Do you want to make assessment more meaningful in your teaching practice? Less rote? More engaging? More impactful on students’ current and future lives?
In their 2005 book, Understanding by Design, education scholars, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, advocate for a different approach to assessment that delineates between performance tasks assessments and more traditional forms of assessment. More traditional forms of assessment, or “academic prompts” as Wiggins and McTighe call them:
- Require students to think critically,
- Involve analysis, synthesis, and evaluation,
- Are scored with rubrics, and
- Usually only occur in academic environments.
While performance task assessments:
- Attempt to simulate problems and situations that arise in a multitude of work environments not limited to academic environments;
- Allow students to personalize the required product (a project, performance, etc.) to their own interests and/or learning objectives; and
- Usually require the student to address an audience other than the instructor.
Academic prompts and performance tasks serve different purposes and provide different ways of demonstrating learning. Both usually engage critical thinking and/or application of some sort and build on one another in helpful ways. However, academics often utilize academic prompts more because it is most often how accomplishment is demonstrated in the unique work environment of the academy. However, considering that as of 2015, only 2% of the American population has doctoral degrees, it is imperative that students experience assessments based on a variety of different contexts (Wilson, 2017).
Designing Performance Task Assessments
Per Wiggins & McTighe (2006), the root of a performance task is a problem which is not to be confused with an exercise. An exercise “involves a straightforward execution of a ‘move’ out of context” (p. 155). In other words, exercises are discrete. Problems, on the other hand, involve integration of knowledge and skills as applied to a problem designed to simulate “real-world” scenarios. Problems allow students to see what they do in the classroom beyond the four walls of the classroom (or learning management system). Wiggins and McTighe argue that problems provide evidence of “genuine understanding” (p. 153).
To achieve this kind of understanding, Edmund J. Hansen (2011) provides some additional guidelines for designing performance task assessments:
- “Be realistically contextualized,
- Require judgement and innovation,
- Ask the student to ‘do’ the subject,
- Replicate key challenging situations in which professionals are truly ‘tested’ in their field,
- Assess the student’s ability to use a repertoire of knowledge and skill, and
- Allow appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, and get feedback.” (p. 149)
Constructing an assignment based on these guidelines can be tricky, but Wiggins and McTighe’s GRASPS model is an excellent starting point. GRASPS is an acronym for:
- Goal – states the problem or challenge to be resolved.
- Role – explains who students are in the scenario and what they are being asked to do.
- Audience – who the students are solving the problem for, who they need to convince of the validity and success of their solution for the problem. (Remember, the audience is not limited to the instructor.)
- Situation – provides the context of the situation and any additional factors that could impede the resolution of the problem.
- Product, Performance, and Purpose – explains the product or performance that needs to be created and its larger purpose.
- Standards and Criteria for Success – dictates the standards that must be met and how the work will be judged by the assumed audience.
Once these aspects are addressed, a single, succinct statement can be formed. For example, here’s a performance task prompt for a literature class focused on comic books:
As the first group of students in the comic studies course, your job is to help future students and educators understand comics as a medium. You will have to help them overcome the common misconceptions that comics are a genre and an inferior form of literature in order to expand their understanding of what comics are and can be. In order to do this, you will create an infographic that succinctly conveys your points in an engaging way. Your infographic should be easy to follow and visually engaging.
Wiggins & McTighe use the following example from a college physical education and health class:
Playing the role of a trainer at a health club, you will develop a fitness program, consisting of aerobic, anaerobic, and flexibility exercises, for a new client. The fitness plan needs to take into account the client’s lifestyle, age, activity level, and personal fitness goals. You will be given detailed descriptions of various clients. (p. 160)
What is essential to performance task assessments is constructing prompts that are traditionally written as “write a paper or answer questions” as problems that students must solve. To do this, think about the sorts of problems students might encounter in the types of career they may end up in after school (whether discipline-specific or not). Consider talking to former students and/or professionals in the field about the kind of problems they often encounter as a jumping off point for designing performance tasks assessments for your own course.
Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.
Hansen, E.J. (2011). Idea-Based Learning: A Course Design Process to Promote Conceptual Understanding. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. 15-22. Print.
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. Print.
Wilson, R. (2017, April 3). Census: More Americans have college degrees than ever before. The Hill. Retrieved from http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/326995-census-more-americans-have-college-degrees-than-ever-before