How do you know your students are learning?

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
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Great Article. As an experienced educator, i agree with this edition of Secondary Education. My ...

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How can you judge whether all your students are learning something in your lessons and making the progress they are capable of? Teacher Helen Webb discusses what learning looks like...

A few years ago, back in the days when our lessons were formally judged, I remember feeling tremendously frustrated about missing out on that prized “outstanding” judgement.

My feedback was that to secure that judgement it needed to be clear that “all” pupils had made progress in my lesson. Had they all done this? I remember having a gut feeling that the majority of pupils seemed to have done well during that lesson, but I couldn’t be 100 per cent sure on an individual basis.

It is a conversation that has stayed with me ever since. What followed was a personal project trialling and evaluating all sorts of assessment for learning (AfL) and marking/feedback strategies that aimed to effectively demonstrate pupil progression. Consequently I have delivered numerous CPD sessions, usually to new teachers challenging them to also consider how they know that all students are learning in their lessons.

Of course, the emphasis is now on progress over time, however relying on end-of-module assessments means that by the time we discover they are behind it is often too late for them to catch up.

So, how can you know that all your students are learning something in every lesson that you teach and how can we be better at this so that all our students can gain the most progress possible?

Get to know your students

I think the most important thing we can do as a teacher is to know our students. Showing unconditional positive regard, taking the time to build rapport, being genuinely interested in each student, as well as showing concern for their learning, is invaluable to building the esteem needed for students to feel they can learn and make progress in your classroom.

To enable me to get to know my students I keep a student file with sections for each class I teach. This includes student photographs, seating plans, their target data, past assessment data, and any relevant SEN, gifted and talented, or Pupil Premium information.

I also use this folder as a working mark book to track pupil progress over time. I tend to print off relevant emails or make note of key information provided by parents, pastoral staff or the students themselves.

Where possible I try to gain information from previous teachers and flick through past exercise books if they are available. For certain key classes I will also keep a sheet of A4 paper for handwritten notes on a lesson-by-lesson basis of individual student absence or punctuality issues and any other relevant information.

This is a valuable document, as I usually end up with evidence of patterns of certain types of behaviour with some students. It is also a good way to keep track of any interventions you may put in place and provides great evidence for parents’ evenings etc.

Have you got your starting point right?

How many times have you ploughed straight into a lesson only to have a sea of blank faces looking back at you?

We often assume a certain amount of previous knowledge or skills in our students, but it is easy to forget that many students could have either been absent, had the proverbial supply teacher for that lesson or just “didn’t get it” previously with you or their last teacher.

The converse argument also applies. Pitching your lesson at the wrong level wastes such a lot of time, either having to back track and reteach at a more basic level or finding that you have wasted valuable time teaching skills they already have.

There are all sorts of strategies for diagnosing current understanding and getting your starting point right (end-of-topic tests, questionnaires, mini-quizzes, creating concept maps, knowledge grids, asking key questions or discussing contextual awareness etc). However, I find one of the simplest and most effective strategies when embarking on a new concept is to get out the mini-whiteboards and ask students to write down everything they know about said topic.

Building up a series of questions of sequential difficulty and assessing the blanket of answers is an effective way of finding your exact starting point and also quickly identifying any misconceptions.

Of course, you need to be ready and secure in your own subject knowledge to be able to stretch thinking and accelerate through the topic if greater challenge is necessary. I also find it useful to tell the students exactly what you are doing. So many students I come across are afraid to write something incorrect in their book. Using the mini-whiteboards helps to solve this problem as any errors are easily amended or wiped clean.

I also continually repeat my mantra: “I don’t know if a blank page means the work is too difficult or just too easy – show me your thinking, so I can help you better understand this.”

What does learning look like?

If you were looking for evidence of learning in any classroom you would likely start by looking for general observations of gains in knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes. In his book, And the Main Thing is... Learning, Mike Hughes summarises the following indicators that might mean learning is taking place. Children are:

  • Explaining something in their own words.
  • Asking questions.
  • Making connections.
  • Recreating (rather than reproducing) information.
  • Justifying their decisions.
  • Explaining their thinking.
  • Talking to each other.
  • Active – doing something with the information.
  • Reflecting at a conscious level.
  • Offering analogies and metaphors of their own: Oh I get it – it’s a bit like...
  • Re-drafting, revising, re-thinking and so on.
  • Frowning (the penny is stuck) ... and then smiling (as the penny drops).

If you were observing another class you would probably talk to and question both students and teachers, you may analyse pupils’ work and look for comparisons between target and attainment grades and any signs of improvement. You may also look for evidence of progress via AfL and plenary strategies. Be your own lesson observer (and be critical!).

Demonstrating progress

In order to make (and show) progress, not only do you need to know students’ starting points, students also need to know what they are aiming for. Success criteria, whether it is in the form of a target grade or exemplar, needs to be shared with and understood by pupils; like many others, our department puts target stickers in students’ books, so there is no excuse for not knowing your target.

AfL strategies can be used to compare performance to targets – e.g. converting a score in a quiz to a grade or a RAG code (red, amber, green), which can be tracked against specification criteria by students in their own book or via teacher spreadsheet on a lesson-by-lesson basis (for time-saving, instead of replying “here” for the register, can the students reply with a score?).

A good AfL activity not only demonstrates the progress students’ make during lessons but also clearly indicates how students can improve further. Providing regular DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time) in response to AfL activities enables students to respond to feedback and make further progress. Many teachers now employ the use of alternative coloured pens to make this progress more evident.

Be critical!

While effective use of AfL can enable you to better monitor how well students are doing in your lessons, caution is still advised. In his blog Why AfL might be wrong, and what to do about it, David Didau explains that AfL is predicated on the assumption that you can assess what pupils have learned in an individual lesson.

However, you cannot see learning; you can only see performance. Performance is a poor indicator of how well pupils might retain or be able to transfer knowledge or skills.

Simply put, just because a pupil can recall certain facts at the end of the lesson does not mean he or she has necessarily learnt this information or that it has been transferred into the long-term memory. This is where your summative assessment activities are important.

Andy Griffiths and Mark Burns in their book Outstanding Teaching: Teaching Backwards also encourage teachers to become better “teacher detectives” and to be more critical in their approach to assessing learning in the classroom.

Strategies such as “thumbs up – thumbs down”, RAG cards, rating learning objectives using smiley or sad faces or even using scale questionnaires to rate understanding at the start and end of a lesson do serve to make a quick assessment of pupil confidence, and can help you gauge the pace of your lesson, but confidence does not necessarily equate to learning.

Activities such as cloze passages, true-false quizzes or spot the mistake, can be used to diagnose understanding, and are relatively quick and easy to complete and mark.

However, Griffiths and Burns encourage teachers not to make assumptions. They suggest providing students with opportunities that result in hard evidence that learners can not only apply what they have learnt but can also recreate it in other formats.

Strategies that involve students explaining or recreating a concept in their own words either verbally or in writing are far more effective for identifying misconceptions and are great opportunities for providing high-quality individualised feedback and therefore ensuring greater progress.

Teachers sometimes avoid this type of AfL strategy because it can become time-consuming and can have obvious implications on marking and workload. Perhaps I can argue though, that if you get the starting point right, then you probably do have the time!

  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can follow her @helenfwebb. To read Helen’s previous articles for SecEd, visit


  • And the Main Thing is… Learning: Keeping the Focus on Learning - for Pupils and Teachers, Mike Hughes, 2006, Jigsaw Pieces.
  • Why AfL might be wrong and what to do about it, David Didau, March 2014:
  • Outstanding Teaching: Teaching Backwards, Andy Griffith and Mark Burns, 2014, Osiris Educational

Great Article. As an experienced educator, i agree with this edition of Secondary Education. My question is a request from my continued experience as a Language educator in Texas. Knowing that a second language, and language acquisition are much more demanding and divers in representation for any student in the lower grades who might have linguistic or varied forms of demonstration to their personal learning, the "TEACHING BACKWARDS" of outstanding Teaching still causes instructional overload of data that, more often than not, puts administrator agendas as a objective/subjective PLANNING and SCHEDULING to do list OVER such quality teaching based on these types of educational best practices. Thus my question is from an URBAN School District whose TEACHER pay rate consumes teacher's with EXTRA planning just to meet deadlines that are constantly changing as well. Question: How can teacher's MODEL classroom BEST PRACTICE RIGOR, without Leadership approval, if the acquisition of language is even more subjective/objective based on the student's progressing need of Pre-K thru 6 teaching impacted by limited social norms, and causes documentation overload requirements for educator's "LEARNING" their diverse learner's needs OUTSIDE of Academic Language Testing demands of ANY struggling new language learner???
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