collaboration · formative assessment · small group

Mastering the Art of Thin-Slicing

Between meetings, grading, lesson planning, and a slew of other things teachers face throughout the day, time becomes a precious commodity. Teachers of writing spend a lot of time sitting beside writers and offering feedback to help nudge forward. Outside of class, we review conferring notes and study writing samples to create learning opportunities that stretch each writer. Early on in my career, I often felt overwhelmed as I collected preassessments and writing samples. I relied more on my conferring notes for small group instruction, but wasn’t quite sure how to use the data from preassessments to strategically plan out a unit focusing on what the class as a whole could benefit from.

Some years I had 90 students, and the never ending stack of papers would bury me. I realized that I needed to work smarter, not harder, when it came to looking at student work if I wanted to teach writers responsively and effectively. 

A big change came when I adopted the practice of “Thin-slicing,” as Malcom Gladwell calls it in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking WIthout Thinking. Thin-slicing is being able to make snap decisions in a short period of time, relying on the idea that: 

  • There is power in the information received from a very small amount of information and subconsciously, we make decisions quickly.
  • Experts in their field (as educators are!) can make judgments in 10 seconds, and come up with the same decision if given 2 hours or 3 days.
  • The amount of time needed to analyze and sit and think about a recommendation is very short, with high accuracy achieved in a short time.

Suddenly, that stack of papers became like magic to me, encouraging me to quickly sort student work in a way that naturally created strategy groups and focused areas of instruction. Since adopting this practice, I find that I am able to more strategically plan for each of my writers, and I use it both at the beginning and throughout units. Thin-slicing helps me identify trends and create groups, targeting specific skills to push each writer forward. . .quickly. Here’s how it works:

  1. Create a list of indicators. This can be anything that you predict you will need to teach into. Common indicators I use when looking at beginning of the year narrative preassessments are:
    • Stamina
    • Organization
    • Word choice
    • Conventions
    • Fluency
  1. Select one indicator at a time to sort. When the focus is narrowed, it helps identify and zoom in on one specific area of writing that will later become the target of later learning engagements. 
  2. Physically sort your stack of papers into exceeding, meeting, and striving, or subgroups that are meaningful to you. This can also be done on a Padlet for soft copies of student work. Do this quickly–don’t overthink. The sort really should only take a few minutes. Sorts can become especially powerful when a team of teachers work together to come to agreements and norm themselves around student writing. However, I also will use Thin-slicing on my own, if need be. As agreements and norms around each indicator are created, they then can be shared with students as a learning progression so they also are aware of what is the next step for them.
  3. Select at least one paper from each level to serve as a representative paper. A class set, or several papers shifts the norm of practice from using one paper as an exemplar to seeing the big picture view of your class as a whole with regards to your indicators, or slices, from above. 
  4. Engage in a discussion, or if individual, reflect using questions such as: 

These questions are incredibly helpful to use in a collaborative team at the beginning of units. They will help weed out the lessons or areas of focus that students have already mastered, as well as identify areas that need to be covered at a deeper level, empowering you to tailor lessons for the students in front of you. 

For strategy groups, another quick and focused sort reveals who to nudge in which direction. These sorts have allowed me to regain time I would previously spend reading student work and taking detailed notes. Instead, my time now is spent creating small group minilessons to address specific areas of writing, tailored to each writer in my class. 

Are you ready to work smarter, not harder and create learning opportunities to better meet the needs of each individual writer, all while gaining back some of that precious time? If so, Thin-slicing is for you!

3 thoughts on “Mastering the Art of Thin-Slicing

  1. I have used a version of “thin slicing” in the past, but I like how you break it down by the indicators students need to be successful in and “chunked” it. Too often, we get caught up on the whole of the writing piece and really it’s typically areas that students really need to hone in on to create better writing pieces.


  2. Love the ideas here and reference to a skill (thin-slicing) that can transfer. My pop out idea was the padlet suggestion and I will definitely use that. I also think I would like to talk to students about how I am “thin-slicing” so they can take that on as well. Great skill moving forward! Who doesn’t need to learn how to focus on what matters? Great post!


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