To Exemplar Or Not To Exemplar…..

I’ve had quite a few questions lately about if and when I use exemplars in the classroom.  I’m of two different minds on this issue.  There are definitely pro’s and con’s:


1.  It provides a clear example of what it is you are looking for.  This means students have a clear idea of the target and know what they are aiming for.

2.  They can be used to demonstrate what NOT to do as well as what is good to do.

3.  They can be used as a comparison source for self evaluation.  Is mine as good as the exemplar?  Better?  Not quite there yet?

4.  If student created, it gives an idea of what past students have created and what would be age/grade appropriate at that level.

But with all these pro’s there are also some con’s I’ve found over the years.


1.  Student’s might view the exemplar as completely out of their reach.  It seems to them that it’s far better than anything they could ever come up with and so they give up before they even try.  This is the peril of always showing the “best case” exemplar.  You might be able to show some levelled exemplars but then you run into this problem….

2.  Students only aim for what the exemplar is providing.  It stifles the creativity of the higher achievers who may have given you something even better.  And likewise, the lower achievers aim for the “passable minimum” if they think that’s all they have to do.

3.  You get twenty five copies of what you showed them.  Ugh.  I had this situation with a class I taught about 8 years ago.  If I showed them an exemplar of a poster I liked, I got 18 copies of that poster basically.  They aim to recreate the exemplar to this finest detail instead of infusing their own creativity.

4.  Exemplars aren’t always available or appropriate, depending on your assignment.


So in other words….I’m neither pro nor against the use of exemplars.  I do use them.  Absolutely.  Especially when it’s something brand new that I may have never asked of them before.  For example, when we started using Glogster to create digital posters I needed to show them exemplars of what was possible to do with this online program.  When we used Fakebook to create profiles for Montezuma and Cortes I showed them what I was looking for (But using another historical character!  I was clever about that at least.)

Most recently I took on a project that required creating an adapted screenplay of a scene from a novel.  I had never done this myself before so we looked at published on line scripts (an exemplar) and then used that to create our own script.  We built one together as a class so they could watch me fight with the formatting and talk about how you take information from a book and fit it into a screenplay.  Now, after having viewed a professional screenplay and a class created screenplay, they are off to do an independent scene.  So I think this is an effective use of an exemplar.

But I pick and choose when I use exemplars with a great deal of thought. I don’t want kids to parrot back to me what they’ve seen in an exemplar.  My general question I ask myself is: Will this help them make their own work better?  Or will it just give them something to copy/mimic?

Use your best judgement, you’ll know what works for you and your students in your classroom.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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1 Response to To Exemplar Or Not To Exemplar…..

  1. John Padula says:

    Sorry, I subscribe to your blog, but am only reading this today. I was discussing thoughts on exemplars a few weeks ago within the context of technology tools. It was sort of a rant, but this was the gist of it:

    When we do any project-based activity, it’s fair to say that exemplars go a long way toward letting students see what we will be expecting from them. If we budget our time correctly, walking students through exemplars (good, bad and ugly!) gives them a chance to ask questions and gives us a chance to point out some specifics in depth of information, style and presentation. However, I rarely see any mention of exemplars when teachers talk about technology-based projects. We assume students are ‘tech-savvy’ and can immediately translate our concepts of a wiki, blog posting or facebook page into reality.

    It got me thinking that we have so many how-to sites to help us learn HOW to use some new tool, but no way to easily round up samples for students to review. Maybe we should start thinking about putting out the call for student exemplars. We could create an exemplar website and have pages of links that teachers can go to when we start a project……?

    We’re busy putting together our own PLNs (which is great) – we need to make sure we tap into that and provide students with authentic instances of this technology.

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