HomeNews & EventsP21 BlogAssessing Deeper Learning: How Deep Is Deeper?

Assessing Deeper Learning: How Deep Is Deeper?

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by Jim Bellanca

In past eras when students were tested mostly about discrete facts, teachers needed to worry about quizzes and exams which targeted specific factual outcomes and ended with grades and bubble tests. Remember how it went?  Start with vocabulary quizzes. How many words correctly spelled? How many definitions correctly matched? Count the number. Enter in the grade book. Tell students to review the ones wrong because they might appear on the final. The final. How many correctly spelled? How many words correctly matched with a definition or picked from a multiple choice? How many bubbles marked?  Grade earned: A-F.

Advance to the biology practicum.  Take a quiz to see how many dissected parts were recalled. Match part to the pictures. Memorize. Circle around the lab table, peer in the microscope. Match part to the item name. Grade.

No matter the subject, memory was the key. When there were formative quizzes, items checked to see what was remembered from reading homework or popped after a lecture. Causes of the war? Events in the story? Symbols to be matched to theme or character. Chemical charts? Laws of Physics? Parts of the anatomy? If low scores on the quiz, review to increase the numbers. Get to test prep. More memory review. Teachers sometimes asked and often answered why and how questions for students to copy. More test prep review. Summative exam outcome: a total score on the key words, facts and procedures in the unit.

In a new era facilitated by 21st Century Skills, comes deeper learning.  Deeper than what?  Deeper than recalling the facts and figures from notes taken or stored in short term memory? Deeper than a recitation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?”? or answering “higher order” questions about the causes of  the Civil War? Deeper than a Venn diagram with countable lists of similarities and differences?

Watch Teachers Embrace 'Deep Learning,' Teaching Practical Skills on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

As this video shows,  today’s most effective teachers drive students deeper into the content being studied by preparing them to be investigators and problem solvers able to transfer what and how they learn across the curriculum and into outside-of-school life situations. They focus on learning rather than grades or test scores. They not only want students to know and understand the concepts they are studying; they want students to gain and apply new insights about mathematics, science or social studies into investigations of other practices in the same content areas. These teachers ready students to ask their own why, how and what if questions and prepare students to adapt the graphic organizers and build students’ cognitive skills with explicit instruction that leads to transfer. In this mode, teachers enable students to answer their own questions, to defend their own ideas, and to assess their own thinking and problem solving as self-directed thinkers. Obtaining information is important; it is, however, not enough for the teacher pushing for deeper learning outcomes similar to those outlined by the Hewlett Foundation.




A. Content Knowledge

1. Master core academic content

2. Acquire, apply and expand knowledge

B. Cognitive Strategies

3. Think critically and solve complex problems

4. Communicate effectively

C. Learning Behaviors

5. Work collaboratively

6.  Learn how to learn

(Hewlett Foundation, 2012)

In the 21st Century, intentional deeper learning instruction drives students’ cognition deep down into the gold mines of the mind. Teachers are looking to create the transfer of learning disposition in every student. With transfer, a teacher seeks to turn students into problem solvers who can bridge content insights and cognitive skills throughout a single discipline (near transfer) and, across the curriculum and beyond the school walls (far transfer).

With purposeful problem solving for transfer, the most effective teachers declare, “replication and duplication of information are not enough”. They challenge students to do the more complex thinking that necessitates innovative responses in one variation or another. They also know that it is insufficient merely to expose students to deeper learning challenges; they know it is necessary to intentionally develop the thinking skills that will transform deeper learning into a valuable life-long learning asset.

In the Denver Green Public School, students’ Project-Based-Learning unit included the application of nutrition practices and principles to revise the school lunch menu and make the meals more popular. Upper grade students turned the menu into a meal they prepared for parents and peers.

Intentionally developing the skills of problem solving is key to promoting strong transfer. With problem solving, the teacher facilitates student’s creation of a solution for a problem that lacks a clear cut answer.  Given disparate sets of data, ideas, concepts or value systems, the students must make sense of unconnected pieces of information much as a scientist, doctor, artist or historian might. Prepared with problem solving tools, the students look to see how they can analyze, compare, contrast, evaluate, prioritize or use other cognitive competencies to look for new meanings in the information. They then study the competencies that made the most difference and reflect on how to strengthen these for the next project.

Take the case of George Washington at the edge of the Delaware River. He was the subject of an elementary grade project in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. The teacher provided student teams with a pile of magazines, videos and the Library of Congress’ on-line original documents. The teams reviewed the collection to find information about Washington’s situation. Each team was to state the problem the General faced from the team’s point of view.  Once the problem was identified, the team identified its best solution and made a plan with maps as George Washington might have done. The lesson was not hearing how and why George solved the problem. Each team collaborated as the stand-in problem solver transferring what they previously had studied about geography to this situation.

To move her students even deeper, this teacher structured the next lesson so that students might transfer the cognitive problem solving skills they had used with George’s problem on the banks of the Delaware, into how they might solve academic problems in other disciplines.

  • Students reflected on how they identified George’s problem. What types of thinking did they have to do in his shoes? In what order? 
  • With a new problem provided by the teacher - for instance, Lincoln’s challenge to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, the students had to decide which thinking skills could they apply in this new situation. In what order? What other refinements might help their problem solving?
  • What conclusions might they draw about the quality of their thinking and problem solving? What connections could they make between thinking and problem solving that they can use for problems in language arts, science, social studies or outside the classroom?

By taking the time to guide reflection on the thinking and problem solving skills the students had used with the George Washington scenario, this teacher has set the stage for students doing their deepest thinking throughout the year. At this point they are now ready to strengthen their bridging and transfer skills for upcoming multidisciplinary problems or inquiry projects such as designing a playground based on simple machines or providing senior citizens with neighborhood support groups during heat waves.

The Assessments: Both/And More

With a deeper learning vision, any teacher ready to push students to the deepest, most complex types of thinking, is also ready to go beyond the conundrum “Shall I assess the thinking processes or shall I continue to limit assessments to the content?”  By recognizing that the process is content, she understands that assessment of the thinking, problem solving and transferring process skills and the content are equally essential. If anything, learning to process the process may be more important for life long learners.

  • First, the content.  When the students finished their investigation of       the Valley Forge documents, this teacher facilitated students coming to agreement about key items of information in the George story.  “Which information that you found was most important?” “Why do you say this?”  “What sources provided this information and support your claims?” Following the agreements, she presented a short quiz to ensure that the students have a grasp of the essential date, people, event and place terms.
  • Second, the process. This example shows the value of providing students with multiple opportunities to assess their grasp of the problem solving and transfer processes that are the heart and soul of deeper learning. To accompany the investigation, she provided rubrics to identify how well her students gathered and defended information choices, organized their ideas, and made a case for their conclusions. This gave her sharply focused snapshots of their deeper thinking.
  • Third, the innovative combination. This is the most difficult assessment to make. Because a rubric provided at the start of the problem-solving task was likely to encourage some students to replicate what the rubric says and no more, this teacher preferred to keep the whole rubric hidden, or at least those elements that might suggest a “best” solution. To resolve this, she included one rubric for the creative thinking done, and a second to apply to the problem’s solution.  The first focused on the characteristics of creative thinking such as flexibility and fluency.  The second focused on the solution’s complexity, uniqueness, reach and appeal.

Other teachers have no such qualms. At the charter High Tech High, students use a stress test to determine the fitness of robots to stand up to physical abuse. Knowing only the nature of the test, they do their problem solving to ensure their robot will survive. This single test in practice determines not only what they know from the engineering curriculum, but how well they employed problem solving skills sets in their final construction.  (Watch this test on the High Tech YouTube Video).

Developmental Assessment.

In the first years of teaching, many teachers have relied on easy to count, recalled facts or memorized formulas to reveal how much and how accurately each student remembered material provided from text material and teacher talk.  Many principals insisted on readying students to get the highest scores on the state test. In this context, formative assessments signaled what increased percentages of recalled material were needed to pass a quiz, test or course, and test prep practices brought to bear in increasingly larger numbers of days, sometimes with pep rallies and prizes.

When working with deeper learning outcomes, teachers prepared to push for deeper learning and ready with project and problem based learning models as the prime instructional tools, can switch formative assessments to searches for evidence of increased proficiency in many dimensions, especially the cognitive.

Along the way, new types of formative data tell teachers, principals, students and parents how much cognitive improvement is occurring and what thinking skills still need refinement. “Its no different than when I am teaching tennis”, MindQuest21’s Craig Maki informs teachers - “Formative assessment of the skills helps refine the strokes and prepare players for next week’s match. Week by week, we work together on improvement as we aim for the conference tournament at year’s end.”

Developmental assessment of deeper learning processes applied to content ultimately combines to reveal the depth of understanding of the core content as well as the progress students are making to think critically and creatively, as they solve problems and transfer skills.

It requires minimal moments for MindQuest21 prepared teachers to inject formative assessments and content quizzes on a weekly basis as the means of determining student progress toward targeted outcomes. By the end of a semester, a teacher can amass a sufficient number of snapshots on the skill changes to create a slow motion movie that shows each student’s repertoire of problem solving and transfer.

Few teachers start their teaching career understanding how assessment is a deep developmental process. During the initial MindQuest21 year, the difference between formative assessment of memorized content and the formative assessment of transfer provided teachers with the insights that allows them to grasp the deeper implications of formative assessment of skills “grown” as opposed to information “stored”.

“Our classes’ science project is a clear example,” a fifth grade teacher from New York shared in her peer group. “By the time my kids finished making innovative playground equipment based on simple machines, there was not a one who couldn’t get 100% on the vocabulary definitions. Just think what they learned beyond that about planning and asking question and doing other thinking.  I even had a chance to mediate an argument in a group that taught them a lot about conflict resolution. You just had to look at their final designs to see how much better learning results when you go this way.”

The assessment of deeper learning relies on formative assessment of both content and the skills that drive the understanding of the content. This is a balanced “both-and” process, not an either-or. The development of those skills contributes to the final balanced outcome with stronger memory of the facts and deeper learning of the process.

For the time being, teachers must invent their own content and process rubrics or turn to on-line sites such as Illinois 21’s MindQuest21’ free template site; rubrics4teachers; or the Catalina Foothills School District site. At these sites, teachers will find examples for pre-made and adaptable rubrics and templates for making their own.  

In the meantime, studies in artificial intelligence and technology are continuing to examine how assessments and measurements more advanced than rubrics might advance the field of deeper learning assessment beyond its current limits. Just as teachers had to wait several eras for the bubble test mania to pass, so too they will have to wait for the new era when developments in instruction and assessment push student learning to even greater depths.  Such a push is as inevitable as the future expansion of the human mind in the coming decades. 


Comments (5)

  1. I appreciate the responses. And because I have noted that P21 wants to engage in dialogue around the posts, I'm checking in.

    First, I agree with the posts. Thanks for the amplifications. And for the concern expressed about getting left behind in the blended environment. I used to share that concern until I had the chance to visit teachers and students collaborating in blended classrooms that stretched for deeper learning outcomes with deeper learning practices. My new concern and the question of the teachers was "what will happen to this enthusiasm and high production when these children have to go back to worksheets. Yes, easily measurable, but what about the slowed production and increased boredom? Will there achievement scores also fall back? Will the so evident problem solving dissolve?"
  2. I am concerned about how we make sure kids do not get left behind in the blended environment. I believe once kids get here they will learn at a deeper level. Will they want to get here or will they see this as "another" thing to do?
  3. Blended learning fosters interactive learning and builds a comprehensive online academic community. It also provides flexibility and convenience for students.
  4. Combining traditional classroom instruction with online learning is an excellent approach to modern teaching. Students learn in their own way, at their own pace. It is vital to cater for the various learning styles and intelligences that students have. Blended Learning is an innovative, flexible and exciting approach
  5. The whole process centers on problem solving and critical thinking. Our society has become much more technology-oriented in the last thirty years and continues to head in that direction. Knowing how to think, the right questions to ask and how to come to meaningful solutions is essential for students to survive and thrive in the job market and in life overall. Content is important, but so is process and as was mentioned, the process is very often part of the content. Students need to learn to think differently and become problem solvers to be successful today.