Witnessing Learning Over Time: Tools for Documenting Observations (Part 3)

By November of any given instructional year, you have a sense of what each student… knows and is able to do. But the reality is, much of what you do assessment-wise is, or should be, directly related to what you teach – every single day.  (Fennell, McCord Kobett, Wray, 2017, p. 10.)

Student thinking rarely follows a straight path towards a learning destination.  When you ponder documenting the twists and turns of whole group or individual students’ thinking, do you feel overwhelmed? I did. Read more: Reflecting Back, Moving Forward: Witnessing Learning over Time.

As in previous posts, we ask again, ‘How might the application of learning goals and success criteria support the process of documentation?

Working with educators and administrators over the years, we’ve learned you can’t document everything you see and hear; you can’t observe every student – every day.  But IF you’ve orchestrated the conditions in your classroom where students know the learning goal(s) and have a conceptual understanding of what success looks like and sounds like, you have set the stage for students to gather documentation of their own learning while you’ve carved out time to observe! Use this precious time wisely.

Identify your purpose; plan with intention: Ask yourselves these questions to help focus the documentation process.


  • Who will I observe today or this week? The dynamics of the whole class? A group of students working together? Individual students?
  • Why did I decide to observe these students?


  • What cluster of success criteria will I anticipate seeing today or this week?  
  • What will success look like and sound like?


  • How will I record my observations? Will I use hard copies or digital versions?
  • How will I document learning that I did not anticipate?
  • How will I describe what I actually see rather than focus on the gaps I know or may assume exist?  
  • How will I use questioning to clarify or extend the thinking?

HOW? Going Deeper:

  • How will I create opportunities to compare my observations with students’ perceptions of their own learning?
  • How will I analyze and interpret what I observed? If I make a conclusion, what reasoning supports my documentation?
  • How will my observations be used to inform feedback possibilities or inform instructional decisions?

We’ve talked about simplexity as the small number of key ideas you need to know and be good at  (Applying Learning Goals and Success Criteria: Witnessing Learning over Time Part 1). One key idea is ‘gathering documentation of student learning, students working alongside educators, fosters self and peer assessment leading to personal goal setting’. Complexity resides in the implementation of this process.

What could documentation tools look like when applying learning goals and success criteria to the process?

The purpose of the examples shared below is to ignite thinking about the possible ways to intentionally apply success criteria in order to create effective assessment tools – more specifically, documentation tools. Examples below are suggestions selected out of a myriad of possibilities. After engaging with the planning questions above, hopefully with a trusted colleague, every educator needs to choose or construct documentation tools or formats that will work in his/her context by extracting elements and adding your own thinking. (Let us know in the comment section how you construct your own documentation tools!)

Example 1: Anecdotal documentation tool when observing small groups, partners or individual students. Consider adding relevant details from a student’s learning profile.

example B1

Example 2:  Anecdotal documentation tool when observing classroom learning experiences over several days.

example B2

Using a Variety of Formats

Example 3: Single-Point Rubric

Here’s one example of using success criteria within a modified rubric. “A single-point rubric outlines the standards a student has to meet to complete the assignment; however, it leaves the categories outlining success or shortcoming open-ended.” (retrieved from Edutopia: 6 Reasons to try a Single-Point rubric. Learn more at https://www.edutopia.org/article/6-reasons-try-single-point-rubric).

example B3

Example 4: Mind map format

Use a mind map format, such as Mindomo, to collaboratively develop understanding of success criteria — then students use the shared mind map to insert documentation such as photos, audio notes or videos to demonstrate the criteria.

mindomo mindmap general
Success criteria developed collaboratively.
mindomo student reflection & samples
Student gathering documentation and reflection based on one cluster of criteria.

Example 5: Use of Digital Forms

Inserting success criteria into a digital form such as Google Forms or OneNote Forms leverages the power of technology to support documentation AND manage the information over time.  

The screen capture below depicts a sample Google form used to gather observations.

writing form screenshot

When using a form, individual student observations can easily be recorded.

writing observation

Documenting means more than being organized or supporting learning by providing evidence. It involves accessing and reflecting on one’s own learning processes and anticipating what is taking place throughout the learning journey. (Rosenthal Tolisano & Hale, p. 4)

running-297154_1280One last thought, and a call to action! As experienced educators we know what it feels like to be successful; to feel like we have learned something! We know how to get ‘unstuck’ when learning doesn’t come easily. Let’s make sure every student has the skill to recognize and capture their own learning. Let’s make sure we witness these moments!

There are so many ways to document learning observations over time! Share your best strategies in the comment box below or share on Twitter @HarnessingA. We will harvest from the twitter feed and attach to this post.  

Fennel, F., McCord Kobett, B., Wray, Jonathan. (2017). The Formative 5: Everyday Assessment Techniques for Every Math Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Rosenthal Tolisano, S., Hale, J. (2018). A Guide to Documenting Learning: Making Thinking Visible, Meaningful, Shareable, and Amplified. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


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