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Teaching Strategies: Using Samples to Improve Student Work

Janelle Cox

We typically use teaching strategies that contain explanations and rubrics to frame their learning goal. But we also know that teaching strategies that share sample pieces of work, especially, give students a clear conception of what it is they’re supposed to do. An example takes a student from having an abstract explanation or list of requirements to an, “Oh … that’s what I’m trying to make my work look like!” kind of understanding. How we use samples as teaching strategies can make a big difference in terms of how well students perform the assigned task. Here are a few ideas for how to incorporate the use of samples into your classroom to help students better understand what they’re trying to do and how to do it.

Teaching Strategies: Show Them Both Good and Bad Samples, and Talk About the Qualities of Each

Often we show students just what a “Good” example would look like. This is useful, but not as useful as contrasting that good quality sample to one not completed as effectively. Engage students in a conversation that asks them to compare and contrast the good and bad examples, leading them to articulate for themselves what makes a quality product.

As a bonus, include a medium example as well. Then students can further distinguish between what qualifies as excellent, proficient, and not proficient.

Show Them Samples, and Have Them Decide Which Ones They Would Use

Instead of labeling for students which samples are good or bad, give students a small array of unlabeled samples. Then let them decide. As they parse through various aspects of the samples’ qualities, the best ones will likely be self-evident. Use this as a tool to discuss with students what qualities they found the most impressive, and then in turn encourage them to embrace these same qualities in their work.

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Show Them a Rubric and Have Them Grade Samples

In addition to having students discuss qualities of various samples, equip students with the rubric you’ll be using and ask them to grade the samples like you would. This helps students compare the works to the standards you’ll be using and critically processing what elements lead to a quality result. When it comes time for students to produce their own work, they can apply their observations.

Show Them Samples and Have Them Develop Rubrics

Go one step beyond just providing students with a rubric. Equip students with sample works and then ask students to develop their own rubric based on the qualities they see. Students can engage in a process of distinguishing between effective and ineffective elements of the samples, and gathering a sense of what elements are the most important to focus on that leads to a quality product.

Have Them Compare Their Own Work to Samples

Once students complete their own task, have them revise their work based on the qualities they observe in various samples. Ask students if their work emulates the “Good” examples or the “Great” ones, and what steps they see as necessary – based on the examples – to improve their work. This works well for peer editing as well, as students can give one another praise or suggestions based on elements observed in the exemplars.

Give Them Various Samples, and Have Them Pick One to Imitate

Sometimes a mix of effective examples is worthwhile when no two products need to look identical. Offer students a small variety of samples you that set a high standard and engage students in a discussion of how those products are constructed. Then ask students to select one and consciously create their own imitation, emulating the style and core elements of the one they selected. This leads students to create something original that’s grounded in the effective principles of a sample work.

Students’ work improves when students can base their learning and products off of a clear example. While just giving examples to students is a start, engaging them in conversations and activities that inspire them to recognize the quality elements they want to aspire towards will improve their learning even further.

How do you use samples in your classroom to improve student learning? Share your ideas with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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