Using Student Exemplars: A Caution

Using student exemplars can be a highly effective method for writing instruction when used strategically, when employed with a specific lens, and when a cross section of work is provided. A common practice, however, is to use mostly, or only, exceptional papers as models. This can rebound in unexpected ways.

In a recent Education Week article, Todd Rogers of Harvard University notes that students are often not inspired by the exceptional work of their peers.

“One of the surprising, negative consequences of the approach is when students are exposed to truly exceptional work, they use it as a reference point and realize they are not capable of such exceptional quality,” said Rogers.…”It can lead to decreased motivation and eventually quitting if you believe the exceptional work is actually typical.”

It’s natural that when introducing a concept, skill, or idea, we want to show students the strongest possible example. However, it’s precisely when a skill or idea is new that a learner is most vulnerable to discouragement. A typical example, or even a weak non-example, might serve our instructional purposes equally without discouraging learners.

For example, when conducting a study of what makes a strong thesis statement, have pairs or small groups of students examine strong, middle, and weak examples, creating their own analyses of the work by comparison and using their observations to revise their own work. This calls for a different level of engagement, collaboration, and cognitive demand than simply providing a model paper and saying “Do it like this.”

Anonymity is also a key factor. Protect students’ privacy by removing all identifying information from exemplar papers. Save exemplars from past years, or use third hours’ papers in fifth hour and vice versa. This way no one is singled out in either positive or negative ways.

Finally, designating a specific lens and approaching the study in an inquiry-based way avoids the pitfall of making students feel like “I’m showing you the ‘good’ way, or the ‘right’ way” to complete this task or assignment. At Inquiry By Design, many of our trainings and student work studies involve the use of student exemplars for instruction See a few examples below from our Writing Text-Based Arguments guidebook.

lenses for exemplars graphic copy

Employing these guidelines helps students to move away from a mindset of comparison to a mindset of using exemplars to move their own craft forward. And that is motivating.