Workshop: Creating an Authentic Task
In the "workshops" sprinkled throughout this website I will attempt to capture (and model) the process I follow when assisting someone or some group in developing standards or authentic tasks or rubrics. For this workshop, I will begin with a particular skill an imaginary educator would like to develop and assess in her second grade students, and we will work towards an authentic means of assessing the skill. You can "play along at home" by imagining how you would respond to the educator or to me.
Somewhere in Vienna .... (hey, it's my workshop; I'll host it where I like!)
Educator: I often get frustrated when my students constantly ask me whether they think their work is any good or not, or when they ask me if I think they are finished with some task. I want them to learn to judge those things for themselves. I need to teach more of that. But I have no idea how I would measure something like that. Is that really an authentic skill, and could I really assess it?
Me: No and no. Let's go have some Sachertorte. Just kidding. First, is it authentic? Do you ever find yourself needing to reflect on your own work, to figure out what is working and what is not, to make changes when necessary, or to decide when you have finished something?
Educator: Of course. I do that all the time as a teacher, like when I am working on a lesson plan. I do that in a lot of situations, or I wouldn't get much better at whatever I am working on.
Me: That point is well supported by a recent article from Wiggins and McTighe (2006) entitled, "Examining the teaching life," in which they describe how educators can reflect upon their work "in light of sound principles about how learning works." So, it certainly is an authentic skill. Authentic tasks do not have to be large, complex projects. Most mental behaviors are small, brief "tasks" such as deciding between two choices, or interpreting a political cartoon, or finding a relationship between two or more concepts. Thus, many authentic tasks we give our students can and should be small and brief, whether they are for practicing some skill or assessing students on it.
Educator: But are second graders too young to evaluate their own work?
Me: No, teachers can and have begun developing this skill in kindergarteners. As with anything, start simple and small.
As you may know, considering how to assess such a skill in the classroom usually begins by referring to your standards. Did you write a standard addressing the skill you described?
Educator: Yes. In fact, I completed your absolutely fabulous "Writing a good standard" workshop. So, see what you think of what I came up with.
Is that okay? I know it is rather broad. I could have chosen more specific elements of self-assessment such as identifying errors in their work or judging if they have completed the assignment. But I want my students to begin acquiring all the skills of self-evaluation so I wrote the standard with that in mind.
Me: I think that is a reasonable standard. Your standard may be broad in some sense, but I notice that you are limiting it to evaluating the students' work, not their behavior. As you probably know, some teachers ask their students to evaluate their own behavior during the day. For example, students are asked to assess how well they are contributing to the class, staying on task, avoiding or resolving conflicts with others, etc. I think the scope of your standard is appropriate and manageable. So, let's go with that standard. If you need to change it as we consider the tasks you always can. Nothing in assessment is written in stone.
Now, second, can you assess it? "Evaluate" is an observable verb. But, what does "evaluate their own work" actually look like when people are doing it?
Educator: When I think of evaluating one's own work or self-assessing I think of things like
Me: Those are very good examples. Other ways of saying much the same thing include
Notice in our list of skills that with the exception of correcting them when necessary all of the statements focus on identifying how well one is performing and not on the next step of identifying strategies for improvement or addressing one's weaknesses. Although correcting one's errors or devising strategies for improvement follows logically from identifying those errors or weaknesses, the two sets of skills can be considered, taught and assessed independently of each other. So, I think it makes sense for you to limit your focus to the first step of evaluating one's work. Given that, which of the evaluation skills do you want your students to develop?
Educator: All of them really.
Me: There is quite a bit of overlap or redundancy in the list we created. Can you consolidate those skills into two or three that you would like to focus on here?
Educator: Well, as I mentioned before, I would like my students to stop asking me or their parents or others all the time if their work is any good. Sometimes they will need to check with others. But, I want them to be able to determine if their work is any good for themselves, whether that means being able to compare their work against a set of criteria or a rubric I might give them or just knowing what "good" looks like for a particular task. Related to that, I would like my students to be able to judge when they are "done" with a task. Yes, I want them to recognize when the minimum requirements have been met, but I also want them to judge when they have produced something worthwhile.
Me: Very good. We should not have too much difficulty thinking of tasks you could assign your students that will indicate whether or not they are acquiring those skills.
Educator: First, I want to check on something: Just because I have a standard for something, do I have to assess it?
Me: Only the most essential understandings and skills should be captured in your standards. Thus, if it is important enough to include in your standards you will want to know if your students are meeting those goals. You will want to assess it. On the other hand, there may be skills that you would like to promote or encourage in your students, but you don't consider them critical. So, you don't have to assess them. However, if this is a skill you would really like to teach and develop in your students...
Educator: It is...
Me: Then you will want to assess it, which brings us back to your original question. How can you assess the skill described in your standard: Students will evaluate their own work? Let's start with the first skill you described: Judging the quality of their own work. To get you started, here are a few possible options:
So, pick one of these and flesh it out to give me a task that would work in your class. You have 30 seconds.
Educator: What?!? Okay, um, how about ... I got it! I borrowed the Fairy Tale Letter task from your Toolbox developed by Debra Crooks and Kate Trtan. They created a good rubric for the task. So, I could do the following with my students:
Me: That's a good start.
Educator: Uh oh. I know what that means when you say "a good start."
Me: I mean that you have described a very good framework for assessing self-assessment in this manner. I just think your task needs a little tweaking. In fact, we need to do the very thing you are asking your students to do: Evaluate the quality of your work. How do you think you judge the quality of a task you have created, adapted or borrowed?
Educator: The task should align with the standard. So, first, I want to make sure I am really assessing whether or not students are evaluating their own work. Of course, it looks good to me -- I wrote it! So, how can I try to more objectively evaluate the task?
Me: A good strategy for evaluating a task is to imagine possible student performance on the task and see if you can really determine whether the standard was met or not. For example, if this is the rubric,
imagine a student scored himself a 5 (correctly used all parts of a letter) for the "parts of a letter" criterion, a 5 for number of sentences, a 3 for sentence structure, and a 5 for voice on his draft. When you look at the student's draft, you score him a 3, 5, 3, 3. What have you learned about how well this student can evaluate his own work?
Educator: Well, I can tell that the student recognized that most of the parts of the letter were there, but he missed one part. Also, he correctly realized that he included five sentences. He appears to be aware that there were some incomplete sentences or mechanical errors, but I cannot tell which errors he identified. Finally, the student did not seem to realize that his character lost its voice in a few places.
Me: That's a possible interpretation of the student's ratings. Is it also possible that the student just guessed and happened to agree with you on some criteria by chance?
Educator: I guess that's possible, too. How could I tell if he just guessed?
Me: I was about to ask you that. If you were there with the student, what would you do to find out?
Educator: I would just ask him: Why did you circle "Correctly used all parts of a letter" for that criterion?
Me: Then you can make that question part of your assessment. But, before we consider how you might incorporate that formally into your assessment, let's go back to the way you originally described it. Simply asking your students to apply the rubric to their drafts is a good task in itself. It may not tell you formally whether or not they are meeting the standard, but it serves as good practice for this skill. And with any skill, you would want to give them feedback on it. So, you could give them your ratings on the rubric and ask them to compare them with their own. With second graders, it may not be very helpful just to see your ratings without some assistance. But you could
By simply asking your students to apply the rubric and examining their ratings you will get some sense of how well they are judging their own work. You may notice certain patterns such as they all seem to be able to determine if they have included enough sentences, but they are quite poor at judging whether their character has used a consistent voice. So, as an informal assessment, I think your task (and its many possible variations) should give you some useful information and provide some good practice in the skill of self-assessment.
However, if you want to draw more valid inferences about how well the students are meeting your standard, you will need to collect evidence that more clearly indicates how well your students are evaluating their own work. Earlier, you said you could help determine if students were just guessing when they applied the rubric by asking them follow-up questions. How might we include such questions as part of the task?
Educator: For a more formal assessment, I could give the students the rubric at the top of a sheet with a few questions at the bottom. After they apply the rubric to their drafts, the students could be directed to answer the questions. For example, I could give them one of the following sheets:
Me: Those are very good questions. I would feel more confident about assessing a student's ability to evaluate his work if, in addition to completing the rubric, he also had to answer one or more of those questions. You will have made his thinking visible so you can more easily discern whether he arrived at his answer through guessing or through genuine reflection on his level of performance.
Engaging in such self-assessment, particularly with some thoughtful reflection, is not an easy task by any means, and particularly not for second graders. Skill development requires careful scaffolding. So, we must assume that administering an assessment such as one of these for your students would come only after considerable practice with the skill. Furthermore, practice should follow significant teacher modeling. For example, you could write a fairy tale letter, intentionally including some stronger and weaker parts. Then, you would walk through the rubric with your students to illustrate how to apply the rubric. You could model it yourself, or you could invite their participation in the process. Similarly, asking students to apply a rubric to someone else's work, whether another student's in the class or a mock sample you provide them, should also provide good practice.
Alternatively, some teachers provide students with samples of what specific descriptors might look like. For example, you might share examples of what a 5 or a 3 or a 1 looks like for the criterion of Voice for the Fairy Tale Letter task.
Of course, even if students take the task seriously and attempt to fairly judge their work, they still may have great difficulty doing so. For example, one of the criteria in the above rubric is "sentence structure," and applying that criterion means judging if the sentences are complete and the mechanics are free from errors. That is not always easy for good writers; how will weak writers know? An interesting article by Dunning et al. (2003) entitled, "Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence," describes research finding that "...poor performers are doubly cursed: Their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also of the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them" (p. 83). Thus, before many of our students can effectively evaluate their own work we need to equip them with the meta-cognitive skills of thinking about how they would accomplish that task.
In other words, how would good or weak writers determine if their writing contains mechanical errors? If they cannot do that, they cannot yet apply that criterion in the rubric. So, another question we might ask a second grader or a sixth grader or a high school senior when applying a rubric to a task is
Of course, the easy answer to that is "ask my teacher," and we are back where we started this whole discussion! But, if we teach and model the meta-cognitive strategies underlying good self-assessment, then eventually we should get some intelligent answers to that question, and better self-assessment, and better performance.
So, what do you think? Could you feasibly assess how well your students could evaluate their own work?
Educator: I think so. At least I am much more confident about it than when we started. It will definitely take a lot of practice and feedback and reflection.
Me: Is it worth the time?
Educator: Definitely. Instead of spending all that time asking my students to learn to apply criteria to their work and then giving them assessments on it, I could have them devote more time to working on their fairy tale letter, for example. But, in the long run, I believe they will produce better work if they can confidently critique it themselves, they will acquire a truly valuable skill that they can apply to almost every facet of their lives, and I may even save time if they become more efficient at producing good work.
Me: You sold me. But, you know what? We are not done yet. Eons ago, or whenever we started this conversation, you also said you would like your students to acquire a related ability: The ability to judge when their work is "done." We will try to keep this brief, but let's see if we can come up with a task or two to assess that skill.
Educator: Okay. Your turn. You've got 15 seconds. Go!
Me: What?!?!? My...mind...is...blank...oh, here we go. Before students turn in a particular assignment, and, perhaps, after reviewing the assignment rubric, give them one of the following sheets:
Educator: At this point, my students would have a hard time answering those questions. Yet, as you said, you have to start somewhere. I could definitely model answers to those questions, and I would give my students plenty of practice, feedback and opportunity for reflection on these skills. The tasks we created should help me teach my students self-assessment skills and provide me a tool for assessing the standard. So, are we done here?
Me: One more thing... We created some possible tasks, but for a formal assessment of the skill you would need some way to score your students' performance.
Educator: A rubric?
Me: That's one possibility. Authentic assessments are not required to include a rubric; some do, some don't. But we will save rubrics for a rubric workshop. To get your thinking started in that direction I just want to ask you to briefly identify a few of the criteria you would look for in your students' efforts on these tasks. What would be the characteristics of good performance on your first self-assessment task that you might measure?
Educator: I would probably look for the following indicators:
Me: Very nice. We're done! Oh, could you grab that sheet of paper on the table.
Educator: What is it?
Me: It's my Sachertorte rubric. I like to hit four or five Viennese restaurants or hotels and compare. It's research!
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Copyright 2010, Jon Mueller. Professor of Psychology, North Central College, Naperville, IL. Comments, questions or suggestions about this website should be sent to the author, Jon Mueller, at email@example.com.