. Bemoaning the lack of paragraphs made the teacher feel hopeless. Seeing that her lesson inspired the students to try something new was just the opposite. 

Language for Staying Asset-Based When Looking at Student Evidence
If I Hear or Notice…Then I Can Say or Do…
A teacher says, “I don’t know what kind of math these kids learned in their home country, but they sure don’t get the way we do it here.”You can respond, “It’s so fascinating that sometimes different approaches and strategies are taught in different countries. I wonder if we could ask them to show their approach in a Flipgrid to the rest of the class. That would give us insight into what they already know and it might give the other kids some new ways of approaching the problem. It would also give these newcomers a great way to shine.”
When looking at student work, a teacher complains that a student doesn’t know “anything” about the concept that’s being taught.You can remind the teacher that all kids come to school with a variety of schema and part of our job is to uncover what they already know and to build upon their strengths.
A teacher says, “I just get depressed looking at my students’ work because it’s a reminder of how far behind they are and how much ground I have to try to make up with them.” You might say, “Even though many students in your class are below grade level, it will be helpful to figure out what each one is bringing to the learning. That way we can address the specific things they each need which will help accelerate their learning .”

What Can We Carry Forward?
Sorting student evidence is a practice that’s rooted in formative assessment and is a key driver in Student-Centered Coaching. Whether coaching in person or at a distance, our hope is that coaches will continue to pursue partnerships with teachers that leverage this important instructional practice. As we push into new frontiers with distance learning and coaching, here are a few things we hope will carry forward into the future.

  • Continued use of high-quality EdTech tools for students to demonstrate their understanding.
  • Increased emphasis on clarity for teachers, students, and caregivers.
  • Ongoing commitment to maintaining an asset-based perspective with students.
  • Maintain a flexible mindset about what qualifies as student evidence.