By Ann Mausbach and Kim Morrison

As 6th-grade teachers introduce a Common Core State Standard, student work provides three lenses of clarity.

mc-cc1610_mausbachAfter reading a fifth book on how to understand and unpack the Common Core State Standards, one of us, Kim, a principal at a high-poverty middle school, was frustrated. Teachers were unpacking standards using the ideas she gleaned from the books, but there was a disconnect between what the standard was asking and what students were doing in classrooms. After several classroom observations, Kim concluded that the teachers weren’t really teaching the standard. I can statements were simply a restatement of the standard, leading to superficial knowledge.

Knowing that teachers needed a more in-depth understanding of what the standards were asking, Kim changed her unpacking process to include student work. Although she had used student work before when working with collaborative teams, it was typically brought in after a lesson was taught. Instead of waiting until after instruction, Kim decided to use student work before, during, and after instruction. It wasn’t until teachers analyzed student work throughout these three phases that they truly discovered what students needed to know and do.

Three lenses, three perspectives

People wear glasses to see more clearly. Student work has the same effect on teaching the Common Core standards. It’s like a pair of trifocals; each of the three lenses provides a different but necessary perspective (see Figure 1).

The smallest lens on the bottom of the trifocal helps us see things up close. Looking for evidence of the standard in preassessments helps teachers clearly define the target ¾ for example, learning to make explicit inferences ¾ because the work provides concrete examples from students who can and cannot demonstrate proficiency. Student work helps teachers diagnose what students need because it gives teachers the opportunity to analyze and identify patterns in the work. Just like glasses help us see the fine print on a label, student work helps identify the details of the standard. Providing students at the start of instruction with a task free of scaffolds provides valuable data about student performance on that task. This is how student work provides the first lens of clarity.

mausbachcc_1610_fig-1The second lens in the trifocal is for seeing objects in the intermediate zone of vision. During instruction, student work serves as an intermediator between the learning target and what is being learned. Student work in this phase of learning provides teachers with signals or guideposts to help them see if learning is taking place. This lens is important because it’s the bridge between what is taught and what is learned.

The final lens in the trifocal helps with distance vision. After instruction, student work provides a gauge for how near or far the learner is from the desired target. Teachers use student work to identify proficiency and recognize misconceptions. These misconceptions are diagnostic evidence that guide teachers as they respond to student learning needs. This step is crucial in bridging the gaps in student learning. The targets provided through student work give teachers a means to reteach or refine a concept within the standard so students can reach mastery.

How to use student work

To illustrate how pivotal student work is in planning, teaching, and responding to student needs, here’s an example from a team of 6th-grade language arts teachers who are working on Common Core State Standard RL1: Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text. For the purposes of this example, we’ll focus on just this one standard, acknowledging  that teachers would rarely teach one in isolation.

Before instruction

To determine the direction for instruction, teachers must start by identifying learning targets (what to teach) and proficiency statements (what it looks like when students arrive). Three common activities occur during this phase  ¾ unpacking standards, determining proficiency statements, and developing preassessments. At this point, student work provides the bull’s-eye for instruction. It enables teachers to give context to the standard so they can clearly see where they’re aiming.

mausbachcc_1610_fig-2To develop a logical progression for how to approach teaching the standard RL1, the teachers looked at student work from the previous year to plan instruction. Teachers needed clear statements of purpose (I can statements), and this required a deeper look at the standard. Examining work from the previous year made them more adept — and more precise — at identifying learning targets for explicit lessons. Consider the difference in unpacking the standard when teachers used student work and when they didn’t (see Figure 2).

Once the teachers more clearly defined the scope of what students needed to learn, they went back to student work from the previous year to identify what success on the standard looked like. They determined proficiency by reviewing student responses to prompts and uncovering the nuances between proficient and nonproficient. Teachers found it easy to determine proficiency when student work was presented along with clear I can statements.

The team then developed a preassessment to ensure that the proficiency statements accurately reflected the rigor of the grade level and would help jumpstart instruction (see Figure 3).

mausbachcc_1610_fig-3During instruction

The purpose of looking at student work during instruction is twofold. First, it guides teachers in differentiating instruction so they can respond to learning needs. Second, it helps teachers determine the student’s level of acquisition of the standard. During instruction, student work provides authentic visible insight of the learning taking place.

During several lessons on that 6th-grade standard, one teacher had students complete a graphic organizer (“Here’s what. So what? Now what?”) after reading a passage from Paper Towns by John Green. On the basis of how students completed this organizer, the teacher identified a small group of students who were unable to analyze evidence to determine an inference. He pulled them together and had them read a passage. He then did a think-aloud, having the students first do guided practice using the following text-dependent prompts:

  • What inferences can you make about the characters in this passage? (actions/feelings) (Example: The characters felt guilty about treating Margo this way.)
  • What evidence from this section of the text shows they were feeling this way? (Example: They were talking quietly, looking at their shoes, walking slowly, not looking at one another, and looking at hands; their faces were solemn and pale.)
  • Take two or three pieces of this evidence and explain why they show that the characters were feeling guilty. Which ones do you think are the best to explain? Remember, only put down your thinking that is directly linked to these examples ¾ nothing else.
  • Fill out the “So what?” portion of the organizer.

After completing this guided practice, the teacher asked students to practice independently. Students had to identify an inference they could make about a character, cite evidence that supported their inference, and give a brief explanation of how the evidence proved their inference was correct. This method of explicit instruction was instrumental in fine-tuning proficiency for these students, who were then able to use this standard successfully in their independent work.

After instruction

The purpose of looking at student work after instruction is to analyze student performance. This information helps teachers determine their own effectiveness and identify next steps. Independent work is vital during this phase because it demonstrates student understanding of the standard free of scaffolds. It provides a ruthless analysis of reality; it’s like seeing the picture unfiltered, without touch-ups.

The team compared independent student work, which consisted of an open-ended response from a self-selected book they had read with the standard and proficiency statements shown in Figure 3. Teachers traded the independent reading responses from their classrooms — that is, each looked at the work of another teacher’s students — and compared those responses with a proficiency rubric to see how well students had mastered the standard and how well teachers had taught it.

Kim, the principal, used a modified tuning protocol (Blythe, Allen, & Powell, 1999) that called for a description of the student work, clarifying questions, and warm feedback for the teacher. The description of the work allowed for shared understanding of the purpose and relevance of the work, whereas the warm feedback gave teachers a sense of empowerment. The protocol also called for suggestions on what the teacher might do to address student misunderstandings, which helped guide teachers in their reflection. They were then able to revise proficiency statements for clarity and determine next steps for instruction. For example the proficiency statement, “Student provides an analysis of evidence that supports inference” changed to, ”Student describes why or how the evidence they cited supports and connects to the inference.” Teachers then worked on having students transfer this practice to a variety of complex texts and genres free of scaffolds.

As a result of using this protocol, there were dramatic improvements in both student performance and teacher implementation. The percentage of students who were proficient in the standard increased to nearly 90% from 56%. Teachers also felt more confident in their understanding of the standard and more effective delivering instruction.

Not just any kind of student work

Not all student work is created equal. For teacher collaboration to result in deep understanding of the standards, student work needs to:

  • Be diagnostic. One of the purposes of looking at student work is to help teachers understand not only what to teach but also what to do when students struggle. To do this, student work must be rich enough to help teachers analyze errors and identify misconceptions. Fill-in-the-blank worksheets, word searches, multiple-choice questions with simplistic options, and other closed activities make diagnosing next steps difficult, if not impossible. The benefit of using student work when planning instruction is that it helps avoid engaging students in low-level tasks and quickly identifies areas that need to be retaught. To be diagnostic, student work needs to be authentic and relevant.
  • Promote thinking. Work that asks students to explain their thinking is beneficial in two ways. First, it helps students develop metacognitive skills. The more that students can identify the right cognitive tool for the task, the more likely they will be able to apply learning to new situations. Second, it gives teachers a glimpse inside the student’s head. This provides insight into what previous learning has stuck and where new learning hasn’t yet taken root.
  • Align with targets. Using student work before, during, and after instruction ensures that the intended learning target becomes the realized learning target. Having students engage in work that doesn’t match standards can confuse students and create learning gaps that result in a loss of precious instructional time.

Seeing 20/20

Blurry vision leads to frustration and missteps. When student work becomes the lens for planning, delivering, and responding to instruction, students, teachers, and administrators can clearly see the path in front of them. Learning to see with trifocals can be tricky at first. It takes time to get accustomed to looking at things from three different angles, but with frequent use, it becomes second nature. Using student work to help understand and teach the Common Core standards can feel cumbersome at first, but when teachers use this approach regularly, it will provide real focus.


Blythe, T., Allen, D., & Powell, B.S. (1999). Looking together at student work. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

ANN MAUSBACH (, @amausbach) is assistant professor of education at  Creighton University, Omaha, Neb. KIM MORRISON (, @kimmkaz) is principal of Wilson Middle School, Council Bluffs, Ia.

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