Not Just Numbers: How Educators Are Using Data in the Classroom

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If you’re an educator, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “data-driven instruction,” where you’re asked to constantly assess, analyze, and adjust how you teach students.

But one word in that phrase often raises a host of questions: What counts as “data”? How do you collect it? And what types of data can best offer insights into whether students are learning in your classroom?

To shed some light on the questions above, EdSurge talked to six educators to get their take. Here’s the big takeaway: Data doesn’t just come in the form of grades, attendance records and answers on multiple choice questions. Today’s tools offer new forms of data, and figuring which ones are most appropriate to your needs can be daunting. Luckily, these six educators have recommendations that anyone can start implementing immediately.

Let Data Inform (Not Drive)

Many educators urge their fellow professionals to move away from the concept of “data-driven,” and instead towards a culture of “data-informed.” That includes Maine educator Julie Willcott, who concedes that some of the most informative data she has used came not from summative tests or graded assignments, but rather from assessments she used to identify students’ learning preferences at the beginning of a semester. “In my mind, this keeps the learning in the driver’s seat,” she says. “These results have helped students and I to be aware that we all learn differently and to develop pathways for the greatest success.”

Jake Firman, Senior Manager of Education Technology at DSST Public Schools in Denver, adds that his vision for data is rooted more in using data points for comparison, and less in identifying which students are “succeeding” and which are “failing.”

“[We] break down data by ELLs (English Language Learners) versus non-ELLs, special education students versus non-SPED students, and students receiving particular interventions versus those who are not receiving those interventions,” he says. “That’s where the data truly tells a story.”

It’s Not All About Multiple Choice: Different Types of Data to Experiment With

Data, insofar as it relates to student learning, can carry negative connotations. That's understandable given that how kids performed on state and national assessments can impact funding. But Firman expresses a firm belief that the scores from these types of testing are far from the only types of data schools and/or teachers should be collecting.

For example, at DSST, Firman and his staff have championed the art of “cultural data,” where they’re tracking how students and teachers are adhering to the district’s set of norms, values and beliefs. According to Firman, tracking something as seemingly nebulous as “culture” actually allows teachers and school leaders to identify—and act on—things like “particular student-teacher relationships that are struggling or excelling within the school, subtle shifts of a school culture from positive to negative reinforcement, or early signs that a student is not buying into the values of the school community.”

Firman is not the only educator who looks for data in areas other than test performance. Dan Ryder, an English teacher at Mt. Blue High School in Maine, shares that he’s always looking to replace those forms of “data” with what he calls “evidence,” his word for student work like blogging that offer more ways for students to learn and reflect. Over on the West Coast, Mt. Diablo Unified fifth grade teacher Craig Yen favors “getting data from observation of students,” live and in the classroom.

The Best Data Tools for the Job

Depending on the task at hand, teachers turn to a variety of tools that offer data on how their students are learning.

Among the recommendations: Stacey Roshan from The Bullis School in Washington, D.C. says that she loves using EDpuzzle’s data analytics features for her flipped classroom. EDPuzzle is video customization platform for classroom lessons, and Roshan says: “All homework is watched through EDpuzzle. By reviewing the analytics provided, I have a sense of how to customize instruction in each of my classes before students even walk into the room. I know who I need to spend a bit more time with and who I might call on to lead a small group discussion.”

Roshan also loves Pear Deck, a communication platform that lets teachers create interactive assessments and presentations that students can follow along on their devices: “I use Pear Deck in the classroom, most often as a warm-up activity, to gauge how students are thinking about bigger picture questions.”

For math, Lisa Palmieri, the Head of School at Holy Family Academy (HFA) in Pittsburgh, Penn., loves the learning analytics available from the Think Through Math program. “We have a blended and personalized math program that meets the individual needs of students,” she tells EdSurge. “Teachers were trained on how to use these analytics to set goals, pull out small groups based on need and accelerate learning.”

However, Palmieri makes clear that HFA isn’t just using data tools created by outside companies. Like Firman, Palmieri wants to track culture—and prefers to use a custom tool that she and her students built themselves. Last year, they created an app to measure student growth aligned to HFA’s collection of skills known as Mindsets.

“Students use the app in advisory class, and we check it out weekly to see any patterns trends,” she says.

At the End of the Day, Data is a Pulse Check

As with most things in education, data isn’t always definitive. Looking at data to determine a direct cause of an outcome can be tricky. Rather, consider it a pulse check—something to inform, rather than drive.

Firman is steadfast in his last piece of advice to educators: collecting more data isn’t always the best option. Rather, spend your time exploring what types of data works for you and your student.

“I think they’re a treasure trove of insight in the story behind student achievement,” he says.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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