One of our most popular posts is 7 Tools for Authentic Assessments, published in May 2013. Since then, our team has spent a lot of time with assessments and now we wonder: What is the best thing to measure in schools?

Tomorrow’s post will ask: What if we measured student and alumni happiness as the primary goal of schooling? What would change about how we educate?

Below is a reprint of 7 Tools for Authentic Assessments which reflected our best thinking almost two years ago.

“The first object of any act of learning is that it should serve us in the future.” – Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education, 1960

Bruner’s quote aptly sums up the importance of transfer: the ability to use what we’ve learned in a future context or situation. Otherwise, what’s the point of all those years of formal schooling?

Most teachers would probably agree with Bruner and hope that their students will retain and use the knowledge, skills and habits from each course. The reality is that numerous studies have found that the majority of assessments do not measure beyond the ability to remember or recall in specific ways. Importantly, the thinking demands of remembering and recalling do not readily facilitate transfer to new situations.

If our goal is transfer of learning to new situations we should keep these in mind:

1) Aim for assessing higher-ordered thinking beyond recall and remembering. Susan Brookhart, assessment specialist and author of numerous publications says, “…many teachers believe they are assessing higher-order thinking when, in fact, they are not.” Her advice?

  •  Present something for students to think about, usually in the form of introductory text, visuals, scenarios, resource material, or problems of some sort.
  • Distinguish between level of difficulty (easy versus hard) and level of thinking (lower-order thinking or recall versus higher-order thinking), and control for each separately.
  • I encourage readers not to think, “This assessment is a good example,” but rather, “What kind of thinking is this assessment a good example of?”

Don’t be afraid to put definitions and other resources on the assessment. If your aim is not to have them recall it but to use it, then by all means give it to them.

2) Use novel or new situations or examples that you have not used in class. This is essential if you want to be sure students are not just recalling your (or the books’, or classmates’) analysis, evaluation, etc. This seems to be a very hard habit for teachers to break. Here’s a quick example from a unit on the Great Depression. The teacher wants to see if students understand key terms. So she can’t use examples from the Great Depression! She needs new ones.

novel exams

3. Find ways to make the assessments contribute value beyond the school. This is the definition of authentic. Instead of the same old essay prompts written only for the teacher’s eyes, make the prompt that will end up as letters to government officials. Partner with businesses and non-profits to make public awareness campaigns or recommendations. The simplest is for students to submit written work using online platforms. If students know it has real-world value they’ll work harder on it. If you’re low-tech you can literally have students work on a separate piece of paper then fold it up and put it in an envelope to send to a real audience.

4. Use Wiggins and McTighe’s GRASP model to help you formulate the task. Slide1

5. Assess concepts and conceptual relationships that transfer to new situations.

How do we assess and track students’ progress toward complex understandings? This is much simpler than it seems. We ask students to explain their understanding of the relationship between two or more concepts. Then we use a rubric to identify how deep and sophisticated their understanding is. As students investigate these concepts through class activities, experiences, readings, or experiments we ask them to stop at strategic points to explain how their understanding is growing. They track their progress on the rubric so that they (and we) can see that they are uncovering big, transferable ideas.





Independently, I can state a simplistic and vague relationship between the concepts.I need help to elaborate on and give examples of my idea. (In other words… For example…) Independently I can state, elaborate on, and give examples of a simplistic relationship between the concepts. I need help to make my idea complex and precise. (How or why?) Independently I can state, elaborate on, give examples of, and illustrate a complex and precise relationship between the concepts I need help to make my idea significant. (So what?) Independently I can state, elaborate on, give examples of, and illustrate a complex, precise, and significant relationship between the concepts.I can help others make their ideas more complex, precise, and significant.

How do we assess for transfer? This is also simple: present students with novel problems or situations and ask them to apply their understanding to the new task. The chart below shows one example.

We studied…

…to uncover this understanding…

…and transfer to this new situation…

Concepts: self-interest, human rights, sovereigntyTopic: World War II


Nations often prioritize self-interest over promoting human rights when deciding to interfere in other countries’ affairs.  How should the United States respond to genocide in Darfur?

In this case, students would uncover the relationship between self-interest, human rights, and national sovereignty by continually coming back to these ideas as they learned more about World War II. After several weeks, students would have developed complex understandings of these concepts and would have seen their understanding grow by assessing it regularly on the rubric. Once their understanding had been solidified, students would then be presented with information about a new situation (genocide in Darfur) and would have to transfer what they understood about the concepts to this novel problem.

Developing deep conceptual understandings should change the way students approach problems and develop solutions. This means that after the World War II unit, students should look at their world in a new way, view complex issues with a more discerning eye, and develop solutions that take into consideration the full range of complications involved in the situation. By giving students a chance to respond to a novel situation we can see if the understanding they developed is actually helping them approach new information in a different way.

6. Ask students to evaluate their thinking on the assessment and think of ways to improve it (aka Critical Thinking). Check out last week’s posts for ideas and use this rubric to measure it.

7. Make a blueprint so you are precise about exactly what you are measuring before you create the exam and the learning experiences to prepare students for it. I can’t believe I got a Master’s in Education from a reputable school without exposure to the revised Bloom’s taxonomy. What is the brain doing when it analyzes? What does it really mean and look like to explain? If I ask students to create a poster, is that really the highest level of thinking? Even if you don’t order the book, download this and use it every time you write an assessment.

We’ve synthesized these 7 tools into this handy sample blueprint template in the hope it will help you to get started. Let us know what you think. If you want more examples email us at and we’ll send some your way!