conceptual understanding

Frame and Canvas for Student Designed Assessment

Self-directed change as performance of understanding

In every unit of inquiry there is potential for student-generated assessment. As learning is a response to deliberately designed experiences, learning is a change in the learner’s skills, knowledge, understanding as well as post-unit decisions or actions. Action as a result of learning can be owned and led by students. Teachers provide the frame for learning, but what’s on the canvas belongs to the student.

Contextual framework of a unit on Change and Relationships

The problem that prompted the interdisciplinary unit “Be the Change” was a set of behavioral habits of many members of a class. Many members of this (middle school) class for which the unit was designed had poor impulse control exhibited by behaviors like talking over each other because they did not practice wait time or did not subscribe to the classroom agreements for supporting own and others’ learning. As a result of these unproductive habits, learning was often interrupted in the class, and over the years the students had developed many conceptual gaps, which emerged in underachievement in a wide range of subjects.

Conceptual frame of the unit

The team of teachers approached the unit design with their own questions from the context in which they wanted to impact the students’ thinking, and these questions reflected how the students would learn in the unit. The teachers asked:

  • How might students learn through the concepts so that their own choices change their behavior?
  • How might students learn about how the brain and cognition command outwardly expressed behavior?
  • How might students apply their learning in authentic ways relevant to themselves?
  • What sort of summative task would sustain students-led action?

These questions became the teachers’ context for the overarching goals for student learning in the unit. The design considerations inherent in the teachers’ questions gave them the goal of helping students to learn that “Change in how a person feels, thinks and acts can change how they perceive, understand and form relationships.” This became the statement of understanding in the unit. Through the unit, students might attain the concept of change as it pertained to thinking and resultant behavior. Through the conceptual learning of concepts patterns and relationships, students might learn of the relationships between how their thinking affected how they perceived others and themselves. Through the content illustrating the concepts, students might learn specific ways by which cognition controlled behavior. Through the open-ended task of the unit, students might find ways to sustain a change in their behavior as a result of learning.

The teachers created a few guiding questions for the unit designed to guide the conceptual inquiry.

  • Factual question: How does the brain work that results in how people feel, think and act?
  • Conceptual questions: How do people learn? How do people change because of what they learn?
  • Debatable question: To what extent can we change ourselves and change our relationships?

Construct of the unit

Prior to beginning the unit, the teachers had facilitated essential agreements between teachers and the class. They had dialogued about the expectations of the school and asked the students to discuss with them the behaviors, which would allow the students to express the expectations in how they behaved. These agreements became the basis for classroom management protocols used in each class the students attended. The agreements were made the year prior to the unit itself; these agreements had been revisited in the year when the unit was conceived just before it was taught. The need for the inquiry stemmed from the persisting habits which hindered the students’ learning.

The teachers used the authentic context of the conflicts that resulted between students and other students, conflicts between students and teachers, as the basis for the unit of inquiry. This global context of Identities and relationships was real to the individuals who spent time learning together every day, and created a significant cognitive landscape for learning in the unit.

The content the teachers prepared consisted of knowledge about how people learn. How people learn was explored in depth through texts on how the brain learns and how habits form.

A menu of texts were prepared by the teachers, ranging from a popular science article on brain function and habits, a set of Youtube videos explaining aspects of how the brain learned, parts of the brain, how habits are formed, TED videos to provoke thinking and questioning by the students. Interacting with the materials, students began to form connections between the brain and how the brain learned, and how personal ways to learn become habits, for instance how patterns of thinking affect how people perceive tasks or challenges, which was a conclusion students arrived at as they exhausted their factual study. As students began to grow in their understanding of the connections between the brain and learning, students began to ask their own questions. A research frenzy ensued, driven by students’ curiosity about their own individual learning. Their questions stemmed from personal concerns, like “Will less sleep make me less smart?” and “Do video games really harm children?” and “Is personality permanent?”

The students’ own inquiries based on personally relevant learning questions were guided by the teachers toward the big idea of learning as a source of change, the main concept framing the unit. As students attained conceptual understanding by making connections between content and concepts, they arrived at their own conclusions about what people have to do to change as a result of what and how they learned. Students had authentic concerns for themselves and their learning, and these became the basis for the students’ design of their own tasks for the summative assessment of the unit.


Schulsport by Maximilian Schonherr. CC via Wikimedia Commons

Student-designed assessment tasks

The teachers designed an open-ended assessment. Students were asked to formulate a plan of change. In the plan, students had to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of learning as a source of change (unit concept) using what they understood about patterns (unit concept) of learning they had learned through the source materials
  • identify a context for their intended change based on how their current behavior affected their relationships (unit concept) in a specific situation
  • explain how their plan addressed a change that would improve the relationship in their context, and justify how the changes in their behavior were supported by what they had learned in the unit
  • articulate a plan to monitor their own behavior in the context they described, and what success of changing would look like and how it would affect the relationships in their context.

This open-ended assessment task allowed students to:

  • Use knowledge and conceptual understanding
  • Find personal significance for their action plan
  • Structure a process by which their learning in the unit transferred to a real-life situation
  • Structure into their implementation process personal ways to monitor and self-assess

The power of the personally significant, student-generated questions drove the learning in the unit. The potential for each student to discover his or her own empowerment served to propel the students forward in the unit, especially since this unit assessment was not awarded any grade. In the larger scheme of things, the unit was designed around advisory time, which was not graded.

The students remained engaged, and continued to remain engaged in enacting their personal change as a performance of understanding.

Sustainable learning resulting from a performance of understanding

The potential for transformational learning is evident in this unit. A student in this class devised a simple way for him to keep track of his behavioral goal, which was “to decrease the number of times I spoke without taking my turn and increase the number of times I raised my hand to volunteer.” His approach was to use an index card to tally the number of times he spoke out of turn without waiting, and to tally the number of times he raised his hand to volunteer and wait to be called. Every week, he monitored his tallies on the index card, and rewarded himself if he met the goal of decreasing impulsivity and increasing impulse control.

Units that intend for students to perform conceptual understanding require a complex set of design considerations, which allow students to deepen both how they learn and what they understand in the units of learning. The deliberate ways by which teachers can design the rehearsal of thinking skills into a unit of work lead to opportunities by which students are able to draw upon their understanding of concepts and skills to solve unfamiliar problems in assessments requiring the performance of understanding.

Photo credits

Cover Photo বাংলা: বাংলার By Md Raihan rana – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Schulsport By Maximilian Schönherr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Supporting journeys to understanding

“Insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is a quote often used in the press and by politicians. (It is misattributed to Einstein, but there is no proof he wrote or said it.) This witty and seemingly overused statement may be from a mysterious origin, but it strikes a deep chord as we consider its implications for teaching and learning.

Blaming external factors when students don’t seem to understand is an easy way to avoid change. If we seek craftsmanship and flexibility in our practice, we might increase the potential for our intentions in teaching to become the student outcomes in learning.

We can tell people something, or we can guide them to read and gain knowledge, but translating knowledge to actual practice requires understanding and the other more demanding cognitive processes in Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking.

If a learner knows a set of skills, for example, the student needs to rehearse those skills in different situations (Brown and Bennet, 2002), to gain an appreciation for evaluating situations and choosing skills that match the problem at hand. Evaluating situations and choosing the right problem-solving behaviors to approach these are valuable behaviors that require iterative rehearsal in many contexts so that the learner is able to solve problems in unfamiliar contexts as he or she gains facility in the complex process of evaluating situations, evaluating skills, and matching skills that are the best-fit approach to the unfamiliar problem (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006). Learners also need to be taught processes rather than just assigned processes to traverse (Merzenich et al., 1996).

What have we learned about facilitating learning? Here are some ideas to get us started.

Learning happens when learners feel psychologically safe.

When people feel unsafe, chemicals called cortisol and adrenaline are released into the body and the brain, and people react with the fight, flight or freeze response (Sylwester, 2004). The reaction inhibits the problem-solving part of the brain, the neocortex (Goldberg, 2009). Literally, feeling unsafe shuts down learning (Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2010).

When we think about it, change is a threatening situation. When the ways that we must do things change, it causes us to deal with the implementation dip and presents challenges to our feelings of self-efficacy.

In these situations, and because change is an essential part of learning, we are mindful of how we might support the learners as they traverse the landscape of challenges. We might, for instance, get to know our learners so that we can provide different pathways to suit each one’s learning trajectory.

Learning requires design.

Learning is more likely to happen when structures are provided such that the learner doesn’t even have to think about these and can then focus on the task and the concepts at hand. Part of designing the environment is providing different ways and choices to access the concepts, not just one way, so each learner has his or her way to understanding, rehearsal, and performance.

Learning happens with purposeful and deliberately designed rehearsal – drills are useful in developing physical skills like dribbling a basketball, performing a karate kata, a routine for aesthetic movement. Rehearsal for cognitive ‘moves’ are also useful, when the designer/teacher specifically pays attention to the cognitive actions that the learner will be performing during the rehearsal activity (Brown & Bennet, 2002; Moors & De Houwer, 2006).

Learning is motivated by relevance to the learner. Providing authentic connections that allow learners to cross boundaries between school and life helps the neocortex to cast a wide net for connections, which lead to creative and critical thinking (Goldberg, 2009). When we create opportunities to activate prior knowledge, we are facilitating the learner’s choice of processes and approaches; when we facilitate open-ended, authentic problems in a range of contexts, we facilitate situations where the neocortex is able to find solutions to problems that might be unfamiliar.

Learning is facilitated by skillfully designed experiences, and the one facilitating learning needs to be deliberate. Deliberately designing flexible ways by which learners might approach learning supports personally relevant experiences for all learners.

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Camdiluv ♥ from Concepción, CHILE (Colours) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Csikszentmihalyi writes that “enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced within a person’s capacity to act” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 50). When learning is designed for deep understanding, the learner experiences something expressed simply in another overused statement, “Learning is fun.”


Becker. “Einstein on misattribution; I probably didn’t say that.” Becker’s Online Journal (November 13, 2012). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from

Brown, S. W., & Bennet, E. (2002). The role of practice and automaticity in temporal and nontemporal dual-task performance. Psychological Research, 66(1), 80-9. doi: 101007/S004260100076

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

D’Addario, D. “The definition of insanity” is the most overused cliché of all time. Salon (Tuesday, August 6, 2013). Retrieved May 7, 2015 from

Goldberg, E. (2009). The new executive brain; Frontal lobes in a complex world. New York: Oxford.

Merzenich, M. M., Jenkins, W.M, Johnston, P., Schreiner, C., Miller, S. L., & Tallal, P. (1996). Temporal processing deficits of language-learning impaired children ameliorated by training. Science, 271, 77-81. doi:10.2307/29890377

Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A theoretical and conceptual analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 132(2), 297-326. http://dx.doi .org/10.1037/033-2909.132.2.297

Powell, W., & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2010). Becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher. New York: Skyhorse.

Sylwester, R. (2004). How to explain a brain; An educator’s handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.