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Teaching Strategies that Utilize Student Work

Jordan Catapano

One of the great teaching strategies is to provide students with a variety of examples. If we want students to understand what we’re explaining, using concrete models as teaching strategies helps to illustrate the otherwise abstract concept. Then students use the explanation and example to come to a greater understanding. But where do we get these models and examples to use as teaching strategies? We can scour the Internet, grab samples from colleagues, and create them ourselves. But here are three very important reasons why we may want to use students’ own work as samples in our classes as well.

Student Samples as Teaching Strategies Reinforce A Realistic Standard

When I show students samples of what I personally created, they say, “Well of course you could do something like that!” or “It’s so easy for you!” And they’re right. I’ve had much more time to practice these skills and, if I’m teaching the course, I ought to have mastered these concepts.

I frequently show my own work to students as a model, but students may regard my examples as “Teacher quality,” dismissing the sample as an unrealistic standard. However, when I show them each other’s work, this perception disappears. They recognize that it’s not some old teacher who of course would be pretty good at this; it’s one of their own classmates.

Their classmates are the same age and education level. Showing student samples may get others to start thinking, “If that person could do it, then so can I!”

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Using A Student’s Work Makes Them Feel Praised

We can and ought to praise students in a variety of ways. One of those ways is to publically display their work and tell the class, “This is awesome. Do your work like this!”

Usually when a student does an exemplary job on a task, they receive an “A+” and “Great Job!” comment. If they’re lucky they get a smiley face or sticker. But it says something special to that student when we go so far as to show everyone else what he or she completed and publically praise it.

And when we praise it, we have an additional chance to teach our students. We don’t have to stop at “This is good” or “Make yours like this.” Instead, we ought to go further and talk about what we love about it. This will help break down the details for the rest of the class so they see what is commendable and in turn apply those commendations to their own work. We can also praise the process the student put towards the task, complementing them on their effort and persistence in addition to the ultimate outcome.

So while one student feels praised, positive practices and outcomes are reinforced throughout the entire class.

Students Feel Connection and Ownership

When students see a fellow classmate praised and exemplified, they have a stronger sense of connection and ownership to the task. Sure, a teacher could crank out examples all day long without breaking a sweat, but a student who gets praised by that teacher is like “One of our own” receiving recognition.

Cities celebrate sports teams, local celebrities, and cultural traditions with an intense connection. If you insult the Chicago Cubs, John Belushi, or deep-dish pizza, I take it personally (for some reason). The same begins to ring true for students who are praised for achieving the standard in class. Students can begin to feel connected to their peers who are recognized, and they can take more ownership of their own work inspired by their peers.

Rules That Go Along with Presenting Student Work

Ready to present some awesome student samples to your class? Not so fast. The perks to using student samples are powerful, but make sure you consider some of these factors to help ensure you’re taking the best approach.

Make sure the students are OK with using their work as an example. While showing student work to the class would hopefully make that student feel really good, it might also really embarrass a student. Make sure to get the “OK” from any students prior to displaying their work. You can do this by personally asking students, or you can give a survey at the beginning of the year and include this question on it.

Do not show negative samples. I believe students can learn from seeing examples of what not to do, but I do not use student samples for this purpose. While displaying good examples helps students feel praised, displaying a piece of student work to critique it can feel demoralizing.

Provide samples in a way students can use. Flashing a student sample on a PowerPoint slide or holding it up in front of the class is too brief to be of strong use. Make sure students have a way to return to that example on their own later on. Have students write down or take a photo of the example, provide an electronic version that they all can access, or keep the example hung publically in your room.

Let students praise each other. You don’t have to be the only source of praise. As with so many other aspects of your class, it’s essential that you create the appropriate atmosphere surrounding the displaying of student samples. Let this be a positive experience that encourages students to congratulate one another.

Use a variety of students, not just the same expected few. We all know that a few of our students may consistently produce the highest quality work. Good for them. They should receive their due grades and praise, but they should not be the only source of examples. Throughout the year, draw examples from everyone in your class. If you want to use this as a way to praise students, don’t let anyone feel left out. There is something each student can be praised for and every other student can learn from. In fact, try to show examples from students who would least expect their work to be exemplified. They will begin to think, “Maybe I can do better than I gave myself credit for!”

Don’t show student samples if there aren’t any. Finally, you don’t have to force yourself to find a student sample. Remember that the point of displaying samples is so students can benefit from a concrete model. If there isn’t a concrete student model anyone from your class produced, you don’t have to display a subpar example.

How do you use student samples in your class? Share your thoughts on student sample work 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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