Using exemplars and Goldilocks analysis

How many times over the years have I read student work and thought “They clearly didn’t get it. This is not what I was expecting. How could they have not understood what was expected of them for this assignment?” In my current role, I have worked with many teachers experiencing the same problem. I have seen the script play out in the classroom countless times and am no longer surprised by the confusion and frustration that is oftentimes the result.

Fortunately, I have had these thoughts less and less over the years for a couple of reasons. The first and most significant reason is that I have been fortunate enough to team teach my classes in the past few years with a trusted colleague, Naomi Appel (@njappel). Together we have rewritten and redesigned most of the course materials and spent a considerable amount of time improving the wording and instructions on the assignments we give. We have also gotten better at spending more time before students create work helping them to understand what “excellent” work looks like. We have become big fans of providing exemplars of student work and taking the time to assess and evaluate the examples with our students before they start their own work. A recent example will help to illustrate what I mean.

A recent assignment required our students to write a letter back to a fictional Dr. Knowsitall who had asked for their assistance with a lab-based problem. In their letter, they needed to describe the procedures they carried out in the lab with “enough but not too much detail.” The amount of detail was different than if they were writing for a less scientifically literate audience since Dr. Knowsitall is a learned woman with a great deal of scientific training and experience. (They are beginning to think that she does not actually “know it all” since they have had to help her a few times already this year!) Rather than assume that the students knew exactly what “enough but not too much detail” meant and rather than simply describing what we meant by the concept, we projected several examples from past student papers and took the time to assess the pieces with our current students. We perform a “Goldilock’s analysis” of the example:

Where did the writer include too much detail?

Where did the writer not include enough detail?

How could you improve this sentence or section and make it “just right”?

The process definitely takes time but has been well worth it in the long run. Most students are capable of meeting or exceeding the academic target if they actually know what that target looks like. Contrary to what some critics may think, providing concrete examples does not stifle creativity or spoon-feed the students too much; it frees them to focus on the execution of the goal rather than wonder if they are giving the teacher “what he/she wants” on the assignment.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

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