Category Archives: Assessment

The Differentiator


The Differentiator sounds like a professional wrestler’s stage name. It’s a cool tool, though. When I took Instructional Design as part of my Instructional Technology master’s, one point that the instructor and my text both emphasized was that objectives needed to be clear and measurable. One of my favorite methods for constructing objectives was the ABCD method advocated by Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell in Instructional Technology and Media for Learning, which was my textbook for Instructional Media (my favorite text). The ABCD model for writing objectives considers 1) audience—the learners; 2) behavior—what you want your audience to know or be able to do; 3) conditions—under what conditions (environment and materials) the objective will be assessed; and 4) degree—what will constitute an acceptable performance or demonstration of learning. The key with the “behavior” or verb in the objective is that it must be measurable.

Mager criticizes use of verbs that are not measurable in Preparing Instructional Objectives, a suggested text for Instructional Design. For instance, how would you measure whether students “appreciate” something or even whether they “learn” it? Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell say “[v]ague terms such as know, understand, and appreciate do not communicate your aim clearly. Better words include define, categorize, and demonstrate, which denote observable performance” (p. 93). A table on p. 93 of Instructional Technology and Media for Learning entitled “The Helpful Hundred” includes a great list of verbs for writing objectives. Of course, these types of charts are available everywhere, and maybe you even have a good one that you use. What I liked about the Differentiator is that you can use verbs organized via Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy to build objectives. The list is somewhat limited, but it’s a good start. Most of the verbs are measurable, too (I’m not sure how you would measure whether students “value” something, but that’s the only verb that struck me as difficult to measure and unclear to students). Using this model, you might write an objective like “Using a computer with word processing software, ninth grade students will write an essay with a score of 4 on a 5-point rubric where 5 = exceeds expectations.” (A similar example can be found on p. 94 of Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell.)

Mager’s model for writing objectives includes three major parts: 1) performance—what you want students to be able to do; 2) conditions—tools students can use and circumstances under which the performance will take place; and 3) criterion—the description for criteria for an acceptable performance. Using this model, you might, for instance, write an objective that reads “Given a computer with word processing software, students will write an essay with a score of 4 on a 5-point rubric where 5 = exceeds expectations.” The conditions are the computer and word processing software. The performance is writing the essay. The criterion is that the essay is at least meets expectations, earning an overall score of four.

A poor example of an objective with a similar goal might be “Students will know how to write an essay.” Using either model I’ve described will help you determine whether or not students know how to write an essay; they will also allow you to determine the degree of success and under what conditions you expect that performance to take place.

The Differentiator can help you write objectives similar to both of these models. I do think the content part of process is somewhat confusing and maybe unnecessary. For instance, I used the Differentiator to write “Students will construct a model of the solar system.” The missing piece is the criteria for an acceptable performance, but you get the idea. At any rate, it’s fun to play with and see what happens. I think it has potential to help teachers write higher order objectives more easily and perhaps help teachers remember to ask deeper questions.

It might seem somewhat cold or clinical to think about teaching this way, but it has made me think about what I what students to know or be able to do with much more clarity, and it has also made me think about how I will know students have learned something.

Creative Commons License photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography

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Assessing Learning

Exploring an ideaI had an idea today, and I decided to try it out and see if it would work.

Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy to construct assessments for students, but I don’t think students have ever heard of it. I know I never thought to share it with students. And why not? It’s not a great big secret.

We finished studying Macbeth in one of my classes, and so I decided to let the students essentially create the test, which is not a novel idea. Other folks have done that. What I did, however, was share the various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy with the students and ask them to think of questions that they felt addressed each level. We began with remembering or knowledge and reached analysis before the period ended and we had to table the discussion for tomorrow. Here are some of the questions the students came up with in the level of Bloom’s that the students placed them:


  • How many witches?
  • What happened in the play?
  • Describe the setting of the play.


  • How is Lady Macbeth the more dominant partner in the relationship?
  • How should an actor interpret a given passage of the play?
  • Give examples of how Macbeth misinterprets the witches’ prophecies.
  • Explain how Macbeth changes over the course of the play.


  • Show how Macbeth is still relevant to a modern audience (Why do we study it? What can it teach us?)
  • Show how Macbeth is similar to a modern teenager.


  • Compare how Macbeth felt after killing Duncan to how he felt after having Banquo and the Macduffs murdered.
  • Why did Macbeth kill Duncan? Banquo? The Macduffs?
  • Why did Macbeth listen to the witches?

I think some of these questions are really good and really interesting. I’m not generally a fan of using the lower level questions, and in my mind it is those few knowledge/comprehension questions that are weakest. Beyond identifying how many witches are in the play, it might be more interesting why there are three witches instead of two or four, for instance. I might also have placed some of their questions in other categories. For instance, I think the question about Lady Macbeth’s dominance is more of an analysis question than a comprehension question. Same with the question about Macbeth changing over the course of the play.

Some of their higher order questions are questions I wouldn’t have thought of—showing how Macbeth is like a modern teenager (they mentioned “peer pressure”). I really like the question about why Macbeth listens to the witches.

It was a good assessment of my teaching to hear what the students were telling me they had learned from studying the play. I think it will be interesting to see the assessment that they craft—the assessment that will tell me what they consider important and worth assessing about their study of Macbeth.

Creative Commons License photo credit: JJay

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Addressing Plagiarism

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you’ll probably have to confront plagiarism. Even in the age before the Internet, students plagiarized, though it might be a little easier to do now than it was when you were in high school. A variety of tools can help you detect plagiarism, but what are you supposed to do about it?

First of all, consider the age of your students. I think if you have middle schoolers, they likely don’t know or haven’t learned how to attribute quotes. Students should be taught how to attribute information. Model it. Teach them to use just the part of the quote they need. I have a handout on integrating quotes that might be helpful.

Teach students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Barry Gilmore’s book Plagiarism: Why It Happens, How to Prevent It can help you. Melissa Vosen has a great article in the July 2008 issue of English Journal entitled “Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Teach Students About Plagiarism.” I’ve used it for two years (and will use it again in January) and have found it to be an excellent mini-unit for helping students understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Obviously preventing plagiarism is the best possible means of handling it, but when it happens, and it’s probably a question of when and not if, keep in mind:

  • It’s not about you. The student doesn’t necessarily plagiarize because he/she dislikes you or your class. It’s an act of either laziness or desperation that has nothing to do with the personal feelings the student has for you or your class. You shouldn’t make it personal when you handle it.
  • Consequences are important. Your school probably has a policy about plagiarism. Follow it. That means the student will need to be punished even if he/she is contrite and promises never to do it again.
  • Move on. After the consequences have been given, forgive the student. Go ahead and check their work more carefully in the future. That’s common sense. Don’t make the student feel as if they have irreparably damaged their relationship with you.
  • Make sure the parents know. It might be a good idea to address parents from the point of view of a parent—show your concern and assure the parent that though there will be consequences, you understand it was a mistake and will be moving on and putting it behind you. Assure the parent the student will have a second chance. Parents need to know because any consequences will likely impact the student’s grade.
  • Examine the assignment. Is there something about it that made it too difficult for the student to do? Or was the topic the kind of topic that invites plagiarism because it’s a really commonly assigned topic? Is there anything you can do to improve the assignment so that students won’t be tempted to plagiarize? One suggestion I have is to construct the assignment around an authentic audience and task. For example, instead of framing the topic like this: “Analyze Beowulf’s heroic characteristics using textual evidence,” try “You are King Hrothgar. Queen Huffgar the Wise has written you in desperation. She has a horrible problem with Acromantulas in her kingdom, and she has just learned that your own kingdom was recently rid of two terrible monsters. She wants to know if you can recommend the services of a hero who might be able to do the same for her kingdom. Write a letter of recommendation to Queen Huffgar for Beowulf’s services as a hero. Use examples of Beowulf’s heroic prowess from Beowulf.” Those two writing tasks are asking students to do the same thing. One seems like a lot more fun to write (my opinion, of course, given I wrote the task).

Do you have any tips for teachers with how to address plagiarism? Please share in the comments.

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But Thence I Learn, and Find the Lesson True

Double Double Toil and Trouble...

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said “Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place; if we do not understand him, it is our own fault.” Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with inventing humanity. Certainly there is no writer I enjoy teaching more than Shakespeare. Part of what makes Shakespeare special is the way that people from all walks of life can find themselves in his works and can connect their own lives to those of characters created hundreds of years ago. One of the more compelling stories I’ve heard regarding Shakespeare’s ability to impact lives is that of Prison Performing Arts, an organization I’ve discussed before. If you aren’t familiar with their work, please listen to this episode of This American Life and come back. I will wait. You must hear it.

Anyone who has ever listened to that program can never forget James Word, the man who played Laertes and credits Prison Performing Arts with helping him “see options” and to express himself. He says that “The delivery of the message, through Shakespeare and mythology, taught me life’s lessons.” I receive a newsletter from Prison Performing Arts as a supporter of their organization, and in the recent issue, Ann Haubrich has written an update on James Word. He has been released from prison and is attending college full time. He mentioned earning an A on his first English paper, which absolutely thrilled me to learn, and he discussed his desire to start a theater program for young people at his father’s church. As Word says, “If you can catch them while they’re young, before they get sent to prison, they can recognize their potential and be saved.”

It may sound idealistic, but it obviously works. Prison Performing Arts works with people that most of society has given up on, and it’s encouraging to read about their successes. I came home to find this letter in my mailbox after a great day teaching Shakespeare. My students have finished Act 1 of Macbeth, and I gave them a quiz over Act 1 from Shakespeare Set Free Volume 1. I read an article in the September 2010 issue of English Journal by Timothy Quinn and Todd Eckerson about collaborative reading quizzes. I applied this strategy to this quiz over Act 1. The students talked about each of the quotes and came to a consensus about who said the lines, to whom the speaker was speaking, and what the context of the quote was. Both of my classes earned perfect scores on the quiz. Obviously, it means that the methods in the Shakespeare Set Free unit work for helping students remember the language and learn the story. If you could have been a fly on the wall listening to my students talking about the play, I think you’d have enjoyed their discussion. It was especially interesting to hear them figure out when they were initially mistaken about a quote and discuss it. I never said a word. They conducted the discussion and reached the answers on their own.

I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach Shakespeare to my students. Shakespeare belongs to everybody, from prison inmates to Jewish high school students. As Ben Jonson observed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” His ability to teach us about ourselves, and the richness of his language and his themes never grow old. To paraphrase Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Arbron

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“To End Where I Begun”: Backward Design and Shakespeare

I am presenting at NCTE tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Yacht and Beach Club in Grand Harbour Ballroom South. You can download and/or view all my session materials here.

Note: I think if you visit the presentation on SlideShare and download it, you can get the notes.

Here is my handout for my Macbeth performance task that I discuss as an alternative to a performance.

Here is a graphic organizer for my comparative video exercise for Act I Scene 1. I use the filmed versions of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold, Roman Polanski, and Geoffrey Wright for this activity.

Here is a Wordle made from the text of Macbeth that I use to introduce students to themes in the play.

Chris Shamburg’s radio play of the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” scene.

If you want to explore the UbD Educators wiki (Understanding by Design, ® ASCD) for a variety of resources, feel free to check it out. You don’t have to join to lurk; you have to join to contribute your own work.

Links to my previous work aligning Folger methods with backward design:

Blog posts about Folger/teaching Shakespeare:

Links to other helpful resources:

If you would like to see the Shakespeare Made Easy activity I mentioned, please visit and join A Way to Teach. You’ll find a lot of great resources there.

If I can think of more stuff to add later, I will, so bookmark this post if you’d like to access it more easily.

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More on Homework

1 2 3A couple of years ago when I wrote a post for Grant Wiggins’s now defunct group blog The Faculty Room, I found myself in the midst of a tangle with Alfie Kohn about homework. After reading Shelly Blake-Plock’s post about homework today, I realized Kohn and I were talking about two different things: he was talking about busy work, worksheets, and the like, and I was really talking about preparing for class, although I couldn’t articulate what I meant at the time. Most of the homework my students have is class preparation: reading, answering questions we are going to discuss in class, anticipatory assignments, and the like. Wish I’d been able to explain that was what I meant at the time. However, I’m not sure it would have made a difference, at least not with that particular audience. I have found it interesting how many parents view a large amount of homework, even busy work, as a good thing—it proves their students are learning—and a lack of homework as a bad thing—students must not be learning anything. As in almost everything, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that counts.

Creative Commons License photo credit: D’Arcy Norman

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Summer Reading

This post started with a tweet from Gary Anderson about what his daughters were reading:

Gary Anderson tweet

Donalyn Miller shared how sad that tweet made her in a reply. I jumped in and later Paul Hankins, Karen LaBonte and Kim McCollum joined the conversation. A few others dipped in and out. The bottom line. What is the purpose of summer reading? How do we assess it? Should we even have required books or should we let students choose?

My school requires students read three books (four if you’re in AP). Of those three, one is a required book, one is a choice selected from a list of about ten books, and one is a faculty seminar book—students sign up the previous spring for the book they want to read. We have everything from The Eyre Affair to Hunger Games to Bringing Down the House. The students seem to like it, and there is sometimes a mad rush to sign up for first picks.

When students return, our first unit of study is the required book. I usually ask students to create a project for the choice book. The seminar discussion is the only assessment for the faculty book.

Basically, our conversation last night centered around whether we should assign summer reading. I admit I’m torn. I want students to read over the summer, and I want them to pick up books they want to read. I think we try to have some balance in the way we do it at Weber, but I admit some students still grumble. And what we are doing now is a big improvement over what we were doing when I started: three required books, some type of assessment over two of them without discussion (usually a test and an essay). The kids hated it.

I will go on record as saying the chapter summaries deal that a lot of schools do is just painful, and it kills books. My daughter has had to do that for summer reading, and I have watched it destroy any interest she had in the book. She had to do it with Speak, and not only did it frustrate her because she couldn’t tell what constituted a chapter in that book, but the directions given by the school were also no help. Once school started and the teachers recognized this, they backed off on the requirement, and my daughter, who had done a whole lot of work, just felt resentful. Last year, her teacher required these study guides for each book they read. It’s painful! And no choices at all!

I know we have some students who wouldn’t pick up a book all summer without a summer reading requirement. Truth be told, some of them don’t anyway. So what’s the solution? What do you think of summer reading? What should schools do?

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Digital Portfolios

Circled words, arrows, spiral notebookI am thinking of using digital portfolios this year. I have a wiki for my classes, and it would be easy for students to have a page on the wiki where they can collect their pieces and also pull in other items, like Glogs, images, videos, and audio. I really liked the idea of an interactive notebook, but I’m wondering if a digital portfolio wouldn’t be easier to grade.

Do you use digital portfolios? What tool do you use to create them? What suggestions would you have for implementation? Would it be better for students to create blogs? I don’t want to use too many different tools because I don’t want things to be confusing.

Creative Commons License photo credit: juliejordanscott

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