This Is What Understanding Looks Like

by Terry Heick

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Testing is a major challenge in education.

Agreeing on what’s to be tested and how it’s to be administered is a matter of much debate. It’s also a big business.

According to, the per-student cost for testing is currently around $31 per student. Multiply that by nearly fifty million students, and you’ve got a big pile of money up for grabs. This makes efforts here grounded as much in business principle as in pedagogy–and a resulting ugly, two-headed affair: money and learning.

Recently there has been movement in this area, with a slew of organizations– among them the Smarter Balanced Consortium linked to above–developing new approaches to assessing student understanding.

These efforts include adding adaptive computer-based testing to the existing assessments forms, which in many states include short-written responses. While efforts like these continue, there remains a chasm between the progressive vision of a 21st century learning environment, and a decidedly 20th century assessment style.

A Picture of 21st Century Learning

If you can, imagine a 21st century learning environment. Learners buzz about a classroom working on a project to improve local water quality. They are working within and across small groups with a staggering variety of media, from essays and reports to quick videos and social media streams, to understand the scale of the problem.

They revisit old research from earlier in the year saved in Google Docs, review resources curated in Pearltrees during research for another project, and start concept-mapping potential approaches using Mindo.

Rather than compliance or letter grades, designing elegant solutions to address important problems is what motivates them—little social entrepreneurs exploring through own interdependence with one another and community with digital tools. Among their challenges? Not only the problem itself, but collaboratively identifying the best way to present their ideas to diverse audiences that may or may not use technology.

To accomplish this, they use Evernote to take quick notes, iTunesU to better understand the water cycle, Learnist to expose themselves to possibilities they might be missing, and YouTube to get a pop culture perspective of it all–often anchored in a project-based learning framework.

They demonstrate a consistent pattern of reflection, deconstruction, and evolution of thought while bridging physical and digital audiences.

Their pace is self-directed, and their resources would be immediately overwhelming without a plan.

Their objectives, while clear, are always a kind of moving target.

Task-swapping is constant, quick, adaptive thinking absolutely critical.

This is one picture of 21st century learning. How this translates to multiple choice tests and short-answer response is unclear.

The Challenge

In short, students are taught one way and assessed another, which can result in gaps between what the student knows, and what they show that they know on “the test.” This is not new information.

But there is room to understand more here. One challenge of testing is a matter of form–the sharp contrast of learning and testing formats. The solution has–thus far–been to narrow the assessment format during the learning process (formative assessment) so that it more closely matches “the test.”

This makes sense in terms of efficiency, but not as a matter of tone. Modern learning environments–at least how we might define them–are dynamic, nuanced, social, and always-on. This is the polar opposite of what most assessment tools look like. Digital learning environments–the best ones anyway–are playful and compelling. Color and sound and light and moving images encourage, gamify, emphasize, and redirect students in a way that static texts do not.

Tests, however we might view them, their purpose, or their soul—just sit there, unapologetic and unblinking. Point to the right answer. Format a response exactly how we asked. (We’re going to spend just a handful of seconds grading your writing–make it easy on us.)

Assessment as we know it is entirely one-sided–a text-heavy monologue. The entire process is up to the learners. If a 21st century learning environment is like a Jack Russell Terrier bounding at your feet dying for you to throw the ball, your average multiple-choice test is a sleeping St. Bernard.

Or a statue of a sleeping St. Bernard.

One Solution?

The best response for educators might be to promote self-initiated transfer.

Transfer is the practice of applying knowledge or meaning from a familiar context to an unfamiliar context. In short, the better the ability to transfer, the better the student understands. This movement requires re-contextualizing what they know, which first requires that they strip “what they know” of all context, consider it in isolation, then adapt it to work elsewhere, a cognitively demanding practice.

Of course, this doesn’t happen by admonishing students to “transfer their knowledge,” but rather is the result of transfer-by-design: continuously providing scaffolded learning opportunities for students to prove understanding–and make deeper meaning–by “moving” their understanding, something they are forced to do in digital environments on a daily basis.

Educators can accomplish this in a formal learning environment in a variety of ways, first by making transfer a habit. A pattern that is learner-centered and automatic. Like an old basketball coach said, make it not something they can get just right, but something they can’t get wrong.

Students accustomed to consistently transferring what they know to new and unfamiliar applications will be more likely to fare well when moving from a highly digital and progressive learning environment to testing environment that changes constantly.

Even with recent progress in testing forms, the best learning environment will always be more personalized and diverse than a test that is standardized and industrialized. During this transition stage, assessing a learner’s transfer can provide an excellent prediction of assessment performance.

But transfer is important for a different reason–it proves the student actually understands. Performance assessment is a useful start here. Digital portfolios, project-based learning, and other “learning trends” can also be a part of it. This isn’t an either/or proposition.

Transfer is important, but let’s not think just about transfer– let’s think first about the learner, then about their native environments. Then, further, let’s hope for the self-initiated application of knowledge. Unprompted. Unformatted.

The spontaneous, personal, and creative application of understanding in dynamic physical and digital environments.

Too messy for schools, I’d guess–but this is the mind of a modern student we want, yes? So let’s change how we think of schools then, rather than changing what we hope for from the students.

Image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelationspreviously published at


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