Data-Driven Instruction: Capturing Student Habits as Data to Drive Better Instruction

Dr. Natalie Saaris
February 29, 2016

When teachers and administrators normally think about student data, they consider assessments: test scores, grades, and in-class observations. This information is certainly important, but it only captures the end result of the student’s work. It assesses the student without giving insight into why that student fared the way he or she did.

Teachers assume they can predict a student’s study habits based on the student’s behavior in the classroom. But in fact, the way the student uses his or her time outside the classroom is often a mystery. It is difficult to determine how much time a student devotes to homework, whether they are using effective strategies to understand material, and what interventions are necessary to improve performance. Affluent parents pay private tutors large sums of money to work with students individually and unlock this black box of student behavior. But with the right technology, any teacher can gain insight into how the student’s habits outside the classroom explain his or her performance in the classroom.

Amount of Time Spent on Homework

It is often surprising to discover that a struggling student spends hours each night on his or her assignment. Or that the student who appears disengaged in the classroom works very hard after school to understand the material. Even high-performing students can often be written off as natural learners while their extreme devotion to their homework goes unnoticed. Or, just as surprisingly, there are students who do very well with little effort, which means they could use a greater challenge.

For many teachers, what happens in their students’ lives between the hours of 4 PM to 9 AM is a mystery. They cannot know how much effort a student put into an assignment, and thus can only infer effort based on performance outcomes.

Having insight into how much time any given student spends on a particular assignment can drastically improve a teacher’s practices.

We have designed Actively Learn to track the amount of time students spend on their reading assignments. By clicking on classroom data, a teacher can see the average amount of time the class spent on reading, compare individual students’ time usage, and see how the time usage varies from one assignment to the next. We consider this an important insight into student performance that every teacher should have access to.

Tracking the time students spend on their assignments
Teachers in Actively Learn can see how much time students spent on their assignment, how many annotations they took, how many vocabulary words they looked up, and other important reading behaviors.
  • A teacher can know whether a student is struggling because he or she is not spending enough time on reading assignments. The teacher can convince the student, by comparing the individual’s reading time to that of his or her peers, that more time needs to be spent on task at home.
  • A teacher can know whether a student is struggling despite spending considerable time on reading assignments. The teacher can intervene with strategies and resources to help the student use his or her time more effectively.
  • A teacher can know whether he or she is assigning too much homework, or not challenging students enough based on how much time the class spends on reading assignments.
  • Teachers might discover that students’ time usage depends on the day of the week and change assignment deadlines to accommodate student schedules.

Vocabulary Look-Up

Building vocabulary is not only useful preparation for standardized tests--it also improves writing and reading comprehension. In an ideal world, students would develop the important skill of identifying unfamiliar words and looking them up themselves without the teacher having to print out vocabulary worksheets or highlight difficult words to define. That skill would carry them into college and the complex reading of adulthood where vocabulary worksheets no longer have a place.

Of course, relying on students to look up words they don’t know requires a great deal of trust. Will they follow through and actually do what is expected of them? Can they figure out which words are unfamiliar, or which words have a secondary definition that fits their context?

This is another area where data can bridge the gap and improve teaching practice. Knowing which words students look up can help to determine how engaged they are as readers and whether they have mastered the skill of building their vocabularies. It can also help a teacher uncover the challenge that complex words pose to a student’s understanding. A student who fails to follow the train of an argument might be looking up dozens of words per page; the intervention for that student would be very different than it would be for a student who understood the words but couldn’t make sense of the logic of the argument.

The Actively Learn platform enables teachers to see which specific words individual students looked up. We’ve built a dictionary into our platform to make it easy for students to look up words, and we hope that teachers encourage students to use that feature. Teachers can glimpse how many words each student looked up and uncover which words generated the most confusion or interest. Imagine a class discussion that uses this data as a starting point: if most of the students looked up a key term, what does it tell us about that word’s importance to the text? If most of the students failed to look up a key term, is it because they fully understand it, or did they miss some of the meaning implied in that word?

Tracking which words students looked up in their reading
Actively Learn enables teachers to see what words were looked up by their students, and which words posed a challenge to the greatest number of their students.
  • A teacher can allow students to define unfamiliar vocabulary words on their own rather than relying on teacher-generated vocabulary lists. This will help students to develop the important skill of identifying unfamiliar words and looking them up on their own.
  • A teacher might uncover that a struggling student is looking up very few words. The teacher can then intervene and recommend that the student look up more words to increase his or her engagement with the text and reading comprehension.
  • A teacher can know which words generated the most confusion or interest for the class as a whole and discuss the importance and meaning of those words in the text.

Reading Performance Across Subjects

Reading is not only the purview of English classes. Students read across subjects, but teachers have generally had no insight into how reading engagement and comprehension vary from one classroom to the next.

Imagine a student who consistently fails to look up words or annotate in his English class, but fully engages when reading articles for history. Imagine another student who shows mastery in answering comprehension questions in biology, but misses the subtlety of literary analysis. A teacher with this sort of insight might understand a student more fully and provide more effective guidance than one who only sees what a student does in his or her classroom. Seeing the data on student performance in other subjects helps teachers collaborate in order to improve reading comprehension across the curriculum.

Actively Learn enables teachers to see how their students perform in other subjects. When a student uses Actively Learn in multiple classes, teachers can see how performance and engagement vary from one subject to the next. A chemistry teacher and an economics teacher can work together if they see similar patterns for a particular student, or figure out reasons why a disparity may exist. At Actively Learn, we feel that this sort of transparency across subjects should be readily available at the touch of a button.

  • A teacher can compare a student’s reading proficiency across classes and determine whether the struggles of the student are subject-specific or more pervasive.
  • For a student who only struggles in one subject, the teacher can intervene with subject-specific strategies to improve comprehension such as creating a list of biology terms to help orient the student or reviewing the process of literary analysis.
  • For a student who struggles in reading proficiency across subjects, teachers can collaborate to provide the necessary support for the student.

Detailed Proficiency Reports

Even the most dedicated teachers cannot keep track of student progress with the detail that technology makes possible. Is it enough to know that a student struggles with reading comprehension, or would it help to know exactly which standards he or she is failing to master? How would a monthly trend report enrich a conversation between a teacher and a student’s parent about how the student has improved over time? How would knowing this sort of detailed information for an entire class help to direct a teacher’s efforts in prioritizing instruction?

We think this level of detail is so important that we enable students to see it, too. When students and teachers both know exactly where a student is struggling, they can collaborate to target the areas that need help the most. Students can also take initiative in setting progress goals for themselves when they can instantly access performance data. 

Tracking student performance by standard
Actively Learn enables teachers to see how students are performing by standard.
  • A teacher can know exactly which standards students are struggling with and focus on improving areas of weakness.
  • A teacher can see student progress from one month to the next to determine whether instructional and study strategies are effective.
  • Students, parents, and teachers can all be on the same page about student performance because they can all access detailed proficiency reports and know exactly how the student is doing.


Student data is often seen as a means of dehumanizing individual personalities and turning them into numbers. However, we believe that a thoughtful use of data can help teachers understand their students more deeply and improve teaching practices and student outcomes. Contrary to the notion that data turns students into cold points of analysis, we see the potential of data to offer tools and information to give more individualized, effective help to students. Data can unlock the mysteries of student habits outside the classroom and provide insight into the process of learning beyond what is reflected in a final grade.


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