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How To Gather Qualitative Classroom Data


If I want to make a room full of teachers groan, all I have to do is start talking about data. Almost invariably, the term “data analysis” comes with associations, many of them negative. To be fair, so much of how schools are perceived is shaped by numbers, usually in the form of assessment results. However, there are so many other important measures of student success, from the classroom work kids complete daily as they meet specific learning targets to the progress with critical thinking they make as part of becoming better scholars. By focusing on qualitative data, teachers can place more focus on information about students that more traditional quantitative measures don’t reveal, which in turn allows them to form a far more comprehensive picture of each student in their classes.


The term “voice” is often associated with talking, but it also encompasses any method of communication that people use to share their ideas. Beyond physical presence, students show their interest in class by making contributions that are verbal and non-verbal. There are benefits to both students and teachers heightening awareness around both equity and frequency of voice from all members of the class. For example, students might keep a personal tally of how many thoughts they share in various ways (through talking, writing, or posting ideas online), while teachers examine similar data to determine whether classroom participation is ideally distributed. In addition, gathering information from kids can also be revealing, so it’s helpful to ask questions such as, “How often do you make contributions to class?” or, “What steps can you take to make your voice heard?” When students are explicitly asked to answer these metacognitive questions, they are better able to self-assess their level of involvement in class and set specific goals for improvement.


In some circles, compliance can be confused with engagement, as can entertainment. When students follow directions, that does not indicate a significant level of interest in class, nor do teachers need to break out into a tap dance (literal or metaphorical) to capture attention. On the other hand, if students dig into content with a level of involvement that shows their desire to make meaning of the content on their own terms, they have reached a deeper degree of cognitive engagement. The question is, how can something that seems intangible be measured? In essence, it is necessary for teachers to step back and observe how much students hold themselves responsible for their own success. Signs of disengagement are more visible in a classroom that is primarily teacher-directed, or in which the teacher does most of the talking. Conversely, if students are empowered to make decisions about their own learning for a noticeable chunk of time throughout any given week, that is an indicator of more significant interest on their part. Therefore, determining student engagement begins with an examination into how work is distributed in the classroom, and how the responsibilities that result in learning outcomes are shared.


Engagement cannot exist without agency. When teachers allow students to make the most of their own capacities, the result is a sense of academic self-efficacy that has benefits beyond classroom walls. To hand the baton to students, one effective strategy is to ask kids to create pieces of upcoming instructional tasks, such as the daily activator or an exit card question. It’s also important to evenly distribute these responsibilities among all members of the class on a rotating basis. Once teachers have the opportunity to observe how students put these pieces together, we can also provide other choices, like letting them decide which activities on the daily itinerary they’d like to work on first. By taking these small steps toward providing more autonomy, it becomes possible to take note of how much students are doing, and how much (or in what situations) they still depend on teacher support.

Gathering qualitative classroom data may not be an exact science, but it does provide useful information that numbers alone cannot give us. Being more attuned to how students involve themselves in class is an important piece of determining whether they are able to reach learning targets, or whether there are possible gaps in the process that are being missed. By focusing on qualitative data in addition to more typical quantitative measures, teachers can get a more meaningful snapshot of what each student experiences on a day-to-day basis from a variety of angles and make adjustments to instruction that are as fully informed as possible.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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