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Using Small Data to Help Students Succeed!

November 10, 2015

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 2: Measure Progress

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It’s now officially November. It seems like the year just started, yet the calendar indicates that Thanksgiving break is right around the corner. Where did the time go?

As teachers, it’s easy to be consumed by the hectic academic schedule. Between writing daily lesson plans, grading assignments, organizing report cards, and prepping for parent conferences, it can feel like you’re barely making it from one deadline to another, especially in your first few years. By the time you’re able to lift your head up for a breath, a third of the school year is over, and you’re left wondering how you’ll manage the rest of your curriculum in the time remaining.

Often lost in the ensuing rush to get through content is the willingness to slow down and measure progress. Evaluating student progress through small, formative assessments provides teachers a wealth of information about what students already know, where they have misconceptions, and how best to proceed.

In today’s blog, Master Teacher Jennifer Valentine describes how she uses the small data she collects from formative assessments to inform her practice and improve the outcomes for her students. On the BetterLesson site, we have a whole section of lessons around assessment and Data. Check it out! Enjoy!


Valentine - header graphicCollecting data and using it in a meaningful way are not as synonymous as they should be. Years ago, most teachers gave weekly quizzes and graded assignments, as well as larger tests and graded projects. Those scores were compiled and averaged to determine students’ final grade for a subject or course. There wasn’t a relationship between how students scored and what was taught. If students didn’t do well, it was understood to be their fault for not studying or paying attention. The teacher wasn’t expected to reflect on his or her own practice. As a consolation, teachers might “drop” a student’s lowest quiz grade, which didn’t change the student’s learning, but it did give them a better overall grade.

In the past, grades were simply the average of scores from assessments. High or low, they did little or nothing to change or individualize instruction. These neat, seemingly clear-cut end scores were appealing because it was an easy way to communicate with all stakeholders, but at its core, the score often held little true value.

Thankfully, we’ve evolved. It’s been a bumpy road, but I feel like we’ve now entered the light at the end of the tunnel. It is now the norm (if not the expectation) for teachers to use data in their daily planning. I’m not talking about the sea of data derived from the numerous district, state, and national standardized tests. This data, while important, doesn’t inform our teaching “in the moment.” No, I’m talking about small data, the kind that is both quickly obtained and immediately actionable.

The way I see it, small data encompasses the combination of mini-formatives and other informal data collection tools that change what we do in the classroom in real time. Gone are the days that teachers reflect on and change instruction at the end of a unit, or even at the end of the week. Today, we have the ability and the need to change what we are doing every day, and every hour, based on the changing needs of individual students and our classroom as a whole.

This approach may not provide as many pretty little data points as weekly quizzes but if that’s something you need to do for accountability requirements, continue to give the weekly quiz. That doesn’t prevent you from using “smaller” data!

Let me give you a practical example:

I teach 3rd grade, and prior to formally starting to teach division, I like to get a sense of students’ prior knowledge as well as their ability to apply what they know about multiplication, addition, and subtraction to division. I also want to get an idea of their number sense.

This year I asked students to solve 300 divided by 7. I suggested that they draw a model or equation to represent how they would approach solving this problem and reassured them that I wasn’t interested in speed or the correct answer but instead wanted to take a peek at their thinking about math.

As I walked around the room, I saw various pieces of informative small data:

  • A few students had very deliberately written the problem in standard algorithm format and then were constructing a number of creative and off-the-mark ways to write numbers below and above the division symbol, as they’d clearly seen others do.
  • Other students started to draw pictures then paused when they realized they really didn’t want to draw out 300 individual dots or lines.
  • Another subset wrote answers ranging from 40-65.
  • A final group, spread throughout the room so I knew they weren’t mimicking one another, wrote an answer of 600, which I found puzzling.

In 8 minutes they were done, and I had photographs (like those below) and notes that informed both my immediate instruction (I backed up and did some estimation and number sense work), as well as the next day’s lesson (I introduced the idea of division as repeated subtraction).

Valentine Graphic 1 (1)

What might have appeared to a non-educator to be a randomly posed question was, in fact, a meaningful means of collecting small data about students ability to:

  • Apply knowledge of multiplication to division.
  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • Use number sense to gauge the reasonableness of an answer.
  • Use multiple strategies to approach a new concept.
  • Transfer skills from other learning standards to new material.

Another key understanding I’ve reached about small data is that it’s worth the time it takes to transfer my anecdotal notes, checklists and photographs of student work to online running records of student progress. The highly specific nature obtained through informal formatives is some of the most powerful information a teacher can use to enrich, target, and differentiate instruction.

For teachers unaccustomed to making time for activities like the one above, it can be difficult to ‘give up’ precious instructional time to watch students flail around with a challenging problem. However, if you carefully document their attempts, the data you collect will help you prepare specific and targeted lessons to meet students where they are and to help them succeed.*

*If you need ideas or lessons, be sure to check out the thousands of CCSS and NGSS aligned lessons on the BetterLesson site! You can choose a lesson that targets the exact standard, sub-skill, content, or thinking process you want to observe. With the major planning aspect taken care of, you’ll free up some of your teacher energy to focus on taking notes on specific student actions that demonstrate areas of strength and areas for further growth!  Happy teaching!


Jennifer Valentine is a National Board Certified 3rd-grade teacher at Liberty Gifted and Talented Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona.  Jennifer has a genuine love of learning, creating new lessons with cross-curricular themes, developing intercultural competence and introducing new technological applications that enhance her students’ engagement with content and concepts. She is committed to bridging what she sees as an unfortunately persistent gap between “soft” humanities perspectives about nature and hard science by introducing real-world context and applications.

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