How do we assess understanding?

Part of my role as Teaching and Learning Coordinator involves facilitating and supporting the planning of units of inquiry.

Planning for inquiry can be difficult.

On the one hand, over planning limits the potential for inquiry.

On the other hand, we have desired outcomes and understandings, as well as the demands of a national curriculum.

We used to plan a range of learning experiences in advance. You can read here about how we have improved our planning process.

Nowadays, we start by identifying the desired conceptual understandings and carefully considering what evidence will indicate that our learners have achieved them. Then we plan some provocations that engage the learners in the big ideas and wait to see where the learning takes us.

Keeping an eye on the conceptual understandings allows us to add further targeted provocations as the inquiry unfolds.

Creating a rubric helps clarify where our units are heading. Depending on the age of the learners, some teachers use the rubric with their students, others don’t, but either way, the process helps teachers focus on how to look for evidence of the understandings.

Here’s an example for a Prep (5 year olds) inquiry into how family life has changed over time:

Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 10.10.21 AM

Here’s one for a Year 4 inquiry into how taking ownership of our learning can empower us:
Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 10.31.41 AM
Here’s a Year 5 example that’s more content based:
Screen Shot 2013-03-09 at 11.27.55 AM
We learned this technique from Sam Sherratt and are still practising it, so I’m sure these rubrics are not perfect. One thing of which I am certain is the value of phrasing the understandings in simple child friendly language, rather than the usual, sometimes unintelligible, jargon of assessment standards. As always, we welcome feedback (or rather ‘feedforward’) on the rubrics themselves as well as the process.

42 thoughts on “How do we assess understanding?

  1. Hey Edna, another interesting post. I’m trying to think ahead to how we’ll run across two separate campuses as far as planning. I like the idea of the rubrics that some of your teachers use. It will be a real bonus having Sam in Saigon next year for sharing ideas (I hope I have some worth sharing)


  2. Hi Edna. This is an interesting concept (pardon the pun) – creating rubrics to help provide evidence of specific conceptual understandings at the very beginning of the planning process, which then guide the unit. I particularly like the child friendly language. Were these created with the children or only by teachers? We are currently planning new units – I’ll share your post as a provocation. Thanks!


    1. Hi Sharon

      By us.
      Although I generally like the idea of creating rubrics with children, I don’t think it could work in this instance as they don’t have the conceptual understanding at the start of the unit. I haven’t thought that through, I admit, but it seems to make sense! Let me think when the weather is cooler 🙂


      1. You could have the students collaborate with you at the end of the unit to help refine the rubric for the next year. This allows for deeper reflections from the students and teachers. What do you think?


  3. Oh, and one more thing… The rubrics mean you don’t really need to think too hard for Summative tasks. Basically kids can show their understanding of the CI anyway they like, once you have the rubric in place. In fact by the end of the unit, the teacher already knows where the kids are at, if her eye has been on the rubric.


  4. Reblogged this on Educationsupportuk and commented:
    brilliant piece discussing ensuring that when planning you give time for teh children to grow and use their enquiring minds to find more information.


  5. These are very good examples, Edna. We have recently been trying to collate all the rubrics made in our team over the last few years. The difference with ours is that there are four criteria as we find this adds a little extra thought by teachers and students and prevent the temptation just to highlight the middle one!!! However, we do sometimes get carried away and over complicate them, making them both less likely and more difficult to use. Your examples are wonderfully simple, easy for kids to use for self assessment and encapsulate the essence of the unit.

    I like the ones where the first box is really honest – “I don’t think about where energy comes from” – but then other first boxes are more of a positive step – “I can give examples”. Perhaps you need to move to four boxes and consistently make the first one that very honest statement as it really does help kids, then use the next three boxes for the progression of thinking.


    1. Well spotted! The energy one was actually a combination of two lines so that the rubric would fit in my screenshot pic 🙂
      I think 4 criteria might take too long! I like to think of it as a continuum, rather than four stages anyway. But, if I stop and think for two minutes, I can see how the energy one would look in 4 stages!
      Thank you, Sam.


  6. Note: I KNOW there is a spelling mistake in the last rubric, but it’s a screenshot and too much trouble to go back and change…


  7. I always like the idea of an even number of stages in rubrics or rating questions, to prevent fence sitting. But in the case of rubrics, the “I don’t know anything about this” or “I didn’t develop an understanding of this” is kind of implied by not being able to fill in something on that criterion. Is it worth having a stage that is marked, that shows the achievement not met? If kids are filling it in, perhaps so.


    1. Hi Deon.

      I know what you mean about fence sitting, but…

      I’m not generally a fan of rubrics at all. I don’t see these as something to ‘fill in’, rather as a way for teachers and learners to think about how the conceptual understandings might develop. I’d rather see these as a continuum, from ‘I don’t know anything’ to the established understanding than a series of ‘achievements being met.’ Inquiry learning isn’t about reaching landmarks or achievement standards. These particular rubrics are a convenient way for teachers to think in advance of how they will see evidence of the students understanding the concepts. It’s a way to keep their eye on their broad goals while letting inquiry unfold naturally.


      1. Maybe your title “how do we assess understanding?” is confusing me, if you aren’t talking about assessment… Though i get your point. I don’t see rubrics as the end point, unless a kid can say “yep, i have achieved all of that stuff that you wanted me to”. I treat them as ways for kids to assess where they are at, and if they have yet achieved the basics of what was set out for them. Rubrics don’t, however, give you a way to assess what kids learn THAT YOU DIDN’T ACCOUNT FOR, which are often the best bits!!!


        1. I agree about the best bits 🙂

          Maybe I should have given it a different title… Planning for Inquiry. Or maybe Planning for Understanding.

          Or maybe I’m seeing assessment in a different way than you are. Not assessment OF learning but assessment FOR learning, by which I mean teachers and learners seeking evidence of where the learning is at, so they know where to go next and how they might get there.


  8. Hi Edna

    I’m in a planning meeting right now with our Year 1/2 team. We have read your post and have certainly been provoked!! Thanks!! We are trying to create a rubric for our next unit. We are wondering where the understandings in the left hand column have come from? At first we thought they were central ideas, then we thought maybe lines of inquiry. We see the connection with the key concepts but are unsure of how you came up with them.


    1. We wrote down the big ideas (concepts, related concepts)
      Next we made a heading – Students will understand that…
      Then we brainstormed the understandings we hoped to achieve based on the big ideas (in brand new units, we only created the central idea AFTER this step!)
      Then we checked to see if they really related to the CI and the key concepts and if not, we scrapped or adapted them.
      Next step was to combine and tighten them, so as to have only one understanding per concept.
      Not sure if this is clear enough! The truth is, the first few attempts were pretty ordinary, but we are getting better with practice. I’d be happy to have a look at what you come up with and make suggestions.


  9. Hey Edna,
    love reading your blogs! Thanks for taking the time and effort to put your thinking out there.
    I too have experienced the impact that the cultural forces and visible thinking routines have on learning- both as a teacher and leader for learning.
    How do we assess understanding? How do we identify the types of learning that take place in our classrooms? We are engaged in the Looking for Learning process where we (other teachers/colleagues) go into classrooms and talk to students about their learning. Based on this evidence, follow up with learning conversations with the classroom teacher to make sense of the data to improve and increase learning, day by day, hour by hour. It has tremendous power to empower teachers and makes the paradigm shift from teaching to learning. I think you would get it!!!
    annelies (learning labyrinth)


  10. Oh I think I’ve been here before Edna and loved it last time too. I particularly like the responsibility/reflection examples as I find it very difficult writing conceptual understandings about these concepts without sounding value laden.


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