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Tuning Protocol

Overview: (Downloadable)

  • The tuning protocol was originally developed as a means for the five high schools in the Coalition of Essential School’s Exhibitions Project to receive feedback and fine-tune their developing student assessment systems, including exhibitions, portfolios and design projects. Recognizing the complexities involved in developing new forms of assessment, the project staff developed a facilitated process to support educators in sharing their students’ work and, with colleagues, reflecting upon the lessons that are embedded there. This collaborative reflection helps educators to design and refine their assessment systems, as well as to support higher quality student performance. Since its trial run in 1992, the Tuning Protocol has been widely used and adapted for professional development purpose in and among schools across the country.


  • To take part in the Tuning Protocol, educators bring samples of either own work or their students’ work on paper and, whenever possible, on video, as well as some of the materials they have created to support student performance, such as assignment descriptions and scoring rubrics. In a circle of about six to ten “critical friends” (usually other educators), a facilitator guides the group through the process and keeps time. The presenting educator, or team of educators, describes the context for the student work (the task or project) - uninterrupted by questions or comments from participants.


  • Often the presenter begins with a focusing question or area about which she would especially welcome feedback, for example, “Are you seeing evidence of persuasive writing in the students’ work?” Participants have time to examine the student work and ask clarifying questions. Then, with the presenter listening but silent, participants offer warm and cool feedback - both supportive and challenging. Presenters often frame their feedback as a question, for example, “How might the project be different if students chose their research topics?”


  • After this feedback is offered, the presenter has the opportunity, again uninterrupted, to reflect on the feedback and address any comments or questions she chooses. Time is reserved for debriefing the experience. Both presenting and participating educators have found the tuning experience to be a powerful stimulus for encouraging reflection on their practice.

1. Introduction (5 minutes)

  •  Facilitator briefly introduces protocol goals, guidelines, and schedule
  •  Participants briefly introduce themselves (if necessary)

2. Presentation (15 minutes)
The presenter has an opportunity to share the context for the student work:

  • Information about the students and/or the class — what the students tend to be like, where they are in school, where they are in the year
  •  Assignment or prompt that generated the student work
  • Student learning goals or standards that inform the work
  • Samples of student work — photocopies of work, video clips, etc. — with student names removed
  • Evaluation format — scoring rubric and/or assessment criteria, etc.
  • Focusing question for feedback
  • Participants are silent; no questions are entertained at this time.

3. Clarifying Questions (5 minutes)

  • Participants have an opportunity to ask “clarifying” questions in order to get information that may have been omitted in the presentation that they feel would help them to understand the context for the student work. Clarifying questions are matters of “fact.”
  • The facilitator should be sure to limit the questions to those that are “clarifying,” judging which
    questions more properly belong in the warm/cool feedback section.

4. Examination of Student Work Samples (15 minutes)

  • Participants look closely at the work, taking notes on where it seems to be in tune with the stated goals, and where there might be a problem. Participants focus particularly on the presenter’s focusing
  • Presenter is silent; participants do this work silently.

5. Pause to reflect on warm and cool feedback (2-3 minutes)

  • Participants take a couple of minutes to reflect on what they would like to contribute to the feedback session.
  • Presenter is silent; participants do this work silently.

6. Warm and Cool Feedback (15 minutes)

  • Participants share feedback with each other while the presenter is silent. The feedback generally begins with a few minutes of warm feedback, moves on to a few minutes of cool feedback (sometimes phrased in the form of reflective questions), and then moves back and forth between warm and cool feedback.
  • Warm feedback may include comments about how the work presented seems to meet the desired goals; cool feedback may include possible “disconnects,” gaps, or problems. Often participants offer ideas or suggestions for strengthening the work presented.
  • The facilitator may need to remind participants of the presenter’s focusing question, which should be posted for all to see.
  • Presenter is silent and takes notes.

7. Reflection (5 minutes)

  • Presenter speaks to those comments/questions he or she chooses while participants are silent.
  • This is not a time to defend oneself, but is instead a time for the presenter to reflect aloud on those ideas or questions that seemed particularly interesting.
  • Facilitator may intervene to focus, clarify, etc.

8. Debrief (5 minutes)

  • Facilitator-led discussion of this tuning experience.

Why Protocols? (Downloadable)

First, What are Protocols?

  • A protocol consists of agreed upon guidelines for a conversation, and it is the existence of this structure which everyone understands and has agreed to — that permits a certain kind of conversation to occur — often a kind of conversation which people are not in the habit of having.
  • Protocols are vehicles for building the skills — and culture — necessary for collaborative work. Thus, using protocols often allows groups to build trust by actually doing substantive work together.

Why use a protocol?

  • A protocol creates a structure that makes it safe to ask challenging questions of each other; it also ensures that there is some equity and parity in terms of how each person’s issue is attended to. The presenter has the opportunity not only to reflect on and describe an issue or a dilemma, but also to have interesting questions asked of him or her, AND to gain differing perspectives and new insights. Protocols build in a space for listening, and often give people a license to listen, without having to continually respond.
  • In schools, many people say that time is of the essence, and time is the one resource that no one seems to have enough of. We have been experimenting with protocols as a way to make the most of the time people do have. (Have you ever been to a meeting where you have a burning issue you want to discuss, and what happens is that everyone “dumps” his or her issue, and feeds off each other, but you walk away from the meeting feeling unsatisfied, not really having anything new of significance that will help you with your issue? A protocol guards against this.)
  • Finally, it is important to remember that the point is not to do the protocol well, but to have an in-depth, insightful conversation about teaching and learning.