What Does High Quality Student Work Look Like?


     Every classroom in every grade revolves around content work. The work can be discussions, games, projects, research, technology, art-work, conversations, and other formats, but a great deal of it results in written products. Teaching our kids to produce high-quality student work can be a struggle.

     Students and parents can often be confused and even stressed about just what that final product should be or look like. Of course, we want the content to be mastered and correct, but there are conventions to "top-quality" work. There is always showing ownership (Lord, how many times in a career do we say, "Put your name on your paper"?), neatness, and legibility. As teachers, we don't expound on these conventions because it's fun to fuss or because we don't have enough to do. We are trying to instill proper work habits that will transfer into our students' adult lives. We want them to be able to navigate their own careers and work goals with the tools they need to be successful.

     One year, I finally realized that showing was better than telling my 5th grade students. Instead of once again lecturing them about the quality of their work - a lecture they obviously weren't listening to - I decided to create a portfolio of sorts, an exemplar that students could reference when they needed to.

Choose Your High-Quality Criteria

      I first decided what high-quality standards I was looking for in my students' work. What exactly DOES high-quality 5th grade work look like? I chose these measures to start with:

1.  The work product is reasonably neat throughout.  

Handwriting and drawing can be a struggle for some students. I knew my kids and what their neatest work looked like, so I used that as my gauge.

2. All math work shows your thinking.  

I always need my students to show their thinking well enough that I could trace it all the way through.

3. The work product is complete.  

Of course, all parts of an assignment must be included. I also wanted to see correct labeling, numbering, coloring, headings, pieces glued on, and anything specific to the activity.

4. Work is checked for accuracy.

Student work will often have mistakes.  It's such a good habit to develop to actually re-read or re-work activities to be sure it's as accurate as possible.

5. Work shows "effort".  

Teachers love to mention this! It is so subjective, but effort is still evident.  I explained to my students that when I say "effort", I mean doing your personal best, including things like: coloring is even and complete, not scribbled; individual neatness is evident; answers are thoughtful, not trite.

6. Work is turned in on time. 

This can't actually be displayed , but can be a standard.

     Then, I settled on the old tried-and-tried 3-ring binder. I gathered multiple examples of 5th grade work that showed these elements and put them in the binder. Keep in mind that I was not looking only for the A+, 100, "excellent" papers that some students can consistently create. I wasn't looking for perfect. I don't believe that "high-quality" means perfect. After all, we're working with young humans. I wanted to display age-level, performance-level, and grade-level appropriate work samples that students could reasonably emulate and learn to produce on their own.
     I had a few older samples stuck back from earlier years, but I had to choose many pieces from the classes I had that year. I chose teacher-created and student-created work, long-term projects and short-term, tests, quizzes, and writing samples. If I had it to do again with our current technology, I would definitely have digital portfolios available. I would also continue the hands-on approach and take photos of larger things such as 3-D projects and posters and put them into the notebook. To preserve privacy, I put a label over student names and, sometimes, the grade. Again, I didn't want students to wrongly assume that the only good work was beautiful and mistake-free.

     When my portfolio was complete, I discussed its purpose with my students. I housed it on the tray of our whiteboard where all could see it and use it during the day. I have to tell you here that students often browsed through it during their breaks and down time. I loved seeing them use it in such a leisurely way! I knew that they would steadily process what they were seeing and that those elements would eventually show up in their own work.

     A wonderful, but unintended, consequence of our notebook was that I was able to share it with parents, too. During conferences or casual drop-by visits, I could point to some great work samples for specific activities. It really seemed to help my parents when they saw that 5th grade work could actually look like it was done by children and didn't need that adult "touch" added to it.


     Could you try this strategy for encouraging high-quality student work in your classroom? I believe it would be appropriate for any grade level, any subject(s).  I'd love to hear how this strategy, or another method, works for you! Let me know in the comments!
     We're all in this together!
Growing Grade By Grade
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