How do I know – and show – whether my students are making progress?



Use a simple, visual tracking tool.

“It feels like we’re all suffering from information overload or data glut, and the good news is there might be a simple solution to that, which is using our eyes more: visualising information so we can see the patterns that matter, then designing that information so that it makes more sense, or tells a story, or focuses only on what’s important.” David McCandless, 2010


“Let the dataset change your mindset”

Hans Rosling, 2009.

This summer, a group of 40 Teach First teachers are publishing an e-book for new participants on how to start on Teach First. Since 2003, over the last decade 4,000 trainees have learned to teach in some of the toughest inner-city schools in England. Now 40 of us have put our minds together to write a set of suggestions on managing behaviour, planning lessons, delivering instruction and assessing progress. One of the thorniest issues was the burning question that all teachers grapple with: how do I know whether my students are making any progress in their learning?

Since they started in 1990, Teach for America have been around for over a decade longer than Teach First, and in their book ‘Teaching as Leadership’, collated by Steven Farr from thousands of their best teachers, they recommend something they call ‘tracking’.

More successful teachers,’ says Steven Farr, ‘are nearly obsessive progress trackers. Tracking begins with a list of objectives students need to master and the tracking system indicates the extent to which each student has mastered those objectives over time. Students are motivated by the clear and transparent display and communication of their progress towards their goals.’

As a group of 15 co-writers for the book, ‘How To Succeed on Teach First’, we were both inspired and challenged by Farr’s work when it came to the question of progress. We discussed and debated the best options for assessing progress over a series of lessons. We shared our stories as to what’s worked and why with our classes. Here’s the anecdote I shared:


Online tracking turns disruption into motivation

What’s the most powerful student motivator? I used to think it was phonecalls or postcards home to parents, but whilst they help behaviour, it doesn’t sufficiently motivate effort and hard work. It’s too extrinsic – you need an intrinsic motivator to get them to really want to listen, learn and achieve. In my experience, what motivates them most is peer pressure – making their results visible to their classmates.

10.2 were, at best, distracted. They were just so talkative and interested in each other that it was nearly impossible to get them to focus. I felt bad sanctioning them as they were bright, energetic and positive young people – but they just couldn’t concentrate.

What changed it was an online spreadsheet with colour-coded grades shared on googledocs after each lesson. They could instantly see how well they’d done, and crucially, how well they’d done compared to their peers. No one liked getting a D when everyone else was on a B, just because they hadn’t put in the effort they were capable of.

Of course, this depended on good marking. It also required strong planning of the paragraphs or essays I would get them to write to keep their practice focused. But the effort it resulted in was extraordinary. One unmotivated girl had persistently got C’s and in the last lesson before the assessment, I saw her at 5pm after school. ‘Was it good sir?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Check your phone!’ I replied. She saw she’d got an A and was jubilant – everyone else would see. Instant feedback, hard work, peer pressure and online visibility had worked a treat.

As a new teacher, the starting point is to keep a tracker so you get a snapshot of who is, and who isn’t, making progress across your lessons. The next stage is to use the tracker to focus on helping certain students. The trick is keeping your data recording simple through traffic-light colour-coding – using conditional formatting for red, amber and green makes your life a lot easier, both in visibly seeing who’s making progress, and for entering results.

Ultimately, the most powerful way of using the tracker to motivate pupils is to share it with your class online. All students can see how well they’re doing, and they can compare their effort to everyone else’s. Peer pressure is an unbelievably powerful motivator. Parents can also check their child’s performance anytime, any place online. This brings parental expectation powerfully into play in the classroom. It changes everything; suddenly students in your class are a lot more motivated, because not only can they actually see their improvement, but they can see everyone else’s improvement too, and everyone else’s parents can see their performance too; and no one wants to be left behind.

You’re not ranking them in a ladder or a league table; you don’t need the raw numbers, just the colours of red, amber and green, and you can choose whether that’s for effort, attainment, progress from a baseline or a mix.

The question of progress is one of the trickiest tasks for any teacher, not just new teachers. It depends on sound planning, strong marking and a clear-sighted understanding of assessment in the subject. But the size of the prize for intrinsic motivation is huge. For schools drowning in data, visual tracking might quench our thirst for classroom insights. As this TED talk by David McCandless shows, data visualisation is beautiful.

How To Succeed on Teach First is published on Amazon Kindle in June.

‘How do I assess progress over a series of lessons?’ is chapter 16.


For 30 other education blogger’s answers to the question: “How do I know progress is happening in my classroom?” see

4 thoughts on “How do I know – and show – whether my students are making progress?

  1. Pingback: April 2013 #blogsync: Progress EDUTRONIC | #blogsync

  2. Pingback: 5. May 2013 #blogsync: Teacher Professionalism EDUTRONIC | #blogsync

  3. Pingback: What if you marked every book, every lesson? | Pragmatic Education

  4. Pingback: Motivation and peer pressure | Pragmatic Education

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