Administration & Leadership

The Benefits of Tackling Thin Slices of Data 

A focus on smaller data points rather than deep dives can make it easier for teachers to plan effective interventions.

November 10, 2022
Maskot / Alamy

We all have our favorite type of pizza. Some of us love deep-dish pizza, and some of us love thin-slice pizza. However, such choices are often not available to teachers when they get together to review data, make inferences from that evidence, and determine next steps. They typically get deep-dish data dives every week. 

Often administrators ask teachers to gaze at large swaths of data at the end of a busy day (or between periods) and then attempt to work through the meaning of it all, along with potential next steps that then require them to scale new practices with all students. I think this is like eating a slice of deep-dish pizza as quickly as you can and then going for a run. 

It’s simply too much data to mentally digest, let alone make inferences from and determine doable next steps in your classroom (tomorrow). What often happens in these meetings is that everyone sits around, reviews the data, and then goes back to what they were doing before the meeting. It’s just too much!

It’s much more helpful to encourage your staff to take a thin slice of data from a sample of students, determine potential hunches of what’s going on, try a manageable strategy with those students, and review the impact in a few weeks. Not only is this doable, but also it puts everyone into action—looking at their impact on student learning at a scope and interval that makes sense for educators. 

5 Steps to a Thin-Slice Data Dive

Step 1: Pick an outcome you want to improve, and choose your target learners. While there are endless possibilities of what you can focus on, consider working to improve one of the following:

  • Students’ conceptualization of teacher expectations
  • Students’ use of feedback 
  • Engagement in deeper learning strategies
  • Exploring new transfer level strategies
  • Development of student assessment capabilities 

Next, select a specific targeted group you want to engage with on this work. Here are a few ideas: Students who are currently sitting at…

  • high proficiency but low growth, 
  • low proficiency but high growth,
  • high proficiency and high growth, or
  • low proficiency and low growth. 

Step 2: Identify the reason for the outcome and what’s in the way. Take a few minutes and identify why this is an important outcome for you to focus on. This needs to be more than a district, school, or team priority. Think about why this is important for you in your classroom. What evidence (e.g., anecdotal, formal assessments, exit tickets) leads you to this thinking? 

Next, identify what roadblocks are in the way. Make a simple T-chart, and write down “in my control” for one column and “out of my control” on the other. Fill out both columns. Next, circle the key “in my control” item that you can change. That is where you should focus on a small change in practice. 

Step 3: Pick and place a habit with what you are already doing. There’s a key difference between habits that help us plan for a change and habits that actually cause change. What habit will you try that has a high impact on student learning? Next, how will you ensure that you implement this habit with what you are already doing? 

One way to think about this is adding the new habit into your current practice. Consider the following prompts and the example:

Before I _____, I will… 

Between _____ and _____, I will...

After I _____, I will…

Before I start taking roll, I will ask students to turn and talk with their neighbor and compare and contrast what they are learning versus what they are doing.

Between direct instruction and guided practice, I will ask five different students a question before I respond. 

After I finish the guided-practice portion of my lesson, I will ask students a question and have them display their responses on whiteboards. Those responses will direct me towards Tier I intervention groups. 

Step 4: Determine how you will check progress. The most important evidence is related to what you use to measure impact. What do you use currently to assess student learning? Consider the following ways to assess:

  • Stop the learning: Have students complete a quiz on vocabulary, take tests with short response questions, or complete a short essay.  
  • Monitor the learning: Observe student dialogue and students completing work.
  • Student generated: Students produce their own way of being assessed. 

Use one of those forms of assessment to measure progress of your new strategy with a few students. 

Over time, you may want to inspect the accuracy and consistency of your assessments. In addition, you may want to diversify your form of assessment. But for now, think “thin slice,” not “deep dish.” 

Step 5: Review, refine, reflect, and repeat. Now is the time to review the impact of your intervention. What did you learn?  Who did it work for? Why?

This is also a time to consider how you might refine the practice to be used for other students. You may also find that the practice wasn’t helpful, and you will simply let it go. 

Once this is done, go through the process again. 

Deep Dish?

There is a time and place for a deep-dish data dive every once in a while. Once or twice a year (think beginning, middle, or end) when there is a pause in the action, sit back and take a good hard look at the gestalt of your work and that of your colleagues and school. But deep-dish data dives right before you have to sprint back to class and take action just don’t make sense. Thin slices during the year and deep dives during brief pauses such as winter break are likely more helpful in impacting student learning and building collective efficacy.

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