Classroom Strategies

Using Data Binders to Increase Student Independence

A tool for fostering intentional and purposeful learning

Great ideas are born out of necessity.

Even the most organized teachers can agree that consistently collecting anecdotal notes and data points from each of our students is a challenge. When I taught fifth grade, I created schedules, templates, checklists, but never felt particularly satisfied about the data I was receiving. More importantly, the data I was collecting felt more like isolated grades than opportunities for growth and feedback. I needed a better system.

It was during a reading of Visible Learning For Mathematics (Hattie, et. al, 2016) that I began to get some clarity around which practices would have the greatest impact on my students. For those unfamiliar with the book, John Hattie (University of Melbourne) and his colleagues set out to answer the question: “What works best in education?” They looked at the effect sizes of different education practices and student achievement. They synthesized years of education research and then ranked the practices according to effect size.  When I looked at the top five most effective influences on learning, I thought, “What in the world would that look like? How might that impact look on my students?”

I figured I should start with the top influence reported in the book[1]: self-reported grades. Not only would this grant me more flexibility, but also give my students autonomy and ownership of their own learning. As a fifth grade teacher, I made this the goal. In the back of my mind I knew that, in a few short months, my students would leave their small world of elementary school behind and some would struggle with the transition to middle school. Helping them take control of their own learning would be an important skill for their future education.

I started small and manageable: multiplication and division. At the time, we were practicing five randomly generated multi-digit problems a day. I gave every student grid paper and had them create a bar graph. I modeled for them how to label the axes, the title, and the scale. All they had to do was create the bar graph based on their score each day.

This process of tracking progress in data binders started out extremely directive: we had never tried anything like this. But, seemingly out of nowhere, it took off. The students enjoyed monitoring their progress. Maybe it was trying to reach a goal that they set for themselves, maybe it was choosing when to make their graph for the day, maybe it was being able to choose fun colors, or maybe they felt relieved that I was giving them the space to be independent. They were taking ownership and had motivation to improve their own learning!

The binders changed over time. Students picked up grid paper when they needed, and they monitored their personal and academic growth in number of areas (word problem types, vocabulary words, spelling, self-affirmations, the list goes on). These binders have helped facilitate student-led conferences, which made conference time much less stressful compared to previous years. It’s awesome to see your students talk about their learning with pride.

These binders are manageable, easy to put together, and student driven. Here are a few tips on how to start your own:

Step 1: Gather your materials. Stick to the essentials: You’ll want  binders, grid paper, and markers for every student.

Step 2: Pick a Major Area of Focus to monitor. If you aren’t sure where to start, check Achieve the Core’s Focus by Grade Level. This ensures you are keeping track of a piece of critical learning.

Step 3: Create or find some tasks to monitor. This depends on what you are monitoring at first, but make sure it’s succinct, replicable, and something that students can score quickly and accurately.

Step 4: Practice using it. Like most habits, if we don’t use it, we lose it. If students aren’t regularly monitoring and assessing themselves, we will never see the full effect of Hattie’s research.

Step 5: Give students the opportunity to lead in this. While you are certainly going to tell students what goes in the data binders, be sure to let students put in their own pieces of work. Not only does it increase their motivation to learn and succeed, but also, at the end of the year they will have a comprehensive look at their growth throughout the year. Watching students look back at what they have achieved is nothing short of amazing.

It is also important to note that meeting with students regularly to discuss their data collection is critical. It gives the student an opportunity to share successes and areas of growth, and gives the teacher the time to help refine or create goals for the students. Making a weekly or monthly schedule helps to manage your time by meeting with only a few students a day.

What started out as a way to collect quantitative data in a timely manner turned into a way to get my students to truly buy into their own education. If we are committed to making education a means for students to grow and become successful in themselves, then it’s time for us (the adults) to give them the space to grow into who they are going to be. Data binders serve as the tangible way for students to become self-sufficient individuals.

[1] A 2017 update to the list now ranks “self-reported grades” as the second most effective practice after “collective teacher efficacy.”

27 thoughts on “Using Data Binders to Increase Student Independence

  1. This is awesome John! I would love to see some McK teachers try this with students. I can see how it would be motivating.

    1. Thanks Jean! It is easy to get started and the kids really do like the independence. Let me know how I can help!

  2. This sounds wonderful and I can definitely see how this would work in math or even ELA but how could I implement it in 8th grade science.

    1. Great question, Belinda. Perhaps it could be used to keep track of various stages of an experiment, identifying acids and bases, or a place where their models are kept. Even structuring the binder to show learning in each aspect of their science content (oxidation/reduction, chemical formulas, etc.) would provide evidence of their growth for you and for them.

    2. I am wondering the same, especially because it’s not so much about skills but more content knowledge and you don’t necessarily need the material from 1 unit to do well on another unit.

      1. Hi Mellanie,

        I would ask how can you use your student outcomes per unit so that they can track their learning toward that outcome? Their data binders might be segmented by unit study.


    1. Hi Lisa,

      I currently don’t have examples for upper elementary and MS ELA, but a few ideas could be: reading logs (not as a signed form, but as an artifact of a student’s reading life), using rubrics for writing responses, conferring notes left in their binders from teachers, record themselves reading and use a rubric to score on the qualities of fluency, progression of character development. Hope it helps!


    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      I don’t have any printables at this time. Since the data can be personalized, the grid paper is the staple in all binders. This can be printed online for free.


  3. I love this- Do you have any suggestions for ELA data tracking that are specific to middle school standards? Thank you!

    1. Hi Rachel,

      I currently don’t have examples for upper elementary and MS ELA, but a few ideas could be: reading logs (not as a signed form, but as an artifact of a student’s reading life), using rubrics for writing responses, conferring notes left in their binders from teachers, record themselves reading and use a rubric to score on the qualities of fluency, progression of character development. Lots of writing!

      Hope it helps!


  4. I love this idea! What I’ve been looking for is a digital data notebook! Have you come across any?

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Kris,

      Great question. The increase in student motivation was high. The binders have helped students explore and set goals, track their progress, and better understand the learning intentions for the grade level year. It turned a passive learning environment into an active one. I can’t say what effect it had on end of grade tests scores, but I believe it was a positive use of time.


  5. This looks great! Data collection seems to be one of my biggest hurtles. I would love to see this information for Preschool plus extended standards for special needs students. I teach a special needs preschool class 50/50 special and typical developing children as role models.

  6. Thank you for this. I have used something similar this year in my 6th math class on a whole class level. We tracked our progress as a class. It pulled my class together as a team and the results were amazing. I have been trying how to make this more personal for my students. This post pulled it all together for me. I will definitely be implementing this next year with my class. Enjoy your summer!

    1. Great to hear, Liska! The more I worked with the data binders, the more I saw how it really contributed positively to our class culture. It became just a part of who we are. Thanks, and enjoy the summer!


  7. This is fabulous! I have been wanting to try student-led parent conferences with my 5th graders but have struggled with the data collection part. This is also such a great way to get my kids invested in their goal-setting. Super excited to give this a try next school year! Thank you!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Tammy! The most difficult part is getting started, but then it can be the most beneficial tool you and your students use. Have a great summer.


  8. John:

    Thanks for this timely article (and congrats on being selected as one of the Top 20 Posts!!).

    I am considering using some sort of data-binder for HS Seniors (Alg3, Stats, Pre-Calc). Do you have articles or tips for this grade-level?

    You mentioned google forms/docs. Have you seen any useful templates?


    1. Hi Thomas:

      Thank you for reading the blog post. We have shared your question with John.
      Take care,

    2. Hi Thomas,

      Glad you enjoyed the post and Happy New Year! High School is a bit outside my area of focus, and I don’t have any articles for this grade level, but here are a few ideas that may be helpful:
      1) Student passion projects that can be made into a digital portfolio. I don’t have templates, but giving HS student the autonomy to work and collect evidence would be a great way (I think) to build student motivation.
      2) Give choice of multiple problems to answer, and students can choose several to work through during the year. This way students can use their knowledge and show their thinking in multiple ways.
      3) Use it to simply collect their test scores.

      Hope those ideas work out. Have a great year!


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About the Author: John Silverthorne is a former teacher and math coach at Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering in NC. He currently serves as an Instructional Math Coach in the Wauwatosa School District and as an adjunct professor of Methods of Mathematics at Alverno College in WI. He earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from UW-Madison, a master’s degree in K-8 math and science from Walden University and his administrator’s license from Appalachian State University. John presents on topics involving equity in mathematics, math identity, and counteracting stereotype threat. You can find him on Twitter at @mathcoachlife.