Proof is powerful: How to show students evidence they’re learning

Data rich, information poor. It’s a problem so common, it has its own acronym: DRIP. And it’s a challenge I certainly felt as a classroom teacher and teacher-leader supporting professional learning communities (PLCs). I recall coaching one science PLC that was drowning in data—but not the kind that boosted learning, well-being, or self-efficacy. The four teachers felt paralyzed, with too much information coming in at all the wrong times. Their students were frustrated, too.

Although I didn’t have the exact words for it at the time, I helped the PLC members overcome the DRIP challenge by supporting them with the responsive learning cycle practice of engaging learners in collecting learning evidence. By providing focus and creating a space to collect learning evidence in partnership with students, this practice can help prevent DRIP. All it takes is the right mindset, useful word shifts, foundational responsive practices, and strategic maneuvers. What can this look like? I’ll break it down.

Healthy mindset, helpful word shifts

Too often, education data is used to manage students and educators instead of empowering them. To know which data to collect and how to use it in ways that promote success, well-being, and agency, we must begin with a mindset check. Let’s return to the whole point of education: fueling learners and learning. When that empowering intent is in place, we’re more likely to focus on the data needed to make the right responsive “moves.” We’re also more likely to look for ways to truly partner with learners in data processes, including the practice of collecting data. (For more about shifting from learner manager to learner empowerer, see “It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment.”)

Too often, data is used to manage students and educators instead of empowering them.

When you’re attempting a mindset shift, words really matter. For example, I often say “learning evidence” instead of “data.” This keeps my focus on what I’m looking for (evidence) and why (for learning). This word shift can help us return to the reason we probably became educators in the first place—to support learners and learning—and help us make sure our education data actions align with those reasons. The word shift to “learning evidence” also helps draw attention to and validate a lot of important data work that educators and students are already doing together, such as planned and in-the-moment practice or check-for-understanding exercises, also known as formative assessment practices.

To further explore the empowerer mindset and “learning evidence” word shift, check out our learner manager/learner empowerer chart. There are plenty of real-world ways to apply this chart. If I were to use it with the science PLC I described above, for example, I would use a Think-Pair-Share exercise as a meeting warm-up to calibrate mindset and words before making next plans or actions.

Empowering kids with foundational responsive practices

Using education data to empower learners and learning also takes investment in foundational responsive learning cycle practices, embracing learning context, and strengthening learning culture. Without these elements in place, collecting and using data can be a disempowering and ineffective process. And in the absence of trusting relationships and environments, it’s a lot harder to engage students in data collection and make the right responsive moves.

The same goes for clarifying learning paths and identifying quality assessment processes. We don’t know which data to collect if we don’t examine large learning goals (such as content standards) or select quality mechanisms to check progress or achievement. Students can’t help us with data throughout the learning journey if they don’t know the success routes or the tool options used along the way. When we partner with students on these foundational responsive practices, we bring greater focus to our data collection efforts.

Using education data to empower learners and learning […] takes investment in foundational responsive learning cycle practices, embracing learning context, and strengthening learning culture.

As you reflect on these foundational responsive learning cycle practices, I recommend using our “Discussion prompts for empowering learners” worksheet, either by yourself or in discussion with colleagues. As an example of how I would use these prompts with my science PLC, I would select three to five prompts from the first page of the worksheet during a PLC meeting to help the teachers celebrate what’s already in place as well as to plan for the next steps.

Let’s get specific: Strategic maneuvers you can use today

We’ve talked about the importance of collaborating with your students throughout the learning journey to collect education data that will inform timely, best-fit responsive actions. Now all we need is some strategic maneuvers to make it happen. With the foundational practices described above, strategic maneuvers are more likely to work and the DRIP problem is less likely to occur. Let’s take a quick look at two clusters of strategic maneuvers, which come from the toolkit “Eliciting Evidence of Learning.” (See the first page for a complete list of all strategies.)

For starters: These are examples of strategic maneuvers for establishing or refreshing routines, structures, and expectations for collecting learning evidence with students. These examples build students’ self-efficacy and get their help with gathering data. A win-win!

  • Randomizers: Opportunity Sticks, Random Name, Word Picker
  • Inclusive pairing and grouping: Clock Partners, Counting Off, Randomly
  • All-student response systems (ASRSs): ABCD Cards, Fist to Five, Individual Response Boards, Pear Deck

Bump it up and keep it going: Below are examples of strategic maneuvers that sustain routines, structures, and expectations for collecting learning evidence with students. These examples engage learners to show what they know and can do. The strategies include how to capture the data with students in a variety of both digital and non-digital ways. Lastly, these examples mindfully increase complexity and responsibilities, which align to meeting and extending past large learning goals (such as content standards) with your students.

  • Questioning strategies: Hinge-Point Questions, Question Formulation Technique (QFT), Student-Generated Questions
  • Collaborative sharing or brainstorming strategies: Carousel Brainstorming, Jot!, Gallery Walk
  • Discussion strategies: Basketball Discussions, Keep the Question Going, Pose-Pause-Pounce-Bounce

There’s a reason why the strategic maneuvers I’m sharing here are small or medium day-to-day examples. By incrementally engaging learners in these practices throughout the learning journey, we’ll have the right mindset, partnership, and procedures in place when it comes time to collect and use larger kinds of data. As a result, the process is less likely to feel overwhelming or frustrating.

Of course, choosing the best-fit strategies depends on your learners’ context and learning goals. If I were using this toolkit with my science PLC, I would support them to identify the best-fit strategies or prompt them to suggest other strategies they’ve seen or used. Again, the strategy toolkit can help you celebrate what’s already in place as well as plan for next steps.

It’s a great time to renew, reenergize, and refocus

Educators and students can have strong, negative feelings or experiences when it comes to education data, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Engaging learners in collecting evidence is a way to empower both students and educators by reframing data processes. Mindset and word shifts, foundational responsive practices, and strategic maneuvers are concrete ways to renew, reenergize, and refocus. Of course, this is more important than ever after the experiences of the last few years!

Here’s a suggestion: Try out at least one of the resources or suggestions embedded above. Adjust as needed for your grade level and content area. And don’t worry if you find yourself thinking, “But wait—how will I actually use this data?!” In my next post, I’ll give examples of another responsive learning cycle practice: partnering with students to act on learning evidence.

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