Analyzing Student Work in Professional Learning Communities


By Craig Simmons

Analyzing Student Work in Professional Learning CommunitiesEach day, during every lesson, students provide us with tons of information we can use to address their instructional needs. Student polls, exit tickets, student responses during discussions, student clickers, and quizzes are only a few of the many examples of student work teachers can use to align instruction to learning needs. Authentic student work, such as student completed graphic organizers, projects, essays, and constructed responses, yields qualitative information that provides insight into students’ thinking. This is the type of data you want to collect (Dunn, 2012). Having this type of qualitative data will allow you to see the gaps in students’ thinking as well as their misconceptions. Well-constructed selected response questions can provide similar information. However, the insight into student thinking is somewhat limited to the answers they select.

Although developing assessments and collecting student work is critical, they are just the initial phase of using data to ameliorate learning and instruction. To effectively meet the needs of all students and avoid implementing instruction that is superfluous, PLCs must analyze student work to determine the requisite knowledge and skills that students have and need in order to determine subsequent steps in instruction. So, how do PLCs analyze student work for learning? It is not as arduous and convoluted as you think. Moreover, this worthwhile process is more beneficial when done collaboratively (DuFour, 2015). In this case, two minds are definitely better than one.

Here is a suggested procedure for analyzing student work with your PLC:

  1. After using the backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) to develop an assessment, reach a consensus to determine the levels or quality of student proficiency. Deciding on quality requires developing criteria for each level of achievement (e.g., high, medium, and low or not proficient, proficient, and exceeding).
  2. Discuss and evaluate student work samples to determine quality level. When discussing, focus on the critical attributes you developed for the criteria. In addition, discuss any attributes you observed when evaluating but didn’t include in the criteria; if you need to make changes to the criteria, do so.
  3. Determine student achievement levels and identify areas of strength and weakness.
  4. Research instructional strategies that can be implemented to help students move from one level of proficiency to the next.

As a former instructional coach, one of my responsibilities was to field test a strategy for effectiveness before implementing it. Field testing entailed the following: 1) identifying an academic area in need of improvement (whether for a specific grade level or the whole school); 2) researching strategies aligned to that area; 3) implementing the strategy; 4) taking note of key things that I did and said that led to student attainment of the skill or concept and making adjustments based upon student needs; and 5) reassessing to determine the impact of the strategy.

The process of field testing instructional strategies provides useful information for teachers before they implement a strategy. For example, teachers know what to expect in terms of student responses, misunderstandings, and misconceptions. Moreover, they have ideas and tactics for addressing challenges that are likely to occur. For a plethora of reasons, I highly recommend field testing as part of the process of using student work to make instructional decisions.

Analyzing student work plays a critical role in student achievement. The absence or presence of this process influences the trajectory of student growth. Collaborating with teachers in PLCs provides the perfect opportunity to evaluate student work and reach consensuses about the quality of student performance. This collaboration influences not only students and their learning but also teachers and their instructional effectiveness. Because the process of analyzing student work is so valuable to improving student learning and teaching, it should be a priority in all PLCs.



DuFour, R. (2015). Advocates for professional learning communities: Finding common ground in education reform. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from

Dunn, D. W. (2012). Teachers learn from looking together at student work. Retrieved February 12, 2016 from

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


Craig Simmons is an educational consultant and co-owner of CurriculumConnections. Contact Simmons at or on Twitter @_craigasimmons.