Working With Student Exemplars

by Shelley Robinson, PhD (Vice Principal at CSS)

One of the goals in our AISI Cycle 4 work at the Calgary Science School is that “teachers will find and develop student exemplars that demonstrate the expectations of the program while considering and then clarifying the standards and scope and sequence of the graded programs” (CSS AISI Report).
However, when we pulled teachers together to work with some homegrown student writing exemplars (grades 4 to 9) at a professional development day (2010), with the intention of grading these using a common rubric, some interesting observations came up in conversation.
We later made similar discoveries in a second professional development day where we examined some student IMovies (grades 4 to 9) with the same intention of grading them, but while looking at them first holistically, then normatively, and finally with criteria-referenced rubrics (2011). What we found in both professional development sessions with both types of learning outcomes was that by actually participating in the matter of exemplars, things were not quite as straightforward as we had expected. A series of questions emerged as we entered each phase of our professional development work together.
What we first noticed in both professional development days with student exemplars as our full staff focus was that we had some difficulty finding exemplars from our teachers representing “poor”, “satisfactory” and “very good” work. Teachers have a tendency to save the “very good” examples of their student work, and lose the other examples along the way. In fact, teachers often save only their very “outstanding” examples of students’ work. What we are learning is that students often respond positively to being able to see the varying standards of product and performance (insufficient, poor, limited, satisfactory, proficient and excellent). They often identify with a specific exemplar standard and can then strive to achieve or exceed it. By only providing examples of excellence, there is not always a way for students to see the discreet ladder of success that they must climb to get to the target of defining their work as exceptional at their grade level.
We also found that sometimes the student exemplars that we did save were far above what the provincial grade level expectations would need to be for that type of assignment. When we looked at all of the student exemplars as a full staff (which also served as an informal exercise in cross-graded and curricular scope and sequencing), we found some discrepancies in what we were expecting from our students.
For example, with certain Grade 5 IMovies, when students were given numerous hours and opportunities to complete a representation of their curricular understanding, the work far exceeded what might have been a reasonable curricular expectation of a Grade 5 student. In fact, in some cases, a few of the IMovies resembled something of a Grade 7 or 8 standard. We then asked ourselves: Is it then fair to hold this Grade 7 standard up as a model of a Grade 5 achievement of “excellence”? Or, would it be better to suggest that this (above grade level exemplar) is what might be achieved with an exceptional amount of time and dedication, but here (grade level) is a more reasonably targeted grade level exemplar to share with students?

The question then became: How much time do we give to students to complete an assignment or project to demonstrate core understandings and competencies in a subject area? If we hold exemplars up from projects to students, where an exceeding amount of time is given for an assignment, (and in some cases, we determined, too much time) do these models serve as accurate targets for students to achieve in a reasonable length of time, on their own, with a normal amount of teacher and parental support?
What we determined in our post-activity discussion was that in some cases the form of representation media or technology was superfluous to the curriculum expectations. These projects did not help students to develop knowledge or even enrich the experience. Instead, it was a time-filler or an exercise in mastery that took multiple hours away from learning other valuable curriculum outcomes in their programs.
We concluded that assignments, and in particular, larger projects, require careful attention by teachers to be sure that they support, are relevant and align with the curriculum outcomes. Otherwise, these end products became exemplars of work that might precipitate future assignments of the same type that are not necessarily valuable to the program.
We determined as a staff that when working with student exemplars, there is a strong need to look at our assignments very carefully in terms of how we set students up to succeed within them, and then in turn, create products that we can in turn hold up as examples for future generations of students doing similar work:
1) What are the curriculum outcomes that these types of assignments will demonstrate?
2) What will be the criteria by which we assess these outcomes?
3) How will we communicate and collaborate with students about the language of the curriculum and representational media/technology (ICT) outcomes (and other integrated curricula)?
4) What varying exemplars (varying standards of success) will we use to help promote students to identify and then attempt to rise higher on their own ladders of academic success?
5) How will we update our exemplars in light of ongoing student collaboration in any given project?
We all agreed that using student exemplars is a powerful way of holding up learning targets to assist students to better understand how to represent their understanding in various forms; however, when not thought-through, exemplars have the potential to mislead, and misrepresent how students should best learn their school programs.
Therefore, we endeavor, as a teaching staff, to begin harvesting more student exemplars that consider very carefully these fundamental questions about the use of exemplars in our programs.

One thought on “Working With Student Exemplars

  1. Thanks, I was just at an Ann Davies workshop. Some of these points were discussed although not brought up directly. They displayed a writing continuum that a school had created for grades. It put all the work created in order from weakest to strongest, and on the facing page wrote in what skills were displayed in the work. Then teachers, parents and students could look at the handbook to figure out where they were at and where to head next. The continuum was printed (without names) and made available to everyone at the school.

    Thank you for your blog entries, I have enjoyed them.

    Corrinne Arnold, Teacher
    Bruno Central School, Bruno, SK
    Horizon School Division

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