Five ways to measure pupil progress in the classroom and online

Written by: Michael Harpham | Published:
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With remote learning likely to continue to play a key role in education, former headteacher Michael Harpham suggests five different ways that teachers can measure progress, both in the classroom and online

When I was a headteacher, during teacher interviews, I always asked the question: “If I walked into your classroom, how would I see progress being made?”

These days, that question would have to also include the words “and online”. In this article, I would like to explain how teachers can measure progress in the classroom and remotely in five different ways.


Strategy 1: Developing progress in skills

Explicitly share the success criteria at the start of a project, so students fully understand, from the outset, what success in demonstrating their skills looks like in the classroom or at home

Following on from Professor Guy Claxton’s recent article in these pages (Claxton, 2020) advocating both skills and knowledge development in schools, I would suggest adding accuracy, pupil resilience and independent learning as methods of measuring pupil progress, both inside the classroom and remotely.

When developing skills with students, we are developing their ability to do something with increasing difficulty. Therefore, one measure of progress, in the classroom or online, is in the increasing difficulty of the activities we set to develop those skills. For the teacher, this means presenting increasingly difficult activities. For the student, this means demonstrating their increasing mastery of that skill.

From the teacher, this requires the skill to be modelled and explained, with the student being given feedback on any work completed. From the pupil, there is an increasing understanding of a skill, what to do and how to do it – becoming more able to demonstrate that skill whether online or in the classroom.

Modelling skills, explaining skills and giving feedback are all equally possible for the teacher whether online or in the classroom. The research into the teaching and learning of skills is prolific. However, there is a lack of clarity as to whether we need to develop skills, not just knowledge, or knowledge, not just skills. This is where I agree with Prof Claxton‘s article that we need to develop both.

So, whether online or in the classroom, teachers can gradually increase the challenge in the activities set, drop students in at the deep end and develop progress in an immersive way, scaffold the challenge or model and explain a skill clearly.

For practical subjects, this may be difficult and so a distribution of practical learning in lessons with knowledge and theory being consolidated independently will help develop the progress in practical skills.


Strategy 2: Developing progress in knowledge

Test students’ knowledge in the classroom with deep questions or a quick test to ascertain the level of knowledge they have learnt remotely

Like skills, knowledge is one of the key areas in which we show progress in schools. However, the measure of progress in knowledge is different. This measure is in the amount of knowledge a student knows, not in the level of difficulty in a skill they can show.

From the teacher’s perspective, this requires tasks and activities to include increasing amounts of information, more complex information, giving clear explanations and asking more detailed questions. From the pupil, this requires a response that demonstrates an increase in knowledge, deeper knowledge, a greater understanding and more detailed responses to questions being given.

Research suggests teaching knowledge in a way that is both challenging and coherent (Anderson, 2001; Kirby, 2016). There is also relevant and useful research around dual coding (Paivio, 1990; Clark 1991; Kirschner, 2002). For example, pupils learn more effectively by watching a film (animated non-verbal imagery and verbal voiceover) compared to other more uniform techniques. This is potentially good news for remote learning.

However, there is a note of warning here; and that is the increased risk of plagiarism and cheating, with students copying and pasting large bodies of text in answer to the questions posed by the teacher. This is where it is important that the teacher test what students have learnt remotely when they return to the classroom, whatever the quality of their online submissions.


Strategy 3: Developing progress in accuracy

Provide examples of what is both right and wrong. Explain clearly why something is right and why something is wrong so that the students fully understand both what is right and wrong when they work remotely

Teaching pupils accuracy can sometimes be easily forgotten in the unremitting focus of teaching students more knowledge, developing their skills and assessing both. However, it is more important than ever to teach students about accuracy and how to be accurate in what they do.

From the teacher, this includes increasing the number of problems set, increasing the difficulty of those problems and providing the success criteria to solving those problems. In addition, it is helpful to provide clear explanations and more varied examples of problems.

From the pupil, they should be able to accurately respond to an increasing number of more difficult problems, provide an increasing number of accurate responses and show increasing levels of accuracy in what they do.

Interestingly, there is very little in the research or even mention in the Ofsted framework as to the teaching and development of accuracy. This poses a problem for teachers when students are working remotely. How do pupils know they have given the right answer? How do they know they have done something accurately?


Strategy 4: Developing progress in resilience

Give students a checklist of how they can solve their own problems before coming to you, for example “Three Before Me” (take things slowly, one step at a time; ask a friend; ask a friend to check)

Another measure of progress is the student’s ability to be resilient. This is where they can complete increasingly more work or work for longer. This is because they are increasingly able to successfully meet the challenges they face in their work, on their own.

From the teacher, this requires students to be given numerous opportunities to be resilient; given clear explanations as to how to be resilient and with feedback for the students on their ability to be resilient. From the pupil’s perspective, there are more opportunities to practise at being resilient and to demonstrate a greater understanding of what that means.

Covid-19, probably more than any other situation, has meant we have all needed to show greater adaptability and resilience in what we do. Resilience is a skill that can be taught and therefore pupils can improve their resilience. Increasing the expectations of working at pace by completing more work in less time, for example, helps develop pupils’ resilience.


Strategy 5: Developing progress in independent learning

Share with students the assessment criteria for a scheme of work, and either set homework related to that project, or set them an independent project where they direct themselves/their work to meet the success criteria

Another measure of progress, I would suggest, is in the student’s ability to learn independently, with less teacher direction and more pupil direction. Covid-19 has probably developed this the most for schools in recent months.

Independent learning includes teacher-directed work with the teacher present in class but pupils working on their own; teacher-directed work with the teacher absent and pupils working on their own (homework), or teachers giving students an independent project to work on where they direct themselves.

Neither Ofsted, nor the government make it mandatory for schools to set homework (Ofsted, 2019). However, what is clear from the research (EEF, 2019) is that homework and independent learning are most effective when planned and focused. It is also clear, that it is not the quantity of homework set, but the quality that counts.


  • Michael Harpham is a former headteacher, leadership coach and education consultant. His book Progress Plain and Simple: What every teacher needs to know about improving pupil progress (Routledge) is out now. Visit http://bit.ly/395eFBX

Further information & resources

  • Anderson & Krathwohl: A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Pearson, 2001.
  • Clark & Paivio: Dual coding theory and education. In Educational Psychology Review (3), 1991.
  • Claxton: Knowledge and skills: How you can achieve both in your school, SecEd, June 2020: https://bit.ly/2BtBwvL
  • EEF: Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Homework, 2019: http://bit.ly/2YGEGa5
  • Kirby: Knowledge, memory and testing. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, Birbalsingh (Ed), John Catt Publishing, 2016.
  • Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark: Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. In Educational Psychologist (41), 2006.
  • Paivio: Mental Representations: A dual coding approach, Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • SecEd: Research analysis: Getting the most out of homework, Dabell, September 2019: https://bit.ly/2Qzostc


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