Documenting Progress in Active Learning

Authors: Kate Hurst, Education Consultant,TSBVI Outreach Programs

Keywords: Active Learning, Lilli Nielsen, IDEA, tracking progress, IEP, benchmarks, diagnostic teaching, portfolio, Functional Scheme, assessment, evaluation

Abstract: Kate Hurst explores the difficulties surrounding documenting progress for students whose educational team members use an Active Learning approach, a technique for teaching students who are learning skills within the range of 0-48 months in child development. She explores what documenting progress means according to IDEA, and offers simple solutions for measuring and reporting progress as exhibited by these students.

Educational teams must document skills in a student’s IEP and may also track skills not specifically noted in a learner’s IEP goals. This may present a challenge when a child has significant and multiple disabilities. If the team is using the Active Learning approach developed by Dr. Lilli Nielsen, tracking progress is sometimes even more challenging, as growth can occur in tiny steps and may take many months to become evident. This is why documentation is so important for these students. They don’t have time to waste on ineffective programming.

IDEA and Documenting Progress

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides clear information about what should be the focus of documenting progress in the IEP for students with disabilities.

IDEA states that each child’s IEP must contain:

(3) A description of—

(i) How the child’s progress toward meeting the annual goals described in paragraph (2) of this section will be measured; and

(ii) When periodic reports on the progress the child is making toward meeting the annual goals (such as through the use of quarterly or other periodic reports, concurrent with the issuance of report cards) will be provided…[§300.320(a)(3)]

This means that specific skills that are included in the IEP must be measured through periodic reports, report cards and review as part of the IEP meeting. This information informs the IEP team about the effectiveness of their instruction.

If no progress is being made, it might be that the skills targeted in the goal are not appropriate for the learner. It might also mean that the instructional strategies that are being used simply aren’t working. It also might indicate regression which could occur as a result of problematic aspects like medical issues or emotional challenges. If the student demonstrates a skill in only one environment or activity and not anywhere else, perhaps the less successful learning environments or activities need to be re-examined.

It is also important to develop goals and benchmarks appropriately for all students. Teams must ensure that these are written clearly so that everyone knows the exact skills on which to focus during instruction. For example, “Joey will use a visually directed reach” references a specific skill that can be demonstrated. A statement such as “Joey will use a Little Room”, does not specify a skill that the student can perform.  To ensure that the Little Room is provided as a necessary way to access information for a particular student, include it as part of that student’s Assistive Technology in the Accommodations and Modifications section of the IEP.

Benchmarks (or objectives) take the larger goal for the school year and break it down into much smaller steps. Children who benefit from Active Learning typically are slow to make progress, and those smaller benchmarks help to chart the important little steps they make. These steps are invaluable in documenting progress. They also serve to help the team evaluate instruction so they don’t waste time on activities that are not helping the learner make progress. Diagnostic teaching, which is tied to the monitoring of ongoing progress, allows the team to make adjustments to the program quickly as the need arises. Benchmarks indicate a clear timetable throughout the year for reviewing progress.

A form is available on the Active Learning Space website that can be used to document progress towards IEP goals and objectives. To view the form and/or download a blank copy go to

Documenting Progress Using the Functional Scheme

The Functional Scheme is a checklist developed by Dr. Lilli Nielsen that helps to determine developmental skill levels across all areas. We recommend that the student’s Functional Scheme be updated at least annually. After the initial assessment, the columns for “Learning has begun”, “Performed in favorable conditions”, and Performs spontaneously” provide important information about a student’s progress in attaining skills. The team may want to review the Functional Scheme more frequently, especially if they see new skills emerging or notice regression.

We also encourage the educational team to work in pairs to score and update the Functional Scheme. The entire team can then review the results and reach agreement on the scores. The parents or primary caregivers are critical to this process. They know the child best and are likely to be the only individuals who are consistently in the learner’s life as he or she progresses through school.

To learn more about how the Functional Scheme can be used to track student progress visit Active Learning Space at

Student Portfolios

Another way to document progress is a Student Portfolio. A Student Portfolio contains examples of what the student does.

Examples could include videos of a student in a learning environment, an observation form related to skills demonstrated during observations, artifacts such as art activities, anecdotal information from the members of the student’s team, photographs, and charts documenting the student’s biobehavioral states (alert, sleepy, etc.) throughout the day or medical challenges (seizures, medications) that seem to impact performance. It could also include an ongoing list or pictures of new objects the child interacts with, examples of an increased interest in exploring an environment, or connecting with a peer.

Below are some of the things we suggest including in a student’s portfolio:

  • Active Learning Materials and Activities Planning Sheet (found at
  • Functional Schemesummary page and other assessment summaries (OT, PT, and communication reports, Functional Vision Evaluation, Learning Media Assessment, eye doctor’s report, audiological report, etc.)
  • Video clip examples of the student in each learning environment (be sure to include short clips showing changes throughout the school year and throughout his or her educational career)
  • Photos that show the student participating in activities; include examples of skills, important people in the individual’s life, and other information that will provide insight about the learner
  • Information about how the student communicates including the forms (speech, gestures, behavioral state changes, object cues), topics (people, places, actions, emotions), and functions (requesting, rejecting, commenting, questioning, expressing emotions, greetings) of the communications
  • Important medical information (what people who don’t know the child need to know such as how to respond to a seizure, signs of problems with a shunt, list of medications and possible side-effects to watch for)
  • Copy of IEP goals/benchmarks and progress reports

Tools like LiveBinders, Google Drive or Dropbox can be used to upload items for sharing with the entire team. Be sure to check features to protect student confidentiality before using online resources.

Parents, caregivers, and staff may want to compile a sample of photos, videos, and observation forms into a Powerpoint presentation to share with a new educational team entering the student’s life. These are also great for service providers outside the educational system (babysitters, respite providers, home nurses, etc.) to help them understand the student better.


Children who are involved in Active Learning may take a long time to show big changes, but little changes are worth celebrating. Documenting progress is an important part of any instructional program.

To learn more about documenting progress for students using an Active Learning approach, please visit the Active Learning Space website at

A young girl sits in front of a yellow peg board that is attached to a wall.  A number of objects are attached to the peg board with elastic.  She is shaking an upside-down aluminum coke bottle and smiling broadly.

Caption: A student uses a “Position Board” to explore the qualities of objects.

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