July 19, 2024


Education is everything you need

Replacing Exams with Performance Tasks


End-of-the-year assessments can be anxiety-producing events for students. These final assessments attempt to cover massive amounts of information and do not allow students the opportunity to communicate what they know in a way that works for them.

Unlike a traditional exam where questions typically have one correct answer, performance tasks are complex, multifaceted, and open-ended, yielding a variety of possible outcomes or products. They can also allow students to demonstrate their learning in creative, engaging ways that feel relevant to their lives.

Performance tasks ask students to apply their learning in dynamic ways. Teachers can design performance tasks to allow for a high degree of student agency. Student agency refers to the students’ ability to make key decisions about their learning. When I work with teachers, I encourage them to consider the following ways to build student agency into a performance task.

What: The Topic or Subject Provide students with different scenarios to choose from or allow them to select an aspect of a larger topic or subject to focus on for their performance task
How: The Process Invite students to make process decisions about how they work through the performance task (e.g., steps they move through, materials they use, sources they access for information)
Why: The Product Make sure students understand the “why,” or the purpose, of the performance task and allow them to decide what they want to create to demonstrate and share their learning

Using a simple “would you rather” approach to the design of your performance tasks can provide students with meaningful choices that can help them feel more confident completing the task. Teachers may present two different scenarios from which students choose. For example, a math teacher can offer two different real-world math challenges, while a science teacher might present two separate scientific issues.

Once students have selected the scenario, challenge, or issue, they will feel more confident sharing their learning if they get to decide what they create or produce to demonstrate their learning. Below are some examples of the products you can encourage students to create!

#1 Infographics

Infographics are a visual display of information that rely on images, charts, and graphics to communicate a message. They are ideal for any performance task that requires students to conduct research, field work, or experiments. Students can create an infographic using a digital tool or offline using poster paper and colored pens.

  • Blog: Student Designed Infographics: Process & Products
  • Canva, Piktochart, and Easelly are my favorite infographic design tools; however, teachers using the Google Suite can also have students design their infographics using Google Drawing.

#2 Podcasts

Podcasts are sharable audio files. Podcasts have exploded in popularity in the last decade and provide an avenue for students to craft a compelling story designed to communicate information. Students can produce and publish a podcast exploring a topic, issue, event, or person they have spent time learning about or investigating. Podcasts can range from 10-60 minutes in length and require a fair amount of preparation to be compelling.

#3 Websites

Websites are a dynamic way to display a variety of media. Students can build a digital portfolio of their work through a performance task or create an informative website pulling what they learned into a resource for an authentic audience.

  • Use a scavenger hunt to get students building their own Google Site.
  • Blog: Teach Students To Treat Their Learning Like They’re Making a Documentary
  • Google sites, Weebly, and Wix are my favorite website creators to use with students.

#4 TED-style Talks

TED Talks are recorded speeches that run 18 minutes or less. TED Talks are designed to spread powerful, thought-provoking ideas. Students can focus their TED-style talks on raising awareness about a complex concept, idea, problem, or issue. They require detailed preparation as students write a script and design a compelling visual in the form of a multimedia slide show to accompany their talks. Then they record their speeches to share with the class or a larger online audience by uploading those talks to YouTube.

#5 Children’s Book

Children’s books are notorious for unpacking complex ideas and communicating profound messages through the use of simple language and captivating images. When students write a children’s book to demonstrate their learning, they must use language and drawings effectively to make what they learned through the completion of a performance task accessible for a younger audience. This requires that they have a strong understanding of the concept, idea, problem, or issue.

Assessing Performance Tasks

When teachers build student agency into a performance task that serves as an assessment, students may produce various artifacts to demonstrate their learning. They will express and communicate what they know or can do in different ways. The variety of products they create causes many teachers to question how they should assess this work since it takes many forms. However, if teachers are clear on the standards, skills, and/or content knowledge they are assessing, then the actual product students create should not matter. Teachers are not assessing the product. They are assessing what the product reveals about the students’ knowledge and/or skill set.

For example, I was coaching a government teacher who wanted to provide students with a choice board of performance tasks to choose from for their final exam. She was clear that she wanted to assess the following:

  • Analysis and depth of ideas
  • Quality of support and evidence
  • Clarity of ideas and organization

So, it did not matter whether the students chose to assume the persona of a newscaster reporting on a historical event, create a political cartoon paired with a detailed explanation of the symbolism and meaning of the cartoon, or write an argumentative essay delving into a historical issue, she was going to use the same rubric to assess all of the finished products. Below is the rubric we created for her performance task assessment. To read more about designing standards-aligned rubrics to assess a variety of products, check out this blog.

Since different students will have different strengths and preferences, it is important to give the a choice about what they create. However, if providing a variety of options in a choice board format feels overwhelming, teachers can use the “would you rather” design to make prioritizing student agency feel sustainable.

For more on making student agency sustainable, check out this mini-episode of my podcast, The Balance.

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