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What the Heck is an Exemplar?

by Janet Lee Stinson

 I used to think that an exemplar was an exemplary example of student work. I was very proud of the numerous dusty projects looking down from above my bookshelves. Each one exhibited perfection in several different ways. Exemplar discussions in my classroom used to consist of me pulling down a dusty sample of student work to describe the big fat A on the top of it. I didn’t know it then but I was totally missing the point.

An exemplar is not an example of perfect work. An exemplar should be part of a collection of projects each representing different strengths. The purpose of a good exemplar collection is to generate conversation.

Myth-An exemplar collection contains only the best projects.

Reality-An exemplar collection contains all types of work students have produced (and agreed to donate to teacher) in the past. All strengths and next steps can be discussed if exemplars are varied.

Myth-An exemplar collection stays the same over the years

Reality- An exemplar collection should evolve. Always be on the lookout for new exemplars to add replacing some that are not as effective for conversation starters.

Myth-Students know how to discuss exemplars.

Reality-Teachers need to model discussions about exemplars. Don’t just expect students to have a thoughtful discussion about an exemplar without first modeling the discussion yourself.

Tips from a Mentor-Collecting exemplars can be tricky. Explain that the act of donating work to your collection will help future students to grow. Always remove student names and identifiable marks from exemplars to make sure that no lunchroom conversations result. Respect students who would rather not donate their work to your collection. There will always be others.

Exemplars are powerful tools that can enable students to discuss a work before attempting to do it themselves. Whether it is a writing form, media creation, science project, or mathematical solution, conversations about exemplars can shift thinking and raise the bar for everyone involved.

Did you have an aha moment here? How can exemplar discussions change the tone of your classroom?

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  • http://www.learningwithdonna.com Donna DeCourcy

    I think it is so important to use student work to generate conversations about point of view, purpose, communication and effective use of formats. When used throughout an assignment, student samples reduce some of the anxiety some children experience when unsure of what the task entails.
    Keep in mind that you might still be able to get samples of the work students may not want to physically give up, by asking their permission to photograph their work. You can blur out any identifying marks and take close ups of specific parts of the work to help with the focus of the discussion. Just make sure you have a good way of keeping your images handy. Looking through digital folders is the same frustration as looking through cupbords and file cabinets to find that set of exemplars! (Or is that just me?)

    • Janet Lee

      LOL Donna!! Yes, looking through files can be frustrating no matter where they are. :) I love the idea of photographing work that students don’t want to give up. What if we added a verbal feature…that has students explaining the work. A simple explanation would model metacognitive thinking for students and add a dimension to the exemplar. What do you think of that idea?

  • http://www.mistergoodyear.weebly.com Kevin

    These are great! I really like your myth/reality layout!

    “An exemplar is not an example of perfect work. An exemplar should be part of a collection of projects each representing different strengths.” this hit pretty close to home for me because I remember being in elementary school and seeing my teacher ask another student if they could have their project for their collection and feeling as if mine wasn’t as good enough. I now realize that they might’ve just wanted their project because it was different from something that already exists in the teacher’s collection.

  • Kim Civiero

    Excellent points!! I think it is so important to recognize that students don’t necessarily know what to do with exemplars. It’s so true that as teachers we must teach our students how to discuss exemplars and help them understand that an exemplar is usually a sample of someone’s work at a specific point in the progress.

    I like the idea of having exemplars that show a project at different stages of completion and different levels of comprehension, etc. Although then it makes those conversations with students even more important – we don’t want a student modeling their work after an exemplar that is showing a lower quality of work.

    Thanks for taking the time to post. :)

    • Janet Lee

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks for your response and I agree that we do not want our students modelling their work on to a lower level. If we use conversation to get students to understand the purpose of the exemplars, then we can avoid misuse of the resource. Maybe it’s time to change the name…Let’s think of some name that would give students and teachers a new perspective…


  • http://www.melissamarois.weebly.com Melissa Marois

    Very interesting perspective!
    As a pre-service teacher I value the idea of showcasing a variety of different strengths through multiple examples as students have a varation of strengths!
    Thank you.
    Melissa Marois

    • Janet Lee

      Great to hear this, Melissa! I remember my first year of teaching challenging in many ways. One of the most difficult dilemmas involved not having exemplars from earlier years. Do you have ideas about how to prepare exemplars for your first classroom?


  • Shelby

    Very interesting perspective! As a pre-service teacher, I appreciate the knowledge of seperating and acknowledging the different strengths in a variety of projects opposed to just one!
    Thank you.

    • Janet Lee

      Thanks Shelby!
      Separating projects in to levels was difficult to do. I often enlisted help from students for the ranking process. This conversation alone helped students to understand the criteria for the project. It isn’t about what I am looking for, it is about the curriculum expectations and our set of agreed upon success criteria. Wow, education sure has shifted since I was a kid!

  • Hannah

    I really enjoyed this post. As a student it was not until University that I truly understood the benefits of looking at exemplars. I find now that exemplars are great ways for me to make sure I understand the different components of an assignment. However, we need to teach students how to use the exemplar effectively so that they can develop these skills early in life.

    I also like the idea of having multiple exemplars that are not all “perfect” pieces. It is equally important to show students examples of work that was not at the top. That was the students know what “to do” and what to avoid.

  • http://kurtishewson.wordpress.com Kurtis Hewson

    Thanks so much for this post! I plan to share it with students in my Evaluation and Assessment Undergraduate course!

    • Janet Lee

      So glad the post will be useful for you. I would love to know how your students respond. Please let me know how it goes. :) JL