My Favorite Teaching Tool: The Stack Audit

Teachers have a plethora of tools in their metaphorical toolkit, and often utilize many of those tools on an hourly basis. Some of these tools are taught in teacher education programs; however, many “tools” are acquired through experience and ongoing professional development once teachers are in the classroom. I mentally organize teaching tools into two categories:

  1. Lesson Preparation — This includes all content internalization, reviewing diagnostic or previous lesson data, lesson planning, material creation, copying or uploading student materials, and practicing the lesson delivery.
  2. Lesson Delivery — This includes various teaching methods, class routines and procedures, the distribution and collection of materials, checks for understanding, classroom management, aggressive monitoring, and responding to student progress in the moment.

My favorite teaching tool in the lesson delivery category is: AGGRESSIVE MONITORING. If you are looking for a way to assess students’ level of mastery and make course corrections in real-time, then add aggressive monitoring to your teacher toolkit. Check out my previous post that includes the explanation of and steps for effective aggressive monitoring by clicking on the link above.

My favorite teaching tool in the lesson preparation category is: THE STACK AUDIT. I first learned of the Stack Audit in the book Reading Reconsidered (pages 200-204) by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, Erica Woolway. The authors define a stack audit as, “a systematic process of reviewing student work to gather data that helps inform instruction.”

Reasons the stack audit is my favorite teaching tool:

  • It is an incredibly efficient way to review student work and leave with a clear next step. The entire process usually takes around 15-20 minutes.
  • Stack audits can be used within any content and any grade level.

Reading Reconsidered shares how to complete stack audits as a group. This is excellent for collaborating and norming student work quality and misconceptions across groups of teachers. In addition, because stack audits are such an efficient process and give you clear data on which to act, I found my own rhythm and routine for conducting solo stack audits (daily stack audits are ideal), which differs slightly from what is described in the book.

One important thing to note → BEFORE you conduct the stack audit, you must make an exemplar of the student work you will be auditing. An exemplar is more than just an answer key, it is an excellent model of the work that includes the correct answer and top work quality. It would earn an A++. Creating an exemplar helps guarantee that you audit the stack of student work objectively and to the highest level of excellence.

Without further ado, here is the protocol I used for completing an individual stack audit process. I highly recommend using a public timer as this helps everyone stick to the times and remain on task.

Stack Audit

Step 1 (Pre-Work)

Create an exemplar (an excellent model with answers and work quality) of the work you will be “auditing” and have that exemplar with you when completing your Stack Audit.

Step 2 (2 minutes)

Quickly sort stack into 2 piles:

  • Complete
  • Incomplete

Set aside the incomplete work.

Step 3 (3 min)

Sort the complete papers into 2 piles:

  • Correct
  • Incorrect

Variation – Sort the complete papers into 3 piles:

  • Correct & High Quality
  • Correct & Medium/Low Quality
  • Incorrect

Step 4 (10 min)

Go through the correct papers:

  • What trends do you notice in their work?
  • What did they include?
  • What strengths do they exhibit that other students need to learn to demonstrate?

Go through the incorrect papers:

  • What trends do you notice in their work?
  • What errors did they make?
  • What areas of growth do they exhibit that need to be strengthened?

Step 5 (5 min) 

Create next stpes:

  • Create an anchor chart with an example that specifically highlights the key ideas you want students to demonstrate in their work.
  • Decide what you will teach or reteach the following day.
  • Choose a student’s work that you will show to the class and determine the elements you will pinpoint when presenting the work.
  • Choose a student’s work and make enough copies for the entire class. Then, have students analyze what makes this student’s work excellent and create their own criteria for success or “anchor chart.”

If time permits, you can also go through the incomplete pile and analyze any trends on why students did not complete the task.

Other ways to utilize a stack audit:

  • Complete a stack audit with your department. Have each teacher bring an exemplar and a stack of student papers. As a group, review the complete student work and either create individual observation sheets to then discuss as a group or create a chart together during the audit process. Together, complete the “next steps” portion from the stack audit protocol listed above. Then, move onto the next teacher’s stack of papers. The benefit of completing these stack audits as a department is the ability to see inconsistencies across classrooms and grade levels. Thus, as an optional next step, your department can decide what to norm (teaching strategy or student work expectations) or what skill to collectively target in all classrooms moving forward.
  • After a unit test or benchmark assessment, note the highest scoring question(s) and the lowest scoring question(s). Then, pull all student work for the highest questions and document the trends. Next, pull all student work for the lowest questions and document the trends. Lastly, complete the “next steps” portion from the stack audit protocol listed above.

After completing your first stack audit and your next steps, you will be amazed at how quickly your students grow due to your targeted analysis and action steps. Add this tool to your teaching talk it and see the immediate benefits yourself!


meghan thompsonMeghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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