Understanding by Design: Thinking like an Assessor

Understanding by DesignIn “Thinking like an Assessor” (Understanding by Design) Wiggins and McTighe argue (I’m sure quite correctly, at least from my own experience) that teachers are not used to thinking like assessors; they are “far more used to thinking like an activity designer or teacher” (150). In other words, teachers “easily and unconsciously jump to Stage 3 — the design of lessons, activities, and assignments — without first asking [themselves] what performances and products [they] need to teach toward” (150). I am actually quite proud of my ability to think of creative activities and assignments, but I will also admit that they do not always really assess big ideas, and I have only ever composed one unit around essential questions (a Harlem Renaissance unit I wrote last year after Jay McTighe came to our school). I have felt a need to focus my instruction. Let’s face it; there are a lot of great teaching ideas out there, and none of us has to reinvent the wheel. What is hard is making sure our students actually create true understandings and transfer their understandings.

Wiggins and McTighe urge teachers to ask three questions in order to aid in thinking like assessors:

  • “What kinds of evidence do we need to find hallmarks of our goals, including that of understanding?”
  • “What specific characteristics in student responses, products, or performances should we examine to determine the extent to which the desired results were achieved?”
  • “Does the proposed evidence enable us to infer a student’s knowledge, skill, or understanding?” (150)

The authors suggest the use of exemplars (in addition to criteria and rubrics), and I remember the use of exemplars being a centerpiece of Jay McTighe’s presentation to our faculty. He described a teacher who had a big target on her bulletin board, and she put examples of A work, B work, C work, and so on in corresponding areas of the target (A’s in the middle). The work was done by previous students with the names removed. However, compiling exemplars takes time. If you have never done a particular assessment before, you won’t have exemplars to use. I’m not sure how you’d get around that, at least the first time students do a particular assignment. The authors also advise teachers to get in the “habit of testing their designs once assessments have been fleshed out,” and I really am not in the habit of doing that.

Thinking about some of my favorite projects, I have come realize as I read this book that they are actually pretty good ways to assess understanding and transfer those understandings through authentic, real-world tasks. For instance, I like the students to set up Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson on a date and record the results. One good thing about this assignment is that I give the students an authentic goal — to compare and contrast these two poets. They have a role — they are a matchmaking friend (one group created a film and pretended to be a matchmaking agency). I think with some tweaking, this assignment could be a very good assessment of the students’ understanding of the two poets and their work. In fact, it occurs to me I need not toss out my favorite assessment ideas or projects. I do need to look at them from a UbD framework and test them.

I like the analogy the authors use regarding seeing effective assessment as a scrapbook as opposed to a snapshot (152). I would imagine portfolios would be great UbD assignments, but furthermore, I like the fact that Wiggins and McTighe don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. They don’t advocate ridding education of traditional assessments like tests and quizzes, but they do advocate use of authentic, real-world assessments that will help students transfer their understanding of material. I think sometimes educators get carried away and think they have to throw out tried and true methods in order to reform curriculum. The authors also underscore the fact that a place for drill and practice exists. For example, if a basketball player doesn’t practice free shots, he/she may not be prepared to shoot during a real situation — the game (156). Skills need to be practiced in order that students can perform in the authentic assessments. Drills, exercises, practice — whatever you call it, it has a place.

I would like my British Literature and Composition students to read a work of historical fiction set during the time period we will be studying. I think such an exercise will reinforce several goals I have — reading fiction can be entertaining and informative, but not all historical fiction is reliable. For instance, Philippa Gregory is very popular, but she habitually includes distinctly non-period dialogue in her writing. Sometimes writers embroider the truth a bit — combine historical personages into one character, change the ages of characters or perhaps their sexual orientation (Gregory did the last two in The Other Boleyn Girl). I have uploaded a draft of this project at the UbD Educators’ wiki. Please check it out, especially if you are reading UbD, and give me feedback. I am especially interested in whether or not I should use GRASPS (157-158) in order to frame the assessment. Wiggins and McTighe contend that “[n]ot every performance assessment needs to be framed by GRASPS,” and I’m not sure this one does, but I would be interested in input (158).

I really like the notion that we need to understand a student’s thought processes, not just check to see if the answer is correct. If we can see how they were thinking, we can identify areas where students’ misunderstandings are interfering with their ability to learn.

I have been reflecting a great deal over my own education as I read this book, too, and I have identified a few memorable assignments that I really felt demonstrated my understanding of the subject matter. In 6th grade we were learning about Central and South American and Caribbean countries. Each of us was assigned a country to study — we didn’t get to pick. I was assigned Venezuela, and I wasn’t initially very happy — I had never heard that Venezuela was a popular tourist destination. I was envious of my peers who were assigned places like the Bahamas. In order to show what we learned about the country, we had to create a travel brochure. It’s been so long that I can’t remember all of the elements I had to include, but I know I had to include information about climate (so travelers knew what to pack or even what time of year might be most enjoyable to visit) and exchange rates (I remember because I misunderstood exchange rates because I thought Venezuelan currency — which I still recall is called bolivars — was less valuable than U.S. dollars because travelers could exchange a dollar for quite a lot of bolivars; exchange rates are somewhat more complicated than the sheer ratio). I am almost sure I had to research hotels, food, events, and the like. Of course, this was a social studies assignment. I worked very hard on it, and I was proud of it. In fact, I recall going to the library and poring over copies of Fodor’s. I showed my brochure to everyone (it was really more of a book — I remember I had put it in one of those three-prong folders, and I even recall that it was a red folder). I showed it to my language arts teacher, who declared that now she wanted to go visit Venezuela. I was beaming, I tell you. I learned a lot about Venezuela that I still remember. I did earn an A on the project, and I am sure I was thrilled with the grade, but years later, I don’t care about the grade. I just remember my learning. As Bob the health teacher confides near the end of the chapter, “one thing that has always disturbed me is that the kids tend to focus on their grades rather than on their learning. Perhaps the way I’ve used assessments — more for grading purposes than to document learning — has contributed to their attitude” (171).

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not naive enough to think I will abolish “grade grubbing.” I think a lot of students are wired that way because of all the pressures from parents and college requirements to earn a certain grade. And let’s face it, I always liked getting A’s, too. I was a bit fixated on it in college because I wanted to graduate magna cum laude (which I managed to do). However, to be fair, I only had one college assignment that was anything like the assessments Wiggins and McTighe describe. In my Shakespeare class, our professor asked us to create a staging of one scene in one of the plays. I can’t remember if she let us pick or if we were assigned a play, but mine was Macbeth. I created drawings of costumes, sets, descriptions of blocking and the like. I’m not an artist. I also remember learning a lot about the play because I had to think about it so hard from the standpoint of a director and producer. I also remember earning an A on that project, but I still recall the baffling comment the professor wrote — the only comment she wrote — on the front page: “You certainly are no coward.” I don’t know what she meant, and I never asked (partly because I was afraid I’d put some rather strange ideas out there).

One particular element I really liked about this chapter was the discussion of self-knowledge. The authors describe two assessments on p. 167 and p. 169 that I’d like to implement. One is a sort of portfolio review. The other is a great way to see how well students understood the big idea of the class and what they are still having trouble with.

I just figured out I’m over halfway through the book. In fact, I’ve read 52.6% of the book. I’m trying to read at least a chapter each day so that I can implement UbD in my summer unit plans, which I need to start working on soon. The reflection is really helping me internalize what I read, but I admit it’s probably slowing me down somewhat. I estimate it’s taken me about an hour to write each of these chapter reflections. But it’s worth the time to really “understand” it.

Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

[tags]Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, UbD, Understanding by Design, assessment, curriculum, education[/tags]

One thought on “Understanding by Design: Thinking like an Assessor”

  1. Dana-

    Mulling over the Thinking Like an Assessor post– in fact, I realize I need to go out and buy the 2nd edition, as I have the first and just realized there are almost 100 additional pages!

    But, as per your last paragraph, I (as I am sure others are) am grateful for your postings and I am thinking of doing the same kind of dialog journal about a new resource in the near future. One of the prof dev tactics I have been disappointed about our school not getting involved in is book study. I began my two separate jobs in this area with the promise of a reading study program being started, but neither came to fruition. Doing this online is just as effective and useful!

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