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Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Take a SIP of this: using exemplars as tangible illustrations

April 26, 2018

MSU Denver Mile High FlightSIP 6.14 Exemplars

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

At this time in the semester, students are often in a panic about what exactly professors want for an assignment, even though there are directions. Students know from prior experience that every professor has a few idiosyncrasies and preferences, which means directions can be open to some interpretation.

Rather than having students guess what “best” looks like, instructors can make expectations more transparent through providing exemplars of assignments. No matter how clear your instructions are, some students will respond better to a visual example – maybe even an annotated exemplar.

They help students better understand the assessment criteria for a task but also what a finished piece looks like at different levels.

Try this: Exemplars

There are two ways to go about providing exemplars – providing a few examples of what “high-quality work” looks like or providing examples of “best,” “good enough,” “not quite there” and “not cutting it.” These examples can be useful in providing students with a concrete understanding of what meets the standard and why.  Make sure to anonymize the work. Exemplars can be used for peer assessment and self-assessment.

Examples of high quality

Instructors who choose this route want to make sure to provide three to four examples so students do not all mimic the one good example. Highlighting the diversity of ways that students can produce good work will give students more ideas about how to do their own version of good. Make sure the examples also illustrate different ways of meeting the assignment requirements. Cull these from student work from previous iterations of the class. Make sure to anonymize the work.

Examples of variable student work

Instructors who choose this route will want to choose one example of each – “best,” “good enough,” “not quite there” and “not cutting it” – and make sure the differences among them are clear to anyone learning about them.

How to use exemplars in class

Rather than just posting these in the learning-management system, bring in the exemplars as a teaching tool. Instructors can go over what makes something good or can give students the directions and the scoring guide/rubric/etc., and have students score the existing work so that they are engaging with the exemplars, rather than just reading them. If you teach online, you can annotate the exemplars with points you want students to notice about the piece. Some faculty members post a video of talking through the examplar while focusing the lens on the assignment and explaining the strong and not-so-strong points of the piece of work. This added element can help make these documents accessible online.

By examining errors and strong work, teachers create learning opportunities for students. Discussing errors and examples of strong work helps to clarify misunderstandings, encourage justification and involve students in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the papers (The Learning Gap, 1992).

Notes of caution

Sometimes, exemplars are not what you want to use. They can dampen creativity. Some students think the exemplars are the only way to show expertise rather than varieties of expertise. Others want to see the exemplars over and over in the semester to make sure they are on the right track with an assignment. These situations take forethought and conversation to minimize. 

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of exemplars

Making productive use of exemplars: peer discussion and teacher guidance for positive transfer of strategies:

Visit The Well at for more great ideas and resources for Strong Instructional Practices in your higher-education classroom.

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