Once you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching, you need to define how you’ll know what students have learned or not learned. What task(s) will students complete in order to show what they’ve learned as you move through the unit? Keep in mind that this does not necessarily have to be a written test! This step in planning helps you meaningfully outline the Why of your unit.
Defaults surround us. When I use my computer, I have a default web browser. I have default settings on my phone. When I get home in the evenings, I change into more comfortable clothes. Defaults help us work effectively and efficiently to accomplish a specific task.
We also have defaults in our teaching. When I need to quickly assess students, my default is usually a quick poll (choose the best answer from the board) or some targeted questioning to reiterate some important points from the activity. Those quick checks are routine for my students and the default action helps me effectively check for understanding without significant interruption of the class flow.
Defaults can also be dangerous. If I’m going out in the evening, my default clothing choice would not be appropriate. Asking students to answer a single multiple choice question (probably) won’t show me deep understanding. Our default actions need to be overridden from time to time depending on the situation. Relying on the default is particularly dangerous when you’re planning your unit assessment.
Understanding By Designing
This portion of the planning process relies heavily on Understanding By Design (UbD), also called “backward design,” developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigh. UbD outlines seven key principles which permeate all instructional decisions. I’m not going to go in depth on the entire framework in this post, so I encourage you to go read more about how to implement UbD.
At it’s core, UbD “helps focus curriculum and teaching on the development and deepening of student understanding.” The How defines how students demonstrate their learning. I cannot answer the question of whether or not students learned without some kind of assessment mechanism. The Golden Circle parallels the three-step process outlined by UbD:
- Desired Results
- Learning Plan
We’ve already outlined our desired results by defining and organizing standards. Now it’s time to dive into the assessment mechanisms that will flow throughout your unit.
How Will You Know What They Know?
The purpose of defining the assessment before the lessons is to ensure you are hyper-focused on teaching the standards you outlined in the Why. This is absolutely teaching to the test and it’s absolutely okay. Understand that teaching students the material you outlined is expected! Don’t fall into the trap of labelling your instruction as “narrow” or “prescribed” because you define the scope of your instruction. If you find something is missing, you can add it to your unit plan! This is an important component of planning because your assessment, to be reliable, valid, and fair, should reflect the material you set out to teach.
As you learn more about UbD, this portion of your unit planning is for the culminating event, not necessarily day-to-day formative assessments. The formative checks are critical because they help you “correct the ship,” as it were, but those are more aligned to daily tasks, so we’ll plan those in the next step.
There are six facets for understanding defined by Wiggins and McTigh that you should work to include: explanations, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Your culminating event should be broad enough for students to demonstrate many of these facets and narrow enough to ensure they are showing their learning on the defined standards.
A Sample Culminating Event
You have complete control over the culminating event, so try to avoid your default action and plan a true event, not just an assessment.
In my general chemistry course, we spent a significant amount of time on the properties of atoms. Understanding how these little pieces of matter behave is important in later concepts, like describing bonding or chemical reactions. Luckily, we have the Periodic Table of Elements which describes and organizes these properties. A major component was my emphasis on the fact that the periodic table is relatively new - only in its current form since the early 1900’s after many years of experiments and revisions. I needed my students not only know how to read the periodic table (explain and interpret), but to also relate to it’s development and connect it to the nature of science as a revision-based process.
I can definitely assess their knowledge using a multiple choice and essay test, and those were a component as we went through the unit in the form of quizzes. But, I’m missing the other half of the six facets of understanding - empathy, perspective, and self-knowledge. By using a unit test as my culminating event, I was missing opportunities for metacognition and growth.
In 2006, NSTA published an article by Vicki Volpe which described a Periodic Table of Cereal Boxes. I modified the project and added a reflection my students would do to show their understanding at the end of the unit. By putting students in the driver’s seat, I was able to watch them assimilate all of the principles they’d learned over the course of the unit to create something novel. Beyond the chemistry skills, students felt the frustration of building a meaningful representation, not unlike the early organizers of the periodic table. The process involved research, drafting, and revision - and not just one cycle. The reflection included a strengths/weaknesses analysis of their table and many recognized that it wasn’t perfect, but it worked given the data they had access to.
The Role of How
The culminating event brings into alignment to the entire unit. Every standard was assessed in some way, but not in isolation. All learning is connected and our unit assessments should highlight and expect students to make those connections. Designing your culminating event should unify the learning standards and give students opportunity to show the facets outlined in UbD. As a bonus, these holistic assessment items don’t feel like assessments. The conversation changes from “we have a test over this stuff” to, “use what you know and show me what you can do with it.” It’s a rolling performance event for students with checks along the way to ensure a supportive learning environment. This is particularly evident in a flipped environment where students can go back to review material as needed. The support structure is built right in!
Once you’ve defined the Why and the How, you have a framework which provides support for the What - the day to day items. We’ll look at that in the next post.