Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 2 Months ago
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Deep Learning and Assessment: Part 4a

As I stated in earlier commentaries, moving towards a deep learning education means believing that deep learning is an important educational focal point in today’s 21st century world. While learning “basic” knowledge and simple skills is still important, there is greater emphasis on developing student understanding, processing information and ideas, developing higher order thinking, and interactive learning.

With a deep learning commitment, multiple types of assessments are needed to determine student learning, since the frequently used traditional multiple choice-short answer assessments and standardized tests are limited in their ability to judge deep learning achievement.

Seven approaches to help assess deep learning are presented below:

“Basic” learning assessments

Basic learning assessments measure whether students have acquired basic knowledge and skills that help make deep learning possible. Vocabulary tests, traditional multiple-choice-matching-short answer tests, visual organizers, writing process assignments – all these provide evidence that students have learned basic background information, basic literacy, thinking and research skills, and so on. With a deep learning focus, basic learning assessments are only used to assess whether foundational knowledge and skills have been developed that enable teachers and learners to take the next steps towards deep learning.

Diagnostic Assessments

The use of diagnostic assessments in advance of learning, to determine student background knowledge, processes and skills, and understandings helps teachers to plan for deeper learning. For example, if students already have learned about and remember basic information about the American Revolution, it is much easier to spend time asking open-ended questions for discussion, having students write reflective essays, or creating projects as a major part of the instructional process. On the other hand, if diagnostic assessments determine that students have a limited background knowledge, skills and processes, and understandings about the American Revolution, teachers will need to spend much more time providing students with basic knowledge of the revolution, key events, its causes, and so on. Revisiting and refining understanding, based on previous learning, is a key way to deepen learning, and diagnostic assessments help to indicate a teaching direction.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments provide information while students are learning in order to provide feedback and guidance to improve learning. These improvements often are focused around the many types of student work and student products developed in deep learning classrooms: essay writing, persuasive arguments, debates, presentations, research papers, artwork, musical performances, and the like. One obvious use of formative assessments is to provide feedback and guidance on drafts of writing so as to improve the next or final draft. Formative assessments also provide feedback and guidance to a teacher so that he or she knows what students have learned and decide on the next teaching steps. In some classroom situations, students can exchange their work and provide feedback and guidance to each other. The positive aspects of student to student formative assessment is not only that students get feedback and guidance on their work, but students also learn how to critique and guide other students in their learning as well as their own learning.

Formative assessments have obvious implications for deep learning, since it enables a teacher to both provide feedback to students and determine what students have learned so as to know whether to go deeper into learning. Examples of types of formative assessments abound, and include:

  • Written and oral feedback and guidance provided by the teacher or other students on student work, such as research, writing and presentations.
  • Quick and brief “check for understanding” assessments, such as a 3-2-1 summarizer (3 things you learned today, 2 things you found interesting, one question you still have about what we studied).
  • Surveys and questionnaires that provide teachers with guidance on student attitudes, problems, and concerns.
  • Rubrics used to help students judge their work according to a set of standards.
  • Discussions in which students explain a concept, demonstrate a solution to a problem, make their thinking visible, all of which helps a teacher to check for understanding.

Performances of Understanding

Performances of understanding are focused around higher order thinking, advanced research skills, higher order thinking, application and transfer. These assessments usually require students to perform a task and generate an elaborate response (as opposed to choosing the correct answer). Students may be asked to explain a historical event, demonstrate how they solve math problems, analyze a graph, draw a conclusion from scientific evidence, interpret a piece of writing, such as literature or a primary source, or converse in a foreign language.

Performances of understanding are often scored in complex ways with the use of a set of criteria put into rubric format.

Authentic performance assessments are a subset of performances of understanding. They ask learners to solve a “real life” situation, conduct a research project, construct a complex product, and present their results to community members or experts in the field. An example of an authentic performance assessment is the following sixth grade mathematics (interdisciplinary) task:

                                                               Build a “dream house” for a local builder

                                                                (develop a presentation) that requires

                                                                   floor plans, square footage details,

                                                                          cost analyses, financing.[1]


Self-assessments provide students with the opportunity to critically identify their own strengths and weaknesses, set goals, learn how to revise their work, and track progress. A key feature of self-assessments is a student’s growth in their ability to reflect on their own learning approaches, styles and understanding.

Self-assessments can be used frequently throughout the year to encourage self-learning and growth. In my own teaching, a key part of my grading process was to ask students to self-assess their work for each grading period and then for the total year, including the effort they put into their work, and give themselves a grade. This was then compared to my own assessment of their work. This frequent overall assessment was an invaluable part of my grading process, and led to much more sophisticated assessments over time of their own learning and growth.

A simple format for self-assessment includes the following questions:

  • What were your learning strengths?
  • What problems did you encounter in your learning? How did you go about solving these?
  • How would you assess your effort in learning and in improving your learning?
  • What grade would you give yourself for this time period? Justify your grade with reasons.

Many other examples of self-assessment formats can be found on line.

Informal Assessments

Many informal opportunities can be used as deep learning assessments. One is observing students in many deep learning situations – how they perform in discussions, how they are able to concentrate on their work, how they handle feedback and guidance, how they respond when they don’t understand something. Other informal assessments are built into the learning situation – developmental reading assessments, anecdotal records, running records, checklists, interviews, and so on.


What is a portfolio? Here is one definition:

                                                                   A portfolio is a purposeful collection and

                                                                 sampling of student work that exhibits the

                                                                student’s efforts, progress, and achievements

                                                                               in one or more areas.[2]

Students either physically or digitally place a collection of their work in a portfolio in order to demonstrate the development of their work over time and their progress in learning. Both students and teachers are able to assess learning and work through the portfolio, and parents and others have an opportunity to assess student progress and learning over time.

There is great flexibility as to what is included in a portfolio. Some schools and teachers include drafts of student writing to demonstrate growth. Other schools and teachers focus on final products to demonstrate achievement and for evaluation purposes. Some schools and teachers allow students to be the sole judge of what gets included in a portfolio, others provide strict guidelines as to what gets included, while others select portfolio products collaboratively.


The use of a wide variety of assessments – diagnostic, formative, basic traditional, performances of understanding, self-assessments, informal assessments and portfolios – changes the nature of classroom work and learning. The strengths of using this assessment variety are that they provide for a much better understanding of student achievement and learning, increase the probability that deep learning will become a priority, and also help teachers to know what learning is actually occurring in the classroom. These assessments are also much more helpful in providing feedback and guidance to both teachers and students in order to improve student learning over time.

The problems with these assessments are their time-consuming nature (preparing them, evaluating responses, providing feedback, and so on) and the knowledge and sophistication necessary for good execution. Some of these assessments are already in place or more easily put into place (self-assessments, informal assessments), while others require greater training and commitment (diagnostic and formative assessments, performances of understanding, authentic performance assessments, portfolios). The more frequent use of informal, diagnostic, and formative assessments, performances of understanding, authentic performance assessments, portfolios, and self-assessments significantly enhance and improve learning over time, and move schools, classrooms and teachers much closer to the implementation of a deep learning framework.



[1] Authentic performance task created by Robert E. Freeman, Public Schools of Robeson County, Lumberton, North Carolina.

[2] Paulson, Paulson and Meyer, what Makes a Portfolio a Portfolio? In Educational Leadership, February, 1991, pp. 60-63.


Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design cadre member and trainer. He currently continues to write about and address educational issues and volunteers his time in the Philadelphia School District. His other many commentaries can be found on ASCD Edge, and his website can be found at: www.era3learning.org.

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