Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #15 Data Collection and Distance Learning

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How do we know whether students are making progress in their learning? There are formal summative tests at the end of units or the school year, but there are also informal strategies we use every day by asking questions, observing what students are saying and doing, and using formative assessment to do a quick check on their progress. Whether we are engaging in remote, hybrid, or face-to-face learning, it is critical that we gather useful and reliable information about student learning. 

In this post we identify some questions to consider about data collection and provide suggestions for each, so we can support all students, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, to engage and progress in their learning.

Why Gather Data?

Data are important to gather in order to learn more about students’ current level of performance, growth, and, sometimes, learning regression.  We use data to inform instructional planning and to work with students to develop necessary skills and background so each progresses in learning the curriculum and achieving IEP goals. There are important questions to consider about the data we gather: 

  • What data are important? 
  • How can we ensure the data are reliable?
  • How can all educators collaborate around data to support student learning?
  • What tools can be used to gather data about progress?

What Data are Important?

In any lesson, we gather multiple forms of data to understand student progress toward the learning goals. These can include student work, comments and participation, and reflection. These data are important because they allow us to provide students with feedback about their learning and help us identify their strengths and needs so we can adapt instruction. Learning goals can include content and skills, but also non-academic goals, such as goal-planning, behavior, self-regulation, and the use of different tools and resources.    

IEP goal data allow us to assess how students who receive special services are making progress in the general education curriculum, as well as other social, communication, or foundational skills. In remote learning, the way data is gathered on IEP goals shifts. Several states have implemented temporary learning plans, where the IEP team works together to prioritize one or two IEP goals for a student. It is not ideal, however, it provides an option for focused attention to critical learning goals. Once the team identifies those, then they think about different ways to gather evidence and measure progress, for example: work samples, frequency charts, video or audio clips, or logs about how long a student spent on an online task.

How can we ensure the data are reliable?

Student performance on tasks can vary from day to day and across different contexts. It can be tricky to know for sure whether the data we gather is a true indication of what a student knows and can do. Here are a few tips to help ensure the data you gather is reliable: 

  • Fold data collection into the activities, feedback, and daily assignments, instead of pulling it out as a separate activity. Identify when IEP goals will be embedded in instruction and used for data collection. This will provide a natural context for understanding how well a student is gaining a skill or concept.
  • Provide flexible ways for students to express or show what they know, such as speech, AAC, writing, manipulating objects, making models, or other forms to demonstrate understanding.
  • Consider what “real world” application that connects with the learning, so the students are engaged with the assessments in relevant and authentic opportunities.
  • Communicate with students about their progress and learning, include them in the discussion to better understand how non-cognitive factors (such as the context or engagement) may impact their progress. See TIES DL #14 for more information.
  • Work across disciplines with other educators to share data collection goals, forms, and strategies in order to gather multiple forms of data. This allows you to gain a more complete picture of how students are doing. 
  • In remote learning, consider avenues of data collection that you may not have typically used with families, caregivers, or therapists. This does not mean you have to train or expect families to know the ins and outs of data collection, but you can work with them to identify what they are comfortable with supporting. See  TIES DL #11 for more information. 

How can all educators collaborate around data to support student learning? 

All educators are responsible for ensuring that each student makes learning progress and engages with the community, including students with significant cognitive disabilities. Both general and special educators are legally responsible for gathering data and tracking progress on all goals, including IEP goals. 

Here are some best practices educators can use to use to gather data and monitor student learning progress:

  • Ensure that students and educators have a clear understanding of the learning goal and what success looks like. Work together to discuss strategies and supports that have been helpful or not helpful.
  • Use different forms of data, as described above, to analyze and reflect on student progress toward that learning goal. DL #3 and TIES TIP #8 can provide additional ideas for instruction and data collection.
  • Use the least dangerous assumption, if the student is not making progress, focus on changing the environment, materials, and instructional strategies rather than assuming the student “just can’t get it.” See TIES TIP #6
  • Be sure to focus on students’ strengths, not just where there are gaps.
  • Data collected at school and home can focus on the same goal, but not look identical. Collaborate to understand the family’s schedule and demands in order to identify how to streamline data collection and ways to share it with teachers.

What Tools Can be Used to Gather Data about Progress?

Depending on the learning goal, there are different tools and platforms that can be used to gather data about student progress. While there is no one “best” tool or platform, consider what kind of data will best help you to determine whether students are making progress.

Here are options to consider:

  • Record your class or remote learning session and review the video with a focus on the learning goal and evidence of student progress (for example, Screen-cast-o-matic allows free recording of your screen for up to 15 minutes or use your cell phone). 
  • Ask an aide or the co-teacher to focus on the gathering evidence while the other adult teaches.
  • Use online tools for quick feedback checks (for example, Google forms, Kahoot, Quizelize). Set the defaults to connect answers with each student for accurate data.
  • Use classroom management systems to gather behavioral data (for example, Class Dojo, Addito). 
  • Ask families to take a quick video on their phone of the student working (for example, a 5-minute observation of their child to look for a specific behavior, such as taking turns in a conversation) and send the video to you. 
  • Ask families to use simple tally marks or checklists to log data once a week and submit it via a photo. 


Data collection is an empowering process that allows you and the student to better understand how to enrich learning opportunities. Multiple forms of data collection are important for understanding what students have learned and next steps. Take time to clarify your learning goals and know what success looks like to help you gather reliable data and maximize strategies to support student learning. Collaborate with educators and families and include

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #15, July, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Taub, D., & Posey, A. (2020). Data collection and distance learning (DL #15). TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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